Humane Society officials and others involved in pet rescue suspect that the economic slump since 2008 has played a major role in the dramatic increase in the number of surrendered and abandoned cats in Stark County. They believe that a growing number of families have given up on coming up with the several hundred dollars a year it can cost to care for a cat or dog.
Her income slashed by more than half due to a job loss, Stephanie Hilliard made the heartbreaking decision this year to put her three loved ones up for adoption.
In January, Vicki Davis, the Massillon animal control officer, picked up Aleaha, Zsa Zsa and Shadow, Hilliard’s cats, and took them to the Stark County Humane Society, where the felines would wait to be adopted by new owners.
Hilliard had owned the cats for more than seven years.
“These were like my babies, and I felt like a horrible mother,” Hilliard said, on the verge of tears. “I had all of these cats since they were kittens. ... I felt I let them down. Like I was abandoning them. I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. I didn’t know who was going to take them. It was horrible.”
Davis said she’s been seeing more situations like Hilliard’s that would have been rare years ago.
“People don’t have enough money to even take care of their animals,” said Davis. “They don’t have money for vets. They don’t have money for shots. They don’t have money for food anymore.”
Davis and others involved in pet rescue suspect that the economic slump since 2008 has played a major role in the dramatic increase in the number of surrendered and abandoned cats in Stark County. They believe that a growing number of families have given up on coming up with the several hundred dollars a year it can cost to care for a cat or dog.
MORE UNWANTED CATS
Each year between 2005 and 2007, Davis said she took in 329 to 415 surrendered or abandoned cats and kittens in Massillon. The number rose to 505 in 2008, 683 in 2009 due to the trapping of many feral cats, fell to 432 in 2010 before rising to 588 last year. In contrast, the number of dogs she picked up peaked at 372 in 2006. Last year, the figure was 253.
The Stark County Humane Society, whose animal shelter is in Nimishillen Township, said it accepted 3,253 cats in 2007. During the next three years, that increased 65 percent to 5,367 in 2010. The Humane Society’s executive director, Lou Criswell, said figures are not yet available for 2011.
The increase has resulted in the Humane Society shelter, which could once hold no more than 90 cats, converting dog wards into cat wards. Today, the Humane Society usually has 200 to 300 cats. Criswell said last year, the number of cats reached capacity for about 60 days, meaning they had to turn cats away.
Criswell said his shelter’s dog population has declined over the last few years apparently because more owners are spaying and neutering their dogs.
At the Humane Society, the cards on the cages give vague one- and two-word descriptions as to how the cats ended up there.
Page 2 of 4 - “Reason for (Rejection): Eviction,” one card said for a white, brown and black female cat who had been there since October.
Jessie, a 3-year-old white and brown tabby who was dropped off Feb. 25, repeatedly rubbed his head and body against the bars of his cage.
“Reason for (rejection): Son moved,” his card said.
The cards for other cats read: “Sign over,” Can’t keep,” “Lost Home,” “Can’t Care For,” “Stray,” “Moving,” “Too shy,” “Too Much,” or “Abd,” which is abandoned.
Criswell said about half of the cats that come in are surrendered by owners. He said it’s difficult to determine how much economic circumstances contributed to the cats being given up. Because people surrendering pets often give reasons that aren’t credible, he believes many people just want to get rid of the cat because they’re tired of caring for it.
“We’ve always seen an irresponsible segment of our society that will just let cats loose, let them breed indiscriminately,” he said.
LEAVING PETS BEHIND
Davis said many people turning over pets may have lost their home and are moving in with friends or relatives who won’t allow the animals. In many cases, landlords don’t allow tenants to have pets or charge high fees for tenants to move in with them.
Often, pet owners don’t even bother to surrender their cats and dogs. They just abandon them.
Davis said she frequently gets calls from Massillon residents who report that their neighbor has moved out, leaving a cat behind to wander the neighborhood and starve.
