The rising number of foreclosures in the area has created a new term in the animal welfare lexicon: "foreclosure pets."
As realtors and junk haulers find more and more animals left behind in foreclosed homes, workers with humane agencies are trying to determine a way to solve the problem.
"It's certainly more prevalent now, and, generally, the people that leave the pets don't care enough to call us," says Melanie Rushé, public relations director for the Houston Humane Society. "Oftentimes we'll see a bag of dog food ripped open. They'll leave a bag of dog food and say a prayer and good luck. It's really upsetting."
The Humane Society contracts with two Harris County constables to handle animal cruelty and abandonment calls, and the constables have been busy with foreclosure pets. The junk haulers, realtors, bank inspectors and neighbors — people who typically arrive first at a foreclosed home — usually don't have the authority or the will to remove the animals.
"It's so hard to get a handle on, because some people just move, and some people leave and say, 'Well, we were forced out today but we were going to come get the pet tomorrow,'" Rushé says. "If there was a crying baby locked in a car, then you could break in to save the baby. It's getting that way with animals, and we're getting there with foreclosures because it's a living being, trapped with no food or water."
In most cases, the constables are called to take the animals. According to Lieutenant Mark Timmers, who works with the Humane Society, it can take several days before he is able to respond to a foreclosure call due to the volume of other cases he works.
"There are so many factors into the issue of abandoned animals in the city, and the newest one is foreclosures," Timmers says. "We find the animals chained up, we find them running loose in the house. It's a sad situation because we know people are financially suffering, but that doesn't excuse leaving the animals behind when they can take them someplace else."
The constables and the Humane Society do not keep numbers on how many animals are found at foreclosed homes. The pets are simply listed as abandoned. But Timmers estimates that he responded to about 1,000 foreclosure calls last year.
Animal cruelty charges are rare in foreclosure cases, Timmers says, because it's hard to prove there was malice involved in leaving the pet behind.
When Timmers found a boxer tied to a tree in the backyard next to a pile of trash, no charges were filed. And nothing was done to the owners of a yellow lab who left the dog chained to a water faucet.
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However, Timmers has found about 15 dead animals in foreclosed homes, and he filed charges in each of those cases.
"It's hard to explain when you go in and find the skeletal remains of a dog, and you finally track down the family and the first thing they tell you is, 'Man, we loved our dog, but we just couldn't take it with us,'" Timmers says. "You try to understand the reasoning behind all that, and to me there is none."
A majority of the pets found in foreclosed homes are in poor health. Most can be rehabilitated and put up for adoption. But according to Rushé, about 15 percent eventually have to be euthanized.
"The effort on their part is just not there," Timmers says. "If you're loading up the moving van, at least drop off your pet on the way out."