WILLIAMSBURG - Christie Chipps Peters, executive director of the Heritage Humane Society, knew things were bad when she showed up to the shelter in her pajamas early one morning after an urgent call from a shelter volunteer. There, tied to the front door with a garden hose, was a pit bull abandoned by its owner.
The dog was one of nearly 2,000 animals that have been abandoned or surrendered to the shelter this year. That's an increase from last year's total of 1,707 surrenders, and the staff and volunteers at the animal shelter believe the struggling economy is the reason so many pet owners are giving up their animals.
"We have seen an increase in owner surrenders as well as stray animals coming in," said Peters. "Mostly dogs of people who cannot afford their upkeep or are losing their home or they're downsizing to an apartment. This is the first year we've had people surrendering because they can't afford to keep them."
Staff members have found dogs and cats abandoned in front of the shelter, some with notes attached and others with no explanation.
"We did get one cat left on the doorstep with a note saying the lady couldn't care for herself, let alone her cat," said Ashley Zani, the shelter's foster coordinator.
The shelter also has had its share of animals surrendered in person by people with stories about their inability to afford their pets anymore.
"We've had a lot of people come in that had to surrender their animals because they've lost their home," said Tabitha Mattingly, animal care manager. "We've had people that had to go into a homeless shelter because they didn't have anywhere else to go."
"We do get a lot of surrenders in from people who are downsizing because they can't afford the monthly mortgage rates," Zani said. "We got three dogs in not too long ago from a military family who couldn't afford to live off base. They had to move back to base housing and they couldn't have animals."
It's not all bad news at the shelter this year. Heritage Humane recently celebrated its 1,000th adoption of the year, more than any year before. Peters attributes that number to a special offer at the shelter, which explains why adoptions would be up in tough economic times.
"We've dropped the price of our cat adoption," Peters explained. "It's a two-for-one deal. You get two spayed or neutered cats for the price of one. It's been a really nice way for people to make the space for these animals at a fraction of the cost."
But the record number of adoptions hasn't been able to keep up with the overflow of surrendered animals. Cat cages line the halls at the shelter, and Peters has had to increasingly rely on volunteers to provide foster care for animals at their homes until space becomes available. This summer, the shelter ran out of space to hold cats, but community members stepped up to provide temporary homes to 500 cats and 48 dogs.
"Right now, we have 131 animals in the shelter and about 50 in foster care," Peters said. "This time last year, we had maybe 15 to 20 cats and maybe 10 to 15 dogs. A lot of that is because we have a different and new staff, and our goal is much more targeted on saving lives, as many as we possibly can. Maybe we go too far, but I cannot as the director euthanize anything for space."
Peters thinks the long-term answer may be a program she hopes to start next year with the cooperation of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"Since the economy is so bad, we're trying to find ways to spay or neuter animals for people who can't afford it," Peters said. "We're going to try to get PETA to go to areas where we know they can't afford it and spay and neuter animals for a fraction of the cost."
The shelter already operates a clinic that offers to pick up animals and bring them back to the shelter to spay or neuter at a reduced cost. According to Peters, a cat neutering at a veterinary clinic is $150, but the shelter can do it for $35. Heritage Humane will offer the procedure for free to anyone who qualifies financially.
"In order to truly fix the problem, we need to fix the animals, literally," Peters said. "That's going to be our big goal for 2009."