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Foreclosures leaving pets in the doghouse

Some people in L.A. and Orange counties who can't find apartments that allow animals are abandoning them.

February 01, 2008|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Being forced to put her house on the market by the real estate meltdown was stressful enough for Kathryn Ecdao. Leaving Roxy and Bear behind made matters much worse.

The 4-year-old Labrador-German shepherd mixes weren't welcome at the rental Ecdao moved into a few miles away. So she makes daily trips to her now-empty former home in Anaheim Hills to care for the dogs and is desperately trying to find someone to adopt them before the place is sold.

"We can keep them there as long as the house is in limbo," said Ecdao, who can't afford to board Roxy and Bear. "But that's not fair to the dogs. They're not getting the attention that they deserve."

Actually, Roxy and Bear are among the luckier four-legged victims of the housing crisis. As more and more Californians are turned out of their homes by foreclosures or forced sales, family pets -- especially dogs and cats -- are being left behind to fend for themselves.

"These people don't know what's going to happen to them, and they figure someone will take care of the cat," said Jacky deHaviland, who works with a Los Angeles-area group called Muttshack Animal Rescue. "They say, 'I can't even deal with this. How can I deal with that?' "

For DiAnna Pfaff-Martin of Newport Beach, founder of the Animal Network of Orange County, the wake-up call came last week when she got five new adoption cases -- four dogs and a cat -- because their owners had lost their homes.

"This is the first time I've had this kind of problem since I started doing this in 1996," Pfaff-Martin said.

As the housing crunch worsens -- foreclosures in California hit a record 31,676 in the last three months of 2007 -- so will the problem of homeless pets, she said. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Real estate professionals and other animal welfare organizations are reporting similar trends.

"I'm getting calls from desperate people who are losing their homes, asking us to rescue their cat," said Fran Moore of Irvine, a co-founder of the Orange County Animal Rescue Coalition, which works with the public shelter in Corona, an area hit hard by foreclosures.

Leo Nordine, a Hermosa Beach broker who specializes in selling repossessed homes, said he finds abandoned dogs at least once a month these days. Sometimes they're chained in a yard, sometimes locked in the house. They're often emaciated, if they're alive at all.

Nordine first tries to get neighbors to take in an abandoned dog. If that fails, he calls a public shelter or a private group to pick up the animal. (Going to the county pound is often a death sentence, especially for large dogs, which are difficult to place. For example, almost 60% of the 76,000 dogs and cats impounded by Los Angeles County last year were destroyed.)

In Corona, shelter manager Darryl Heppner has seen a 16% jump in the number of animals brought in during the last six months.

"That's abnormally high," he said. "We've got a lot of people in trouble, and they have to make hard decisions."

The circumstances that follow foreclosure can be unforgiving for pet owners. "They have a hard enough time even qualifying for a rental because their credit is shot, and 98% of landlords don't take dogs," Nordine said. "So if you've been foreclosed and you have a pit bull, good luck."

It doesn't help that some landlords who do accept pets are doubling or tripling their pet deposits, according to Moore of the Orange County Animal Rescue Coalition.

The surge in homeless pets comes as Heppner's and other animal welfare facilities are dealing with budget cutbacks. The work of volunteers and donations of such essentials as cat litter are "a godsend," he said.

In California, abandoning a pet is a crime punishable by a $500 fine, up to six months in jail or both. But offenders are rarely prosecuted, activists say, in part because they can be surprisingly difficult to find.

"All we have is a name and a disconnected phone number and no forwarding address," said Nordine, the Hermosa Beach broker. "You'd need the FBI to try to track them down."

Although Ecdao has no intention of abandoning her dogs to an uncertain fate, her predicament is an often-heard tale in the current housing market.

She and her husband had to put their home up for sale in January after their monthly loan payment jumped along with the interest rate on their adjustable-rate mortgage. Refinancing wasn't an option because the house's value had fallen so much since their last refinance.

They found a rental, but the landlord said "no dogs."

"Since it was such a horrible situation because we didn't know where we were going to live, we agreed to it," Ecdao said.

She contacted Pfaff-Martin, who runs a weekend adoption fair for rescued dogs and cats outside Russo's Pet Experience at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. Ecdao and her 13-year-old daughter now make the weekly pilgrimage to the shopping center with Bear and Roxy, hoping someone will want to take the dogs home with them.

"It's awful," Ecdao said. The first time they went, "we cried the entire afternoon. We love those dogs."

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martin.zimmerman @latimes.com

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