'They can't afford their pets'

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Virgin Islanders gave up their pets in record numbers last year in what may be another indicator of the continuing toll of hard economic times.

The number of animals the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center took in during 2010 jumped by 20 percent over the previous year - and reached a significantly higher level than it had in any year during the previous five years, said Gretchen Sherrill, shelter coordinator.

While the numbers are grimmest on St. Croix, they number of animals turned into shelters last year also rose significantly on St. Thomas.

Sherrill believes the state of the economy - and the money problems many are experiencing - are driving the increase.

The numbers

In 2009, the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center took in 3,016 animals, either given up by their owners or picked up as strays, Sherrill said. Intakes had remained fairly constant over about five years, hovering around the 3,000 mark.

And then, in 2010, that number jumped dramatically to approximately 3,600 animals - a 20 percent increase, she said.

"People say they can't afford their pets anymore," Sherrill said. "We have heard that financial reason given much more frequently than before. I do think the economy is playing a role."

While the Humane Society of St. Thomas also saw an increase in animal intakes during 2010, it was not nearly so steep as on St. Croix.

In 2009, the Humane Society took in 1,890 animals on St. Thomas, while in 2010, that number increased to 1,975 - a 4 percent jump, said Annabel Hiltz, operations manager at the Humane Society of St. Thomas.

On St. John, the number of animals taken in by the Animal Care Center - a no-kill shelter - has remained fairly constant.

"It pretty much stays the same," said Diana Ripley, former president and current board member and committee chair for shelter operations at the Animal Care Center. "The difference is how many get adopted and how long they stay with you. We've had dogs up to three years. We try our best to keep moving them."

In 2010, the shelter on St. John took in 163 animals, six fewer than in 2009, Ripley said.

It is telling, Sherrill said, that even with similar populations in the island districts, St. Croix has so many more unwanted companion animals - even during average years - than St. Thomas and St. John combined.

"It's really entirely too high here," she said, speaking of St. Croix.

The problem

Dealing with the problem of an exploding population of unwanted companion animals on an island that has a relatively constant population of humans requires a multi-faceted approach, Sherrill said.

A new low-cost spay-neuter program that is starting up on the island will help, she said.

But it will deal with only part of the problem.

There are too many people, Sherrill said, who simply don't plan well enough and find themselves in situations where they cannot keep their pets, even in average years. Oftentimes those people wind up either turning their companion animals in at the shelter directly or simply turning them loose.

People should consider the cost of responsible pet ownership before taking an animal in, she said.

"There's always been a segment of the population that get pets, and then can't afford them," she said. "Also, there has been an issue of continentals leaving and they either don't want to, or can't afford to pay the airline fees to take their animals back with them."

However, as the recession continues to take its toll, more owners - even those who never expected to - are finding themselves in situations where they can no longer afford their animals.

Financial reasons for giving up a pet run the gamut from being unable to meet the basic costs to feed and shelter the animal, to being unable to afford veterinary care for animals that have taken ill, she said.

She urged owners who are unable to keep their pets to either find them a new home on their own or to call the shelter - and not to simply set them loose.

"It's inhumane just to loose your pet. They're not just going to become some wild animal and be able to take care of themselves. That's not the way it works," Sherrill said. "No matter what you tell yourself, just loosing them is abandonment. It's inhumane. And it's an irresponsible and cruel thing to do."

Although the shelters on St. Croix and St. Thomas do euthanize animals, neither sets arbitrary limits on how long a healthy, non-aggressive animal gets to stay.

As long as there is room, they will try to adopt healthy animals out for as long they can, officials said.

"They're not milk. They don't expire," Sherrill said. "They can stay with us, as long as they're healthy and friendly."

The No. 1 reason for euthanization in the shelters is that the animals are already very sick or seriously injured when they come in.

"The majority of the pets that are coming into our facility are suffering from neglect - they're either really sick or they're going to tear someone apart," Sherrill said. Owners, she said, are increasingly using the shelter as "a place of last resort."

Pet adoptions

The shelter on St. Croix has also struggled with the recession's effect on pet adoption rates.

