The ASPCA estimates between five and seven million cats and dogs land in shelters each year. The reasons vary— many are given up by owners who cannot afford to keep their pets in a tough economy—and nearly half off all shelter animals are euthanized because no one adopts them.
This weighed heavily in my decision to go to a local shelter, rather than a pet store or breeder, when I adopted our newest canine family member back in September. At the time, a staff member at the shelter told me that I was really saving two animals—my dog Kara and the dog she was leaving a space for.
The past two years have seen unprecedented overcrowding in animal shelters because of the economy. Many local organizations like Heartland Animal Shelter in Northbrook and Save A Pet in Gurnee, both of which have a no-kill policy, report that pet relinquishments have doubled since 2008 due to job losses, bankruptcies and foreclosures. This trend, along with a decrease in donations and adoptions, have put some shelters in jeopardy of closing their doors.
"The past couple of years have been like a roller coaster," said Stephanie Preiser-Hoffman, Executive Director at Heartland. "People are more cautious with their money, but we're grateful for anything they can provide."
Save A Pet, headquartered in Gurnee, is planning to close its Skokie facility to cut costs.
"Our donations have dried up and we've been paying for operating expenses out of our reserves," said Greg Alloian, Board President. "We've had some breathing space the past couple of months but haven't turned the corner yet," he said.
Both organizations sponsor regular fundraisers and accept donations of pet food and other items to help defray costs. Preiser-Hoffman and Alloian agree, however, that the best solution is to keep family pets from having to enter shelters in the first place.
And that's where pet food pantries come in. Thanks to a growing number of private donors and volunteers, several local shelters have launched pet food pantries to help financially strapped pet owners who would otherwise be forced to give up their animals.
'Our pantry shelves are emptied every week'
Nina's Pet Food Pantry is managed by Young At Heart Pet Rescue in Palatine. It was funded by a grant from Steve and Laurie Weiner in memory of their Portugese Water Dog Nina. The Weiners and their children are active volunteers in the organization, which works with local churches, schools and businesses to collect donations.
"Our pantry shelves are emptied every week," said Dawn Kemper, Executive Director of Young At Heart. "There's been ebb and flow, but overall it's been a rough couple of years," she said, echoing Preiser-Hoffman's view that her organization is grateful for any donations they receive.
"Many people are having a hard time buying food for themselves let alone their dogs or cats," Kemper said. "We want to help relieve this burden and keep pets at home and out of shelters."
Nina's has assisted many local families, like north suburban residents Eric and Sandy Cwiertnia. The Cwiertnias were already falling on hard times two years ago when the bottom dropped out and their four-year-old son TJ was diagnosed with leukemia. As medical bills piled up for TJ's treatment, they had to think about giving up the family dog, a black lab named Jaeger, because they could no longer afford to feed or care for him.
"Jaeger is part of our family," said Sandy Cwiertnia. "TJ thinks of him as his dog, and we would not have been able to keep him without help from Nina's."
Cwiertnia recommends seeking outside help before relinquishing a pet and said TJ, now six and is in his second year of treatment, is doing well and is happily unaware that he almost lost Jaeger.
"Nina's isn't the only one out there," she said. "There are others."
'Tree House helped me keep my cats'
Staff and volunteers at Tree House Humane Society in Chicago have noticed an increase in calls about pet relinquishments over the past couple of years.
"We get a lot of inquiries from people looking to give up their pets because of the economy," said Ollie Davidson, Program Manager.
"We work primarily with strays and take in very few house pets," he said, "but we try to direct callers to other sources, including family members."
The shelter's community of pet food pantry recipients has doubled since 2008. One recipient, Steve Kluck of Chicago, adopted two cats from Tree House. He's been a self employed woodworker and contractor for 30 years, but his business dried up almost completely during the recent economic downturn. Two years ago he turned to the Tree House food pantry for help.
"They helped me keep my cats," he said. "It's a relief to have one less expense to worry about. It taught me that there's no shame in asking for help when you really need it."