The families started coming in during the winter, parents and kids gathered in the cramped lobby of the Montgomery County Humane Society shelter to hand over their pets. It's a largely hidden consequence of the housing meltdown: a spike in the number of animals being turned in or abandoned as families are forced from their homes.
"We get give-ups all the time, but typically it's someone with allergies or a young animal with behavior issues," said Kathy Dillon, the facility's operations coordinator. "Now every week we're seeing whole families come in to say good-bye to a longtime pet because they have to move. We've had a lot of children in tears."
In the Montgomery shelter, about 15 percent of animals received in the past two months are a result of foreclosures or related economic dislocations, according to J.C. Crist, the county Humane Society president and chief executive. That's up from about 3 percent last year for similar reasons. The facility takes in about 700 animals a month, he said, including many from surrounding counties.
"I just had a beautiful 12-year-old golden retriever given up by a wonderful family because they had to find temporary housing," Crist said. "This is incredible. And I know we haven't hit the peak."
In two of the shelter's cat rooms, a majority of the stacked cages are marked with star-shaped stickers reading "Golden Oldies," meaning the felines inside are 7 years or older. Based on her interviews with the families that drop them off, Dillon said the influx of mature cats also stems from the economic downturn, as families are forced to move or simply can't afford an elderly animal's vet bills.
Likewise for the serene black mixed-breed dog she stopped to pet in the adjacent room, the former pet of a man who said he was losing his house.
"These animals are obviously well-cared-for and socialized," Dillon said. "We haven't seen this before."
For owners who think better times may be ahead, the society has expanded its "Safe Harbor" project. The program, designed to aid domestic abuse victims, military families and others who may have to leave their homes on short notice, provides boarding and care for pets on a short-term basis.
Some set loose or left behind
The pets brought in by their distraught owners are actually the lucky ones, Crist said. More worrisome is the increasing number of animals simply set loose or left behind in empty houses by homeowners who suddenly have to move into no-pet apartments or a friend's spare room.
"We usually get the call from the bank or whoever finds it, and we go out to retrieve the animal, if it's still alive," Crist said.
Police recently rescued an emaciated Dalmatian that had been left without adequate food in an empty Germantown home, Crist said. The animal has since recovered and been placed in a foster home.
Crist's agency, which serves as Montgomery's official animal control shelter, has at least three cases charging cruelty pending against owners who abandoned their animals in foreclosed homes.
Not all area jurisdictions are reporting similar activity. In the District, animal control officials said they have no way of determining whether the animals they receive are economic refugees. The Prince George's County Animal Management Division reported that it has not seen a significant increase in turn-ins related to foreclosures. In Prince William County, which has suffered some of the region's highest foreclosure rates, officials say they have experienced no spike in business at the county's public shelter.
"There are a lot of rescue groups in this area that we refer people to," said Sgt. Lorie Shetley of the county's Animal Control Bureau, which is run by the Prince William Police Department. "The attitude here is, yes, we may lose our home, but we're going to do whatever we can to take care of the pets."
In Frederick County, however, a third of the county shelter's population of 30 dogs and 100 cats are from people who were forced to move for economic reasons, according to kennel supervisor Linda Shea. In some cases, they can determine the owners' circumstances through interviews they conduct with anyone turning over an animal. In others, they have traced stray animals back to one of the many houses undergoing foreclosure in the county.
In the case of a dog found in the care of a homeless man in Frederick, Shea was able to track its ownership through an identification microchip implanted in the animal's skin. When an animal control officer went to the owner's address, he found a vacant "McMansion," Shea said.
"Some people will just open the door and let them out, hoping for the best," she said.
Some owners have tried to find a middle way between turning their pets in to shelters and leaving them to fend for themselves. Tyrone Whitby, a real estate agent in Prince George's specializing in foreclosures and short sales, has among his current listings a house in Laurel in which the family dog still lives, two months after the family moved to a nearby apartment complex. They keep the dog fed and watered in the empty garage during the week, Whitby said, and tie him in the backyard for weekends.
"They said they were looking for their brother to take the dog, but so far he hasn't done it," Whitby said. "You can hear the dog in the garage. It's not good because some agents will not show a property if they know there's a dog there."
Whitby said he has not called animal control because the dog seems well fed and healthy.
Estate agents become pet saviors
Real estate agents across the country have found themselves in the pet savior business as foreclosure rates have climbed. Elizabeth Weintraub, a real estate columnist for About.com, recently wrote a rescue guide for agents after hearing about their sometimes-harrowing discoveries of abandoned pets.
"In some low-income areas, you'll find one in about every 20 homes," said Weintraub, who recently came across a malnourished dog in the yard of a house that had been on the market for months. "They just let it go in the back yard. You feel for the owners of these places, but the animals are suffering, too."