"What we usually hear on St. Croix is 'I can't afford to take another one,'" Sherrill said.

However, so far, the shelter has been able to compensate for a lower number of local adoptions by reaching out to certain stateside organizations it has worked with for years, arranging for adoptions of local pets to stateside families.

The shelter relied on this method more often in 2010, Sherrill said.

"We have been pretty successful," she said. "Sometimes it's more cost-effective to put a pet on a plane than it is to stay here three months."

The Animal Welfare Center also has increased its online presence in a move to bolster adoptions, both off-island and locally.

Animal Welfare Center companion animals waiting for placement can now be viewed online at adoptapet.com and petango.com, while all three of the territory's animal shelters maintain an online presence, including their own websites and Facebook pages.

In a happy turn, the Humane Society of St. Thomas has recently increased its adoption rates.

"Our adoptions are up by 30 percent of what they were last year," Hiltz said. The reason, she said, is healthier animals.

"We had a lot of sick animals, and we're now spending probably 75 percent more on our medical budget," Hiltz said. "Our animals are much healthier, so more are getting adopted. It's awesome."

St. John's shelter is a no-kill shelter and seems to be weathering the recession well, although it could always use more funding, Ripley said.

"We find that people have opened their hearts to us, to the shelter. I think the fundraising has been really good," she said.

St. John also sees some off-island adoptions, she said.

"We've been really pleased with how many adoptions we've gotten," she said. "We have it in all the villa books and everything: 'Take Home a Piece of Paradise.'"

Although the shelters receive some government funding, all rely on donations to keep their programs going.

Dealing with pet overpopulation

As part of a more multi-faceted approach, computer software at St. Croix's shelter now tracks where the animals it takes in came from, and officials hope to use that information to target education and outreach in certain areas, Sherrill said.

For instance, Estate Whim was responsible for the highest number of animals taken to the shelter in 2010, with nearly 7 percent of the animals from that neighborhood, followed by Mon Bijou, La Grande Princesse, Sion Hill/Sion Farm, William's Delight, Catherine's Rest, Constitution Hill, Strawberry, Upper Love and Peter's Rest.

A Virginia-based nonprofit, the FiXit Foundation, which works to find ways to increase interest in spay and neuter programs to eliminate pet overpopulation, has also has launched "The Island Project" on St. Croix.

Nearly 65 percent of pet owners on St. Croix do not spay or neuter their pets - more than 3 times higher than the national average, according to information from the foundation.

The new project is aimed at offering more affordable options on the island for spaying and neutering, and changing perceptions about the procedure, according to information from the foundation.

Through the project, the St. Croix Animal Welfare Network - which includes the shelter, Island Animal Clinic and other animal groups - will offer a new spay and neuter service for $25 per pet, according to a press release about the project.

"If St. Croix residents take advantage of spay/neuter, the intake of unwanted pets at our shelter will dramatically decrease," Sherrill said in the release. "We hope that residents of neighborhoods such as Whim, Mon Bijou, Princess and Williams Delight, where we have documented higher than average intake, will participate in this program."

The Island Project started last month. The $25 spay or neuter services are available every Friday at Island Animal Clinic. To book an appointment, call 626-2909.

The shelters on all three islands offer some discounts for spay and neutering, as well.

The Sunshine Foundation, a low-cost spay and neuter program not associated with the shelter, also continues its work on St. Croix, although it has temporarily suspended a weekly low-cost animal spay-neuter program for the public while it regroups after losing a key staff member who moved back to the states, said veterinarian Stacia Jung, who started the foundation.

The Sunshine Foundation is continuing its feral cat spay/neuter program.

All three islands have similar sorts of programs, where feral cats are trapped, inoculated and neutered before they are returned to the wild. Volunteers continue to provide the animals with food and water after they are released.

Jung says that it is the "most humane and effective way" of dealing with feral cat overpopulation.

"It's a really important part of reducing pet overpopulation in the Virgin Islands," Jung said. "We need to stop the cycle of reproduction literally in its tracks by spaying and neutering so that the number of stray kitties doesn't continue to increase exponentially."

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