Foreclosures' Other Victims: Abandoned Pets

Real estate agents have become frontline soldiers in a shadow crisis to the foreclosure mess: Pets are being abandoned by their owners in their empty houses. It isn't uncommon for an agent to open the door of a foreclosed property and find a starving dog or cat left behind when the family moved on.

Local animal shelters report a large uptick in the number of pets turned in by owners who were evicted in foreclosures. The families often wind up living with relatives or becoming renters and find themselves taking their house pets to local shelters. But the turned-in animals are the lucky ones.

Just last week, Phoenix real estate agent Cathleen Collins of Bloodhound Realty was showing a bank-owned property and discovered a black and white longhaired tuxedo cat that the family had abandoned outside. The pet, left to fend for itself for more than a month, had been sleeping on the front step and scratching at the door to be let inside. The cat was badly matted and clearly hungry, Collins said.

"All she wanted to do was get back inside her house," said Collins. "The poor thing had no idea what happened to her. She was starved -- and starved for affection." Collins fed her and called a local pet rescue.

Animal shelters and rescue groups say the surge of abandoned pets since the housing crisis began has further strained their already shrunken resources. The shelters are being asked to do more with less, said Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the ASPCA; municipal budget cuts have meant reduced staff, and donations are down in general since the recession started. Plus, he said, many people are struggling to stay afloat and don't feel that they can open their home to a new pet, so adoptions in general are down because of the economy.

But the problem of pets being let loose, tied up in the yard or left behind in the house when a family moves is even worse, said Zawistowski.

It's a story told anecdotally since no one, including the ASPCA, keeps track of pets abandoned when their owners have lost their house. But they know the numbers are up and they track closely to places where foreclosures have run the highest -- California, Florida, Texas and Nevada. He estimates that about 3 million pets to date have been at risk of losing homes as a direct result of the housing crisis and it's a situation likely to worsen as the number of foreclosures increase.

Zawistowski said that foreclosed-on homeowners frequently -- and wrongly -- assume that once they are evicted, someone from the bank will be by the next day to secure the house and discover the animal. But that front door may not be opened again for weeks and, once it is, the law is fuzzy on who owns the pet found inside.

Who Owns the Pets?

The bank owns the house, but not any personal property left behind. Personal property is subject to auction. And in a nod to farm and cattle ranches, animals are considered personal property in some states -- dogs and cats included.

California passed a law two years ago requiring lending institutions to bring a pet found at a foreclosed home to the animal shelter. It's also a crime in all 50 states to abandon a pet, said Zawistowski.

Since in so many cases the first person to open the door is a real estate agent asked to list the home, the problem of what to do with the pet they find inside often falls to them. The ASPCA urges real estate offices to work with the directors of their local animal shelters to figure out a standard operating plan for how to handle pets found in properties. Some agencies have done that.

"You just can't ignore these animals when you find them," said Sandy Zalagens, a Keller Williams Realty agent in Los Angeles who has become one of the most prominent Realtor-dog rescuers in the country. She sponsors a dog for adoption every time she closes a sale and led the Keller Williams team in Race for the Rescues, a fund-raising effort where the proceeds were distributed among rescue groups.

Zalagens lives in South L.A., "where irresponsible dog owners are prevalent," she says. She got her start in dog rescue five years ago, when she came upon five abandoned black lab puppies -- one of which still lives with her. But since the foreclosure epidemic has struck, "it's unbelievable" what's happening with pets being abandoned, she said.

"People are desperate. They have nowhere to go with their dog, so they leave the dog behind," she said. "It used to be that overpopulation was the main cause of homeless dogs, but now the formerly responsible pet owners have become irresponsible, too, because of their circumstances."

Zalagens recently responded to a call from a Realtor friend who found six pit bulls in a ReMax listing. The dogs were abandoned, all tethered to fencing without food and water. They had not been socialized and neighbors said that they were used for breeding or fighting. One dog was so messed up emotionally and physically that it had to be euthanized; the others were farmed out to rescue groups.

Rescuers Step In

Like Zalagens, many agents wind up adopting the pets they find. That's how John Aaroe Group agent Tina Smith in Los Angeles got Vinny, her now-6-month-old pit bull. Vinny and his six litter-mates were left in a box in the closet of an abandoned home, without food or water. The family had taken the two adult dogs with them when the bank foreclosed, but left the puppies behind.

The dog rescue community also has stepped up to the challenge of helping Realtors deal with what they find. There are some rescue groups that deal expressly with pets in foreclosure situations.

Jodi Polanski, founder and executive director of Lost Our Home, a pet rescue group that finds both foster and permanent homes for displaced animals, said it's heartbreaking to watch what's been happening over the past few years. "There are people who flat-out abandon their pet in their foreclosed home or after eviction. Why anyone would let another living being suffer a slow, torturous death of dehydration and starvation is beyond anything I can answer."

Phoenix, where she is based, is one of those places where pets are considered property. So if someone abandons their pet, a neighbor or rescuer can't legally even enter the backyard to help it. That would be trespassing, said Polanski. "We need permission from the owner, which could be the bank. Or maybe the person still legally owns the home but moved out before the bank officially takes it over. Either way, it's hard to get written permission if you can't find the owner."

Cheryl Lang, founder of No Paws Left Behind, a rescue group based in Houston that specializes in foreclosure pets, says that she has spoken with a lot of borrowers who want to do the right thing. "When someone is going through a foreclosure," she said, "there is a such a sense of failure. They have no resources. They are losing the houses that their kids grew up in, that they celebrated holidays and birthdays in.... I'm not defending them, but this isn't the easiest time in their lives either."

Of the ones who practice animal cruelty in the process, though, she says, "I do everything I can to report them to the authorities and hope they get what they deserve."

Lang recalls a Nevada man who left his two dogs in the backyard with a note saying, "Please take care of us. Our Daddy couldn't bear to bring us to the pound."

Matthew Ecker, a sergeant with the El Mirage (Ariz.) Police Department, encountered the problem personally. One of his officers found a pit bull abandoned in the yard of a rented house in the middle of the Arizona summer. The animal (pictured at left) was lying in a the dirt under a tree, emaciated, with ticks and flies all over her body and barely able to stand.

The neighbor who reported the dog's abandonment had put out some food and water in the yard for her, but it was removed a few days later by the owners who stopped by to take out some final things. Inexplicably, they left the dog, but removed the food and water dishes the neighbor had set out.

Ecker said that it was more than he could handle. He put the dog in his patrol car and took her to the veterinarian, where it was estimated that she had been without food or water -- other than what the neighbor had given her -- for 30 days at the time of her rescue. Ecker said she was "dehydrated to the point that she needed an IV to stay alive. And she was covered with thousands of ticks, so many that the vet had to rehydrate her slowly, so that the water wouldn't dilute the small amount of blood still left in her body."

Three weeks after her rescue, the dog -- renamed Sweetheart -- died of organ failure. She had been rescued too late.

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