By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 11/24/2009 7:03:53 PM ET 2009-11-25T00:03:53

Each day at five, staff members of the Humane Society of Elkhart County close the animal shelter and hold a meeting. And each day, like clockwork, they begin hearing a “thump, thump, thump” from outside.

That is the sound of pets being abandoned by owners who either do not want them or cannot care for them anymore.

Among the recent arrivals left in “drop boxes” — kennels that are accessible through doors on the outside of the facility — are Sweet Pea, a Chihuahua being nursed back to health from near starvation, a cocker spaniel named Cookie and a “family” of three pets left together — a dog, a cat and rat.

These animals add to the usual traffic of strays, rabid raccoons and animals rescued from abuse. When the drop boxes are full, the Humane Society finds pets tied up at the door, or — as was the case with a domesticated ferret — running around in the parking lot. Recently a whole litter of kittens was left in the Humane Society dumpster.

A spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States said that the organization did not have comprehensive numbers on animals abandoned, but he said there is anecdotal reporting from members organizations of increases since the recession started. And press reports on overloaded shelters from Tampa to Albuquerque, and Houston to Bangor, Maine suggest it’s a broader trend.

With as many as 600 or 700 animals arriving each month — sometimes 30 animals in a single day — the Elkhart facility, which has space for only 266, is in crisis mode.

'Unsavory position'
The numbers are “staggering” and resources are stretched, said Anne Reel, the Humane Society of Elkhart County’s executive director.

“Since the economy has been like this, even rescuers have been down,” she said, referring to nonprofits that provide temporary homes until animals can be adopted. “(Now) we’re in the unsavory position of having to euthanize because we just can’t turn animals around fast enough.”

Image: Three-year-old Chihuahua Sweet Pea rests at the Humane Society of Elkhart County. Sweet Pea is being nursed back to health after being left in one of the shelter's night drop boxes weighing only 1.6 lbs.
Carissa Ray  /  msnbc.com
Sweet Pea, a 3-year old Chihuahua, is held by staff at the Humane Society of Elkhart County. She was starving and weighed just 1.6 pounds when she was left in the society's drop box.
In one month alone, the shelter had to euthanize 600 animals, she said, which is roughly three times the number in a normal month.

The Humane Society staff believes the poor economy is behind the high rate of abandonment — forcing people to give up pets when they run out of money to feed them or lose their homes and move into apartments or in with relatives. It’s impossible to know for sure because many people drop off their pets anonymously in the drop boxes and don’t fill out the forms that would help the Humane Society staff understand the animal’s health background and breeding. Since October 2008, the shelter has handled 5,783 animals, 42 percent of which were abandoned anonymously.

“For the most part, people just cram the animal in the door, get in their car and speed away as fast as possible,” said Reel. “Occasionally we have someone walk through the front door and say ‘I’ve been laid off my job, we’re moving into an apartment, we can’t find anyone to take them,’ and do it responsibly.”

Looming cuts?
The number of cats dropped off is especially high, perhaps because people have been reluctant to spend money to spay or neuter their cats under current economic conditions.

The Humane Society is struggling to meet the increased demand. Its budget for free spaying and neutering of cats was shot by April. The pet assistance program, which provides free pet food to help owners who are struggling financially, had 444 requests this year, about two-thirds of them first-time requests. This program is important because it keeps pets with their owners, avoiding unnecessary abandonment.

About half of the Humane Society’s $700,000 annual budget is provided by the county and cities, under a contract for animal control. But the organization is anticipating cuts in the next round of government budgets and, like many nonprofits, is casting about for new fundraising ideas, and trying to expand its donor base.

Image: A dog at the Humane Society of Elkhart County
Carissa Ray  /  msnbc.com
A dog sits quietly at the Humane Society of Elkhart County while awaiting adoption.

Meanwhile, Reel brought in a fatigue specialist to work with the staff of 16.

“We are overwhelmed in trying to decide who stays and who will have to be eliminated,” she said, referring to animals that have to be euthanized. “It takes a toll on our staff. It is not a pleasant job. “

The staff also  grapple with a year caring for and cleaning up after all these creatures — many which are in terrible condition by the time they are dropped off, with such severe maladies as ringworm, fleas and mange. That requires careful handling, and a lot of bleach to prevent the spread of disease.

When people ask Reel, “How can I help?” she tells them to “adopt, donate or send bleach.”

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