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Foster care, new homes needed for soldiers' pets left behind

A U.S. soldier holds a cat at Camp Atterbury, Ind., on Aug. 20, 2009. Deploying military members need to remember to set up care plans for their pets when they are called to active duty.

With three dogs of her own to take care of, Amanda Garcia has her hands full. But when a soldier friend needed someone to give a temporary home to her German shepherd, Garcia didn't hesitate to help.

"Taking on a German shepherd, I was like, 'Oh, this is going to be interesting,'" Garcia said.

In the weeks since she assumed temporary care of Kaiser, the 7-year-old German shepherd has become like part of the family for Garcia.

As soon as her friend gets settled at her new assignment in Florida, however, Garcia will turn the dog back over to his owner.

In a military community like Fayetteville, the issue of what to do with the pets of reassigned or deployed soldiers is an ongoing one.

Responsible pet owners, like Garcia's friend, find temporary or permanent homes for their dogs or cats. But too often, animal control officials say, the pets are abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

"There's just too many people going in and out, too many military people getting reassigned," said Dr. John Lauby, director of the Cumberland County Animal Control Department. "The foster groups don't have the resources to handle all the animals."

The number of abandoned animals is impossible to know for certain, as is the reason for their abandonment. But Fayetteville's transient nature means the problem is especially acute.

Melissa Katzenberger is vice chairwoman of the Cumberland County Animal Control Board. She started a Facebook page to help place pets of soldiers and others with foster families.

Katzenberger said the problem often starts when people fail to realize that owning a dog or cat is a long-term commitment. She said that is especially true with military pet owners, who may deploy or transfer every few years.

"Soldiers are far from home. They want a companion, but when they leave, they have no resources," Katzenberger said. "They don't have anyone to step up and say they'll take their animal."

Katzenberger said she has seen the problem first-hand. She also works as a real estate agent, and has seen animals left behind in houses after their owners left.

In one instance, Katzenberger said, a soldier entrusted care of his boxer to a friend. But the friend quit taking care of the dog, who was in a fenced-in backyard.

"I went and got the dog, but I didn't have any place to put her," Katzenberger said. "I took her in for a few days, and I was able to find someone to foster her for the rest of the deployment - a very nice lady in South Carolina whose boxer had recently passed away. She kept him until (the owner) came back from Afghanistan."

Lauby said it's not unusual to find animals left behind at houses. The problem isn't limited to the military.

"Usually, the property manager calls saying, they've got three dogs and we're having to evict them and we'd like you to pick up the animals," Lauby said.

Deborah Hoopes, owner of PetStarz Resort and Pet Spa on Ramsey Street, said the facility has taken care of soldiers' dogs for four or five months at a time. Hoopes said the facility has special rates for long-term care.

"I would hate to think they have to leave them a year," Hoopes said. "Most people aren't deployed that long."

Hoopes said PetStarz makes an effort to keep long-term customers in touch with their dogs, including providing video and pictures of the pets to their owners.

Cassy Peterson, director of the Fayetteville Animal Protection Society, said abandoned animals are a "huge problem" in Fayetteville.

"I get emails every day from people who are PCSing (permanent change of station) saying that they cannot take their pet with them," Peterson said.

It's important for pet owners in the military to have a plan in the event they have to leave the area on short notice, she said.

"A lot of it is really just having some foresight and realizing when you take on a pet, it's a huge responsibility," she said.

Peterson said an alternative for people who want pets but can't make a long-term commitment is to volunteer to foster an animal. That way, they can enjoy the companionship a dog or cat provides while helping curb the abandonment problem.

Another option is Dogs on Deployment, a website that matches military pet owners with foster families nationwide.

Garcia said she takes pictures of Kaiser, her friend's German shepherd, and sends them to his owner so she can keep in touch with her dog.

Once the friend finds a place to live that accepts pets, Garcia said she will drive the dog to Florida for a happy reunion with his owner.

Getting her own dogs accustomed to having a new animal in the house has been an adjustment, but she said she is more than happy to help.

"You have to do the right thing," Garcia said. "And the right thing is not dumping them by the side of the road."
 

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