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Pets are being sent to shelters because of natural disasters, housing shortages

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A national housing shortage affects both people and pets. Animal shelters report more people surrendering their companions. Grace Benninghoff reports.

GRACE BENNINGHOFF, BYLINE: Spuds is a 60-pound pit bull who loves to lean into the front seat at the drive-thru and beg for an extra fry. Marty and Mari Buckles in Tucson, Ariz., have been caring for him for three years.

MARI BUCKLES: Are you ready for your treat (laughter)?

BENNINGHOFF: Spuds is attached to his family. Most days, he naps with Mari. He and Marty do matching Halloween costumes every year. The three of them live in a 600-square-foot apartment, and it's starting to feel too small. Recently, they decided to move out, but they haven't been able to find a place in their budget that will take Spuds. They've come up against breed restrictions, weight limits, landlords not allowing dogs at all and exorbitant pet fees. It's starting to seem like it might be impossible to find a new home so long as Spuds is with them.

BUCKLES: If we don't have Spuds, we can find a place we can afford. Whose life do we save? Do we take care of ourselves or do we sacrifice our well-being - our financial well-being to make sure that he's not in a shelter situation?

BENNINGHOFF: While there's no centralized database tracking the reason for pet surrenders, I spoke to more than 30 animal shelters nationwide for this story, and every one of them reported a record number of surrenders this year due to housing, ranging anywhere from a 50% to 300% increase over last year. At the Chittenden County Humane Society in Vermont, things are tight.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

BENNINGHOFF: Shelter director Joyce Cameron says they can't take in animals that need to be surrendered right away.

JOYCE CAMERON: We have waiting lists for intakes that are far longer than we would like. They're, right now, about a month out. So you can imagine when someone's made that hard decision, they have to wait a month, and some of them are in very unstable situations.

BENNINGHOFF: On top of the existing housing crisis, this summer has brought natural disasters. Montpelier, Vermont's capital, was at the center of a flood earlier this summer that left the entire town underwater. Laurie Garrison is with the Central Vermont Humane Society, which is in the flood zone.

LAURIE GARRISON: Flooding took out a lot of low-income and moderate-income housing. And we have people coming to us who are living in their cars. They are sleeping on somebody's couch with no end in sight. So it's not like we can give them a bag of food or even funds to keep their animal. They just can't.

BENNINGHOFF: Resources like what Laurie mentioned - food and money - can help people hang on to their pets sometimes. In Chittenden County, the Good Neighbor Program offers temporary help to animals while their humans get back on their feet.

CAMERON: They call us. We take their animals for up to two weeks, sometimes more, and we just love on them, take really great care of them. And those folks come back when they're more stable and they get their animals back.

BENNINGHOFF: Unfortunately, short-term help isn't going to be enough for the Buckleses (ph) to keep Spuds. They need a long-term, affordable place to live big enough for the three of them. They still have a few months until their lease ends, but the shelter Spuds was originally at is now euthanizing for space.

BUCKLES: We took in Spuds and promised that we would help him, and that means not giving up when it's tough.

BENNINGHOFF: They're considering moving out of Arizona to find cheaper housing that will allow Spuds, or they're hoping to place him with a good family in Tucson before the end of the year. He's listed for adoption with a rescue group in southern Arizona.

For NPR News, I'm Grace Benninghoff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Grace Benninghoff