Animal shelters struggle to deal with influx of surrendered pets in the wake of gulf oil spill
VIOLET, La. — Double-bunked behind the bars at the overrun St. Bernard Animal Shelter are more victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: shiny-coated Labrador retrievers, long-haired Chihuahuas and a fluffy Shih Tzu.
Among the more typical skinny, stray mutts are healthy, seemingly well-tended dogs whose owners, because of the massive spill, suddenly don't have the time or money to keep them.
"It's the economy, the uncertainty of the future, for sure," said shelter director Beth Brewster, who saw 117 owners surrender their animals last month -- up from 17 in June 2009.
May was particularly bad, Brewster said: The Violet shelter took in 288 animals that month, compared with 60 in May 2009.
Dean Howard of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said several coastal parishes began reporting a surge in owner relinquishments immediately after the spill.
In St. Bernard Parish, nearly every livelihood is somehow connected to the gulf. Fishermen normally ply the waters for seafood. Offshore rig workers drill for oil and longshoremen unload a never-ending flow cargo ships on the Mississippi River.
But the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and continues to spew millions of gallons of oil into the water, has created multiple problems for pet owners.
Sasha, a rust-colored Lab mix, was dropped off with nine 1-day-old puppies by a BP oil worker who suddenly had more work than he could handle and no time for the dogs, animal control officer Shannon Asevedo said.
The Shih Tzu was given up by a parish employee who told Brewster he's now too busy, too.
Other dogs and cats were abandoned by fishermen whose incomes were abruptly cut off and by families forced to downsize, moving into apartments that prohibit pets.
"It's more than we can handle," Asevedo said. "We have way more coming in than going out."
The trend is nothing new to people who work with animals. From California to Florida, millions of pets were abandoned in 2007 and 2008 as the U.S. economy turned down. The real estate bubble burst, homes went into foreclosure and people were forced to make tough choices as they scaled back their lifestyles.
"It comes down to feeding your family or feeding your dog. That's the decision they have to make," said Colleen Bosley of Catholic Charities of New Orleans, which is now partnering with the SPCA to supply pet food at its weekly food distributions in coastal parishes.
The SPCA is also launching an outreach program that will offer free spaying, neutering and vaccinations in the hardest-hit parishes, where owners may not be able to afford either food or routine veterinary care.
A grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will fund free veterinary care in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Jefferson parishes. The care includes testing for feline leukemia and heartworm, vaccinations, microchipping and registration, and spaying and neutering.
Appointments will be offered through November to anyone who works in the fishing industry.
The combined efforts could help keep as many as 1,000 pets in their homes, Louisiana SPCA Chief Executive Ana Zorrilla said.
The SPCA, backed by PetCo Foundation, Del Monte Foods and others, is trying to help on other fronts too, Zorrilla said.
Earlier this month it arranged the first of several emergency transports, moving 17 dogs to Maryland, Virginia and Tennessee. Among them were a purebred Maltese, Yorkies and Labs, all what Brewster calls "highly adoptable" dogs.
More transports will be worked out in the coming weeks, possibly to willing shelters in Texas and Florida, Zorrilla said.
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-- Vicki Smith, Associated Press
Photo: Caroline, a German shepherd mix that ended up at the St. Bernard Animal Shelter after the gulf oil spill, looks out of her kennel July 7. Credit: Vicki Smith / Associated Press