The animal control officer said domesticated cats are used to humans feeding them and often have not developed their hunting skills. If they do survive, they may join a feral cat colony, but they face dangers such as hostile cats, humans and dogs, lack of food or unhealthy food, the harsh winter weather, parasites and disease. And because people often can’t or aren’t willing to spend the $100 to $200 to spay or neuter the cat, some cats will likely produce feral kittens.
“People just assume that they’ll put the cat outside the apartment or house and it’ll take care of itself,” said Davis, “A lot of them just have no idea how to find their own food. ... we’ll find them and there’s nothing but a skeleton.”
She said she’s picked up abandoned cats who are emaciated, infested with fleas and worms and often have severe upper respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia.
“The idea that these animals are independent and can survive on their own is just a fallacy,” said Criswell. “You’re just deluding yourself into thinking this is the best thing for the animal because I can’t feed it.”
Page 3 of 4 - DOGS TOO?
While Criswell says the number of unwanted dogs hasn’t gone up noticeably, Victoria Summers, the Paris Township-based executive director of Indian Summers Border Collie Rescue, said she’s been getting more calls the last three years from owners seeking to turn over their dogs. She said she’s never experienced this trend in her 26 years in dog rescue.
“Telephone rings constantly all day long and it’s people needing to get rid of their dogs,” she said. “No. 1, they’re moving, and they can’t take the dog with them. ... a lot of times they’re being evicted, and they don’t bother to call until the week of their eviction. ... the animals always suffer first if a family can’t put food on the table.”
Summers said she believes people with strained wallets are turning over dogs to rescue groups because they’re afraid they could be euthanized at the Stark County Dog Pound or the Humane Society. However, Criswell stresses that the Humane Society does not euthanize adoptable animals.
Sherri R. DeArment, of Plain Township and an organizer for the rescue group Second Chance for Animals, said 80 percent of the people who have been “begging and pleading” for her group to find new homes for their longtime pets are doing so due to economic situations, a significant increase from four years ago.
DeArment said around Christmas, a family on Dueber Avenue SW in Canton was evicted from its home. Alerted by neighbors, Second Chance found nine famished dogs in the fenced-in backyard. They hadn’t been fed in days. DeArment said they found homes for two puppies and sent the other seven to the Humane Society.
Kristen Boltz, 26, said in late 2009 and early 2010 when she lived in Canton, she was on the verge of giving up her pit bull and three Great Dane’s after her work hours were significantly cut.
“I just couldn’t afford rent,” said Boltz, who now lives in Tuscarawas County. “It ended up being, ‘Do I have a place to live, or do I freeze in my van with my animals?’ ”
In the end, she kept her pets after getting donated pet food for six months from People Care Pet Pantry in Portage County.
Some local cat advocates such as Toby Franks of Louisville believe that while the economy may be a factor in the growing numbers of abandoned cats, cat owners who fail to spay and neuter their pets have contributed more to overpopulation.
“I see people sleeping in their cars with their dogs whether or not the economy is good or bad,” said Franks. “I see people living pretty good, and they have no problems abandoning their animals.”
LIFE GOES DOWNHILL
Page 4 of 4 - Hilliard said she lost her job as a nursing assistant in 2009. After some time on unemployment benefits, she got a nursing home job that paid less. Then her car broke. Unable to afford the repairs and working hours that didn’t fit the bus schedule, she said she had to quit and get a job in May as a waitress.
The 31-year-old Massillon woman estimates her income plunged up to 65 percent. Hilliard said she couldn’t pay her rent. In the end, she moved in with her friend, who refused to allow her cats to move in too.
She says she called the Humane Society regularly to check on her three cats. As of late February, Zsa Zsa and Shadow had been adopted.
“One of the things I looked forward to was having my cats and enjoying my cats, and that’s gone now,” Hilliard said. “When I get on my feet ... of course, I’ll be a cat owner again.”