OPINION: Increase in evictions could lead to more displaced pets

LifeLine Animal Project, which manages animal services in Fulton and DeKalb counties, is bracing for a surge in animals when the eviction moratorium ends later this month. The Safety Net Foster Program needs volunteer foster families to provide temporary assistance for pet owners experiencing challenges like Jane Kittrell, owner of Brutus, pictured here with his foster family's cat. In Kittrell's case, she was recovering from a stroke. (Courtesy of LifeLine Animal Project)
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LifeLine Animal Project, which manages animal services in Fulton and DeKalb counties, is bracing for a surge in animals when the eviction moratorium ends later this month. The Safety Net Foster Program needs volunteer foster families to provide temporary assistance for pet owners experiencing challenges like Jane Kittrell, owner of Brutus, pictured here with his foster family's cat. In Kittrell's case, she was recovering from a stroke. (Courtesy of LifeLine Animal Project)

Credit: Courtesy of LifeLine Animal Project

Jane Kittrell knew something wasn’t right when she woke up one day last spring with elevated blood pressure. She got out of bed, got dressed and told her daughter she didn’t feel well. By the time she got to the hospital, Kittrell, 62, of Lithonia had experienced a stroke.

She was in the hospital for several weeks. The stroke left Kittrell with some numbness on her left side. She had trouble getting dressed and getting in and out of bed. When she was released, she returned to a home and community upended by the global pandemic.

The only thing that felt like it hadn’t changed was Kittrell’s dog Brutus, a 7-year-old pit bull mix who came running when she returned and licked her left hand over and over as if he knew something was wrong. Kittrell’s son had taken care of Brutus while she was hospitalized, but after returning home, Kittrell soon realized she couldn’t care for Brutus as she had before the stroke. She did not want to give up her dog, and fortunately, she discovered another option for temporary help.

There have been some very real upsides to the pandemic, and one is that it prompted many families to become pet owners. Adoptions from LifeLine Animal Project, which oversees animal control services for Fulton and DeKalb counties, increased 16% from 2019 to 2020, according to data provided by the organization.

If we were going to be stuck at home, people reasoned, why not share your space with a furry friend? That was my thinking anyway.

My daughter had been begging me to get a dog for three years. She assembled a dossier on different breeds, vetted veterinarians and spent hours watching dog training videos. I had stalled for so long but the pandemic eliminated my greatest concern that any pet in our house would be left alone for long periods of time. So we adopted a puppy named Seneca, a cute beagle mix with a lot of spunk.

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In the early months, it was like having another child, and accordingly I worried about her in similar ways. Was she hungry? Did she have to go potty? Did she have all her shots? In my darkest pandemic-fueled thoughts, I wondered what would happen to our dog if I lost my job, my home or my health. I had already made plans for the humans in my household should some devastating life event occur, but not so much for my new pet.

Loss of income, homelessness and illness are constant worries for some metro area residents, but the pandemic altered many lives in a hurry. In response, LifeLine launched the Safety Net Foster Program to help pet owners experiencing housing, financial, medical or other setbacks retain ownership of their dogs or cats by providing temporary foster care. For periods ranging from two weeks to one month, pet owners can be assured that their animals would be cared for in a loving and safe environment provided by animal-loving foster families.

This month, the federal eviction moratorium, which has prevented thousands of metro area residents from losing their housing, is expected to end, and LifeLine expects to see an increase in animals that need temporary housing, said spokeswoman Karen Hirsch.

Housing experts estimate that up to 353,000 Georgians owe back rent and said they are bracing for a deluge of court filings to evict renters when the current ban ends on July 31. If pet owners in crisis feel they have no other option, it could mean an overflow of animals on the streets or surrendered to shelters. But LifeLine’s shelters have already reached high intake numbers ranging from 30 to 60 animals each day, Hirsch said.

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There are currently 12 pets in the Safety Net program that have to stay in LifeLine shelters because they do not have enough foster parents signed up for the program. “Demand is getting higher and we are getting more calls,” Hirsch said, noting that at any given time, 40% of the animals under their care live with foster families. “We need more fosters,” she said.

After she returned home, Kittrell was unable to take Brutus on their usual trail walks. She had also fallen behind on his shots and exams. Her daughter suggested she call LifeLine.

Kittrell applied for the Safety Net program, and in less than two weeks, she and Brutus were matched with a foster family. The foster parents asked to come to Kittrell’s home to meet Brutus first. “She came to my home and Brutus laid his head in her lap. I was like, oh my God,” Kittrell said.

The day they came to pick up Brutus and transport him to his foster home, Kittrell was emotional. “I said, this is my baby,” she said.

She hadn’t even wanted another dog years earlier when Brutus showed up. She had decided no dog could replace her first dog, a purebred chow, but Brutus had wormed his way into her heart.

While he was gone, his foster parents sent pictures and video clips of Brutus curled up on the sofa with their cat. He had his own bed and toys at their home, and LifeLine made sure Brutus got caught up on all of his shots. They even microchipped him free of charge, Kittrell said.

“When I tell you, it was a godsend and a miracle for me and my dog. ... It was a relief for me for those 30 days. I knew he was in a good place,” she said.

When he was returned a month later, Brutus was well cleaned and well cared for, she said. Kittrell also received information on how to keep up with his vaccinations at a low cost.

When Brutus saw Kittrell, he barked his special “whoo, whoo” bark, she said, then he licked her left hand and parked himself by her side.

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