Unlike some on Wall Street — or the regulators tasked with watching over them — Ike and Tina never saw it coming. They didn't see the debt piling up, the warning letters arriving in the mail or the bank account hemorrhaging. Maybe they felt the tension growing in the air, read the expression on their owners' faces, heard the edge in their voices. But by then it was too late.
One minute the brother-and-sister cocker spaniels were enjoying a comfortable existence in a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath home, and the next they were staring out through the chain-link of their 5-by-15-foot kennel at the Carson Animal Shelter.
They are what are known as “Owner Surrenders,” animals dropped off by their masters at the shelter. Unlike some of their fellow inmates, they weren't diggers, chewers or even excessive barkers. Rather, they were innocent victims of a crime, casualties of the subprime mortgage debacle: Their owners lost their home and could no longer support them.
“About 60 percent of the owner-surrendered dogs we're getting now are due to the fact the owners have lost their homes or their jobs,” an SPCA employee says. “I don't know how many strays are dumped on the streets by their owners because they just don't have the income to support them. It's really sad.”
Such stories don't surprise Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist who studies pet population trends for the ASPCA. An earlier study that appeared in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science showed that pet relinquishments for housing issues, which usually average about 30 percent of total pet surrenders, increase during times of economic distress.
“We had the same thing occur in the '30s during the Great Depression,” Zawistowski says. “People had to give up their pets because they couldn't afford them.”
The phenomenon is not national in nature. It's concentrated in a handful of states hit hardest by the housing-market slump: California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Within those states, conditions are particularly bad in certain cities — Los Angeles among them. These were the areas that saw the greatest growth in home ownership over the past several years, growth fueled by the subprime mortgage wave that washed over the country. And completing that picture of the great American dream of home ownership was a pet.
“It's kind of like that whole My Three Sons or Brady Bunch image,” Zawistowski says. “Once they get into a home, most people feel they can finally support a pet.”
But those shaky mortgages, built on fantasy and hocus-pocus just like the cheeky family comedies, eventually run their course and peter out. And family pets get caught in the collateral damage.
The Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals saw owner surrenders for all animals and all causes increase from 15,106 in 2005 to 22, 245 in 2009. They have dipped some since but are still 26 percent higher than 2005-06 levels. To think that so many animals started chewing on the furniture would be a bit of a stretch.
To be sure, living in a shelter isn't the worst of all existences for an animal. As quality of life goes for a dog, it's somewhere between Paris Hilton's pampered pooch and fodder for Michael Vick's perverse predilections. Still, that's not much solace to owners who have to do the deed.
“It's devastating for them,” says Evelina Villa, an L.A. SPCA media spokeswoman who has witnessed firsthand the anguish owners go through when surrendering a pet after losing their home. “They're crying, the kids are crying. … I've almost been reduced to tears myself.
“They've already cut out the cable, the trips to Starbucks … all the luxuries. This is the final indignity when they realize they can't even afford dog food.”
With experts predicting increases in home foreclosures this coming year, more owners will find themselves in similar situations, creating a triple threat for the shelters.
“We have more animals going to the pound, and less people willing to take a chance on adopting an animal because of all the uncertainty,” Zawistowski says. “Plus, our resources have been cut like every other agency out there.”
Fortunately for Ike and Tina, these issues will no longer concern them. Their sentences were commuted just two weeks after they entered the shelter, and they even have new aliases to use “outside the wire”: Ike is now Woody, while Tina became Nina.
They were not able to stay together, but each has been adopted by loving families — with comfortable homes, spacious yards and, most important of all, low debt ratios.