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Pet abandonment crime on the rise

Fuzzy, an 8-week-old chihuahua puppy gets some love and attention from an Airman stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Oct. 31, 2012.
(U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Vanessa Valentine)

Fuzzy, an 8-week-old chihuahua puppy gets some love and attention from an Airman stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Oct. 31, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Vanessa Valentine)

31 Oct. 2012 -- A note hastily scratched out read "Please take care of him; we don't want him to end up at the dog pound. We just can't afford him anymore."

The note was taped to a tiny cage resembling a prison cell. Behind the bars, two round eyes peered through a tangled cottony white fluff of hair. Crammed inside, lay a trembling 5-month-old Chinese Crested puppy, discarded like trash. The puppy, recently abandoned was found next to a garbage dumpster outside an animal hospital near Hurlburt Field, Fla.

"It's happened several times since I've been here," said Sarah Savage, a kennel technician at the city of Mary Esther, Fla., animal hospital, who described the situation as a sad, common occurrence.

"That puppy could've died in the heat if I didn't find her."

"Luckily, this puppy will have a happy ending," Savage said. "She is getting medical attention and is now up for adoption."

The Gulf Coast of Florida is no different than most U.S. military communities that have become notorious for pet abandonment. According to the American Humane Association website, military members falsely believe they have no choice but to abandon or euthanize their pet due to changes in lifestyle, constant deployments, or moving to a new duty location.
Marie Hicks, who works with Savage, said she has witnessed a disturbing increase of pet abandonment and an attitude that pets are disposable.

Hicks recently received a phone call from an Airman on base who reported that his neighbors in base housing just moved away and left behind the family dogs in the back yard.
"They packed up all of the whole house, the family and all their belongings," Hicks described.

"Thankfully, that Airman is now fostering the two lab mixes until we find them a new home."

Hicks explained that pet abandonment should never be an option, and the widespread problem is partially because pet ownership is a lot more work than expected.

"Pets are a huge responsibility and take real financial and lifetime commitment," she said.

Hicks said their comprehensive animal hospital, grooming, boarding kennel and doggie daycare facility has now grown into an unofficial pet shelter, and the extra financial burden had to be picked up by the business.

"It costs us about $300 to spay or neuter and prepare each homeless animal for re-adoption," she added.

Hicks said she understands it can be tempting to adopt a puppy without considering its effect on daily life.

"Please think about the commitment and responsibility involved before you adopt," she said. "You wouldn't just leave your kids behind."

"I have four dogs and would never think of leaving them," said Staff Sgt. John Bainter, a photojournalist with the 1st Special Operations Public Affairs at Hurlburt Field. "They go everywhere with me, my wife and our three kids."

Unlike his situation, he said leaving pets with family is not always an option available to all military personnel, who are often stationed far from home.

"In the military, we have a strong team mentality and teach principles like never leave an airman behind," he said. "To me, leaving a pet behind is the same thing as leaving a wingman."

Carla Engeldinger, dog adoption coordinator at Pet Welfare, a non-profit animal shelter at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., said she believes owners think lifestyle changes, such as moving or having a baby, means they can't keep their pet.

"That's just not true," she said.

Engeldinger described several situations where pets in the local area have been left tied to a tree with nothing but a bag of dog food, and they are expected to survive.

"Just recently we found three dogs dumped by Highway 98 just because they were an inconvenience to their owner," Engeldinger said.

Not enough time and money or pet behavior issues, are just some of the excuses pet owners come up with to get rid of their pets she said.

"Before giving your dog up, there are a lot of options and ways to fix problems," she explained. "If you love your pets you will do anything you can to keep them."

Enrique Rivera, an Okaloosa County, Fla., animal control officer, has also experienced many similar situations. Rivera patrols the streets and responds to calls about stray, abandoned and abused animals. His unit covers 900 square miles along the gulf coast, and it rescues up to 20 animals per day, he explained.

"Often, we cannot punish those responsible because the animal has no tags," he said. "People need to know that pet abandonment is a crime."

The American Humane Association website and similar organizations have many specialty resources available to help ensure military personnel's pets are taken care of while they are away.

The website recommends people develop a pet care plan to cover important routine care and emergency expenses for the temporary caregiver.

A pet profile that includes the animal's health history, temperament, eating habits, training and any other important information is also a useful tool.

Hicks explained the military should know where to turn to get help so they never make a painful choice to leave pets behind. Obedience training, animal behavior therapists, long term kennel facilities and doggy day care can all help relieve stress for both dog and owner. She said her doggy day care's clientele consists of about 85 percent military and is great option for the pet's socialization and exercise needs, especially for busy lifestyles.

Engeldinger said local shelters and private groups, such as Underdogs, Dogs on Deployment, Military Pets FOSTER Project, Pets for Patriots and Operation Noble Foster may also be able to help place pets in foster homes temporarily when military members are called up for duty.

Experts all agree if there absolutely is no choice but to give up a pet, the most humane thing to do is take him to the nearest animal shelter because abandoning him should never be an option.