The middle-aged woman had brought a friend with her to the animal shelter for moral support. They sat together on a bench, soft-spoken and red-eyed.
Clay, a strapping 9-month-old black lab mix, lay panting at their feet, lunging to his tiptoes with high-pitched barks when another dog walked into the lobby.
"I just don't know what to do with him," his owner told Mike Rueb, the longtime trainer and associate director of adoptions and resident care at Bideawee, a 112-year-old no-kill shelter in Manhattan. "He's just too much for me to handle."
Each year, approximately 7.6 million animals end up in a shelter, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Nearly 3 million of them are euthanized.
Most municipal shelters are so-called "kill" shelters, meaning that when they need to make room for new arrivals, they put down otherwise healthy animals. No-kill shelters like Bideawee offer an alternative for animals whose owners cannot care for them. They typically treat sick, injured or older animals to ready them for a new home. They also offer training.
But it's not just behavioral issues that force pets from their "forever" homes. Housing or financial considerations are the other main reasons why animals are abandoned or surrendered to shelters, says Cory Smith, director of public policy for the Companion Animals Department at the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society works with local groups to provide services and resources to pet owners who feel forced to give up an animal due to a move, landlord conflict or unexpected veterinary costs.
"Owners need to be encouraged to work through tough times rather than discouraged into relinquishment or re-homing their pet," Smith says. "Local organizations can often offer assistance in big and small ways — for example, taking in someone's pet temporarily and then giving them back if that is what is needed to alleviate some of the pressure, or just connecting pet owners to other community resources they may not have known about."
For Rueb, the No. 1 thing people can do when they adopt a pet is to have realistic expectations. That means understanding not only expenses and unexpected twists like a move or unknown allergy, but also being prepared for an animal's energy level, and the amount of time and resources the owner will need to commit to ensure their pet's mental health and well-being.
"They'll say, 'I didn't realize how much energy this dog would have' or 'I didn't understand what 70 pounds look like,'" he says. "All of a sudden, they're in over their head. Our job is not only to talk about the specifics about training and medical expenses they're going to incur. It's about managing their expectations and talking to them about this particular dog, so that they can be prepared."
Clay, the black lab mix, has been at Bideawee since October. Staff work with him every day, socializing him with other animals and keeping him active and engaged. He's making progress, and Rueb and the staff know that somewhere there's someone with the time and love to bring him home.
New pet tips
The Humane Society suggests that potential pet owners ask themselves these questions before committing to taking an animal into their family:
› Why do you want a pet? It’s a long-term commitment.
› Do you have time for a pet? Animal companions need food, water, exercise, care and companionship every day.
› Can you afford a pet? Licenses, training classes, spaying and neutering, veterinary care, grooming, toys, food, kitty litter and other expenses add up quickly.
› Are you prepared for the challenges that a pet can present? Flea infestations, scratched furniture, housetraining accidents and medical emergencies are unfortunate but common aspects of pet ownership.
› Are you allowed to have a pet where you live? Many landlords don’t allow pets, and many rental communities have restrictions. Certain types of dogs also may be excluded from homeowner insurance policies.
› Are your living arrangements suitable for the animal you have in mind? Animal size is not the only consideration. For example, some small dogs are very active, require a lot of exercise to be calm, and often bark at any noise. Research breeds to help you choose an animal who fits your lifestyle and living arrangements.
› Will you be a responsible pet owner? Having your pet spayed or neutered, obeying community leash and licensing laws, and keeping identification tags on your pets are all part of being a responsible owner.
› Who will care for your pet while you’re away for long periods or on vacation? You’ll need either reliable friends and neighbors or money for a boarding kennel or pet-sitting service.