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Just passing through

Closing temporary housing gaps for pets whose owners leave the country

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2015

When Danny Burke first stopped by Christina Bamaca’s house in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago to drop off cats Fluffy and Rocky from their spay/neuter appointments, he had no idea what he’d stumbled upon. There was a Maltese, a cocker spaniel, a German shepherd, a St. Bernard, and as he looked around, the dogs just kept appearing. Was it a hoarding situation? A breeding operation?

No—it was just a normal day for Bamaca, who had taken in three dogs and the two recently sterilized cats for a friend who had to return to Mexico and couldn’t find temporary housing for her pets. Her friend had been planning to take them to the shelter until Bamaca stepped in and said: “No, don’t do it.”

Burke, Chicago manager of Pets for Life (PFL), an HSUS program focused on helping pets and people in underserved communities, says that Bamaca’s situation provided a window into an issue that until then had not been on PFL’s radar screen. In neighborhoods like Little Village, one of the largest enclaves of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., residents frequently travel back to Mexico to visit family or because a work visa has expired. Because they often don’t know how long they’ll be gone, it’s difficult to find housing for their pets, and they’re often faced with the question of whether to surrender them to the shelter.

That’s where people like Bamaca and others in the community come in to help. Burke says it’s not uncommon for PFL staffers or volunteers to be visiting a client and find that they have taken in a new dog or cat for a friend or neighbor. “It’s just a testament to how strong the ties are in that community.”

The temporary caregivers sometimes end up adopting the pets if their owners can’t come back, which is how Bamaca ended up with several of the dogs she now considers her own.

The Stories Behind Surrender

“Historically, if someone needs temporary shelter or housing, we kind of give them all-or-nothing options,” says PFL director Amanda Arrington. Shelters will take the animal, but the owner forfeits all rights and likely will never see her pet again. This approach has left people like Bamaca to provide an important service in their communities, Arrington says. “She’s a boarding facility [and] a rescue group, because sometimes people can’t come back, and she keeps those pets or helps find a home for them.”

Arrington says shelters and other service providers need to become aware of the full spectrum of pet care issues in their community. It’s about “understanding that you’ve probably seen this and didn’t know what you were seeing. Someone surrendered a dog or cat, and you thought, ‘How could they give up this dog or cat?’ not knowing that they really would love to have this pet back in a month” but thought there were no other options.

The PFL team has seen this issue in other areas with high immigrant populations, such as Los Angeles, where residents frequently travel back and forth to Mexico and Central America. But, says Arrington, “I would venture to bet this is going on in just about every community, and it’s something that groups could probably really help with.”

Arrington notes that it’s important to realize that this issue could be feeding into larger animal welfare challenges. When people surrender their pets and can’t get them back—either because the pets have been euthanized or the fees to reclaim them are too high—they are likely to go out and get new pets. And not from the shelter, which may have disqualified them from adopting because of the previous surrender, but from sources such as puppy mills or family members with unaltered pets. One reason people decline to spay or neuter their pets, Arrington says, is that they’re concerned about not being able to get another one in the future.

Solving the Housing Puzzle

Shelters and rescues can help temporary caregivers by providing services like spay/neuter, vaccinations and assistance with routine care items such as food, flea and tick products, collars, leashes and other equipment.

Other ways to assist include setting up a network of short-term fosters, an arrangement some caregivers might actually prefer if they don’t like interviewing potential adopters or going to adoption events. There could be a predetermined time after which the animals would be transferred to adoptable status if the owner is not able to retrieve them.

You can also enable more people to act as temporary caregivers by helping to remove barriers to pet-keeping in the housing market. The HSUS Pets Are Welcome campaign provides resources for property managers and pet-owning tenants to remove housing barriers and help pet owners keep their families together.

Bamaca knew another woman who had to surrender her dog when she fell on hard times. A month later, when the woman went to the shelter to pay the fee and retrieve her dog, she discovered he had been euthanized. “She was heartbroken,” Bamaca says. So, in spite of already having four dogs of her own, Bamaca offered to care for her friend’s pets while she was gone.

That was nearly a year ago, and Bamaca says she doesn’t know when her friend will be back. All the same, she’ll keep caring for the whole kit and caboodle. Though it makes for a full house, “it’s working out,” she says, in part because of help from PFL, which has provided spay/neuter, vaccinations and other medical help for some of the pets. “I’m in love with them,” says Bamaca. “That’s why I’m taking care of them.”

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.