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Enforcing pet abandonment policy is difficult for bases

By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2006

A few weeks ago, Lincoln, a 10-week-old beagle, was left tied to a mailbox. Next to him sat a bag containing all his belongings: Two bowls, some food, a large bottle of shampoo, and no explanation. But none was needed.

“His suitcase was packed,” said Gritt Oechsle, who works at the animal shelter, or tierheim, in Darmstadt, where Lincoln ended up.

The woman who brought Lincoln to the tierheim said she found him at Lincoln Village, a military housing area in Darmstadt. Employees at the tierheim didn’t ask her any questions, and named him Lincoln.

Because he had no tags, no markings, no identification of any kind, chances are whoever abandoned Lincoln will face no consequences.

“You’ve got to have clear proof that the pet belonged to someone,” said Lamont Johnson, a housing management specialist in Darmstadt. “And that’s kind of hard to do.” Though there are rules against abandoning animals on military installations, they are often difficult to enforce.

Dogs and cats that servicemembers bring over from the U.S. must have a microchip embedded under their skin, which makes identifying their owners easy in most cases. But that doesn’t end the problem.

“The problem is people get animals over here on the Germany economy, and we can’t make them get a microchip,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Dechenne, a military police investigation supervisor for U.S. Army Garrison Heidelberg.

People who live on military installations are required to register their dogs and cats with the local veterinary office. But the animals don’t have to have identifying microchips or tattoos.

Pet abandonment policies vary across installations in Germany, left up to the various garrisons, but the consequences are similar. Usually there’s a warning letter for a first offense, and depending on the severity of subsequent infractions, pet owners can lose pet privileges, their on-post housing and their command sponsorship.

German laws regarding pet abandonment apply even on post, according to the U.S. Army Europe’s office of the Judge Advocate General.

Still, it’s impossible to enforce laws if pet owners can’t be tracked down.

“Mostly, we never find the owner,” Oechsle said. Even if the tierheims track down an animal’s owner, the law only allows them to be compensated for the costs of keeping the animal.

So unless the animal has a microchip or tags or other identifying markings, the tierheims don’t bother looking, she said. “It’s not worth it.”

Besides, said Oechsle, “When they land here, they all find a nice new place.”

For what it’s worth, Oechsle doesn’t think Americans are any more likely to abandon their pets than Germans are. Still, the tierheims don’t like to give animals to Americans.

“It’s not that Americans as a people have a bad reputation, it’s because of the job they have,” she said. The shelters know servicemembers are in Europe for only a short time, and are frequently deployed.

They also know the military doesn’t have programs in place to ensure pets are taken care of during long deployments, when pets often land back in the shelter.

Military communities have tried to curb animal abandonment, admitting that it’s a blemish on the U.S. military’s reputation.

In May, Russel D. Santala, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Franconia, wrote in the post paper, “Most German tierheims stopped allowing Americans to adopt pets from them several years ago, simply because so many of these animals were later abandoned when the Americans left the area and for the many reports of animal maltreatment at the hands of Americans.”

He went on to encourage his troops to do the right thing and give their pets to a tierheim rather than abandon them.

U.S. Army Garrison Darmstadt spokeswoman Teri Viedt said her garrison makes every effort to make sure that no one leaves their pets without a home.

When Babenhausen, one of the garrison’s communities, started a drastic drawdown earlier this year, a program called “Adopt-a-Pet” helped servicemembers find new homes for pets they chose to leave behind.

“We did not have a single abandoned pet,” wrote Nola Maloney, the area support team manager for Babenhausen, in an e-mail. “We had more people requesting pets than we had pets for.”

That’s what happened with Lincoln as well, said Oechsle. After the tierheim listed the puppy as their “Pet of the Week” in a local newspaper, 15 potential adopters showed up to ask for him.

In the end he went to a family that already had another beagle, and the two became fast friends, she said.