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As a Westport shelter sees more pets given up due to economic issues, a foster program aims to help

Connecticut Humane Society
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Humane Society District Manager Bliss Kern gives Bunny and Linus some love during a visit to the “cat condos” at the organization’s shelter in Westport. More people are surrendering their pets to shelters for financial reasons, compared to pre-pandemic years.

A typical day for Bliss Kern includes making sure all the departments at the Connecticut Humane Society animal shelter in Westport run smoothly – medical intakes, adoptions and more.

But recently she’s taken on an extra role – foster caregiver for a gray tiger tabby named Percival.

“He’s actually part of our crisis foster program, which is a very limited program that we're able to help with. And a lot of it is for housing issues of various types,” she said.

The crisis foster program, launched last year, is one limited way the shelter tries to help pet parents in difficult situations, including housing instability. Percival’s owner’s home was sold and she couldn’t find a new place to rent that both allowed a cat and was suitable for a one-person income. The shelter stepped in and promised to help the cat while his owner got back on her feet. But more than three months in, no housing within budget turned up, and now Percival is in the pipeline for adoption while he lives in Kern’s corner office at the shelter.

“He’s a 12-year-old, quite a large kitty.” Kern said. But he still has some spunk, throwing a swat here or there between cuddles. “He’s used to being the center of attention,” she said.

Intake data for the shelter from the start of the year to mid-August show that more people are surrendering animals like Percival for financial reasons, compared to the years before the pandemic. These former pet owners said they gave up their pets due to financial issues ranging from evictions, foreclosures and landlord disputes to moving and affordability issues.

From January to mid-August 2022, the Westport shelter saw more than 35% of animals surrendered due to housing or financial reasons. Less than 30% of animals were surrendered for the same reasons in 2019.

Housing barriers

Kern said that while the shelter doesn’t require a detailed reason for surrendering a pet, Percival is a prime example of how rising housing costs and displacement are affecting not just two-legged residents but also their four-legged friends.

After all, about 70% of households in America have a pet.

“So all of the statistics that you get for displaced humans are going to impact animals as well,” Bliss said.

In Connecticut, more than 50,000 renters said they are very or somewhat likely to have to leave their house in the next two months due to eviction. And about 20,000 homeowners said they are very or somewhat likely to have to leave their house in the next two months due to foreclosure. That’s according to the most recent housing survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Connecticut Humane Society
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Percival the cat gives a paw to Connecticut Humane Society District Manager Bliss Kern. Percival, who was dropped off at the shelter by a family experiencing housing instability, now keeps Kern company in her office as she works. He’ll eventually go into the adoption program at the shelter because his owner hasn’t been able to find an affordable place to live that also allows cats.

Kern said landlords who are adding hundreds of dollars to annual housing costs in pet rental fees aren’t helping.

“Regardless of economic status, the housing situation in Connecticut is rough,” Kern said. “People might find something for themselves and their children and not be able to afford either their pet rent, a pet deposit — there’s a whole host of things that can go into that.”

Financial and logistical challenges with housing have always been one of the most common reasons for giving up pets, according to Kern. Regardless, she said the shelter is there to help and to remind people that giving up a pet doesn’t make someone a bad person.

“We have people who are living in their car with their two children and their dog; are you suggesting that parent should stay in the car with their children, because it makes them a bad person that they would give up their dog to a shelter that they knew could take care of it, could provide medical care and could get it into a new family?” Kern added.

How to help?

While the hope is to help as many people as possible, Kern said resources are limited. The crisis foster program takes animals on a case-by-case basis and places them in available foster homes for about a month, but it can be extended if needed. People interested in taking advantage of the program should apply.

Every day the animal is away from its owner means the animal can be in distress, Kern said. So there is always a question of whether adoption might be the best option in the end, she added.

Overall, Kern said the shelter gets more people asking for help to keep their pets than to surrender them, and the foster program is one way to make that happen temporarily.

“Who needs help are people who want to keep their pets but don’t have the financial flexibility.”

Visit cthumane.org for more information on the crisis foster program.

Connecticut Humane Society
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
Connecticut Humane Society District Manager Bliss Kern takes a quick break from her emails to nuzzle gray tiger tabby Percival. The cat, who was dropped off at the shelter by an owner experiencing housing instability, now keeps Kern company in her office.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.