They are orphans of a war that may never be fought, the pets of military families splintered by the deployment to the Middle East.
Animal shelters in cities around Camp Pendleton have been inundated with dogs, cats and other pets, both from deployed Marines and from the families who were left behind without the time, money or wherewithal to care for the animals.
At the Oceanside Humane Society, a “no vacancy” sign would hang outside if only the society’s rules did not specify that no animal be turned away.
“They don’t talk about it much,” Ed Araiza, general manager of the Oceanside shelter, said of the families that drop off pets and fill out a form on the animals’ health and habits. “They are usually in a hurry. I think that it’s the last thing they do before they ship out.”
In San Clemente, the city’s pound does not accept pets from owners. Only strays are accepted as part of the city’s service, according to J.R. Kersey, city animal control officer. Still, he said, the shelter has felt the effect from the deployment.
“So now we get a call from someone asking if he can leave his dog, and we tell him no and a little later, a guy shows up with a dog he says he found wandering around. What can we do? We know it’s his dog but we have to take it.”
These days, he said, the people dropping off animals say they found them wandering near the base.
The torrent of dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and other furred and feathered family members started descending on local animal shelters about four months ago, and continues.
Even better-than-average adoption rates cannot keep up. One busy Saturday a couple of weeks ago, Araiza said, the staff celebrated at day’s end when 18 animals found homes. Then the intake sheet was tallied: 23 new pets had been added to the roster.
In August, 120 dogs were dropped off at the Oceanside shelter, filling its kennels. That compares to 90 dogs received in August, 1989. Last August also saw 144 cats deposited at the shelter, compared with 97 a year earlier. Because the cat facility holds only 60 pets, scores were put to death.
Figures for the next two months were similar, officials said. In September, 172 cats were brought in to the Oceanside shelter, more than double the 78 in September, 1989.
Camp Pendleton operates its own animal shelter, and although its managers could not be reached for comment, the effect apparently is also being felt there.
“I think they have been full to overflowing,” said Priscilla Price, director of the Rancho-Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas. “There have been times when the base shelter has sent over dogs that they didn’t have room for.”
Price remembers when the first deployment alert was issued at Camp Pendleton, more than one Marine came in to “plead with us to keep their pets here until they came back. Most of them thought they would only be gone a month or so.”
“We just couldn’t do it, of course. We don’t have the room to board pets and when we put them out for adoption, it’s for keeps.”
In her 23 years at the Encinitas shelter, Price has not seen the likes of the present parade of feline and canine orphans left at her shelter door.
As wives struggle to make it on their own, they tell Price, they sometimes find the combination of work, children and pet more than they can take. Price knows that when the pocketbook is pinched, the first casualty is the family pet, especially the larger ones with healthy appetites.
“I know it’s an inconvenience and more at times to care for a pet, but I urge them to try a little harder, to keep their pet. It’s hard, I know, but these animals suffer too.”
Adoptive families have been found for many of the Marine orphans, she said, but there is still a very lonely sheltie and a rare Portuguese water dog in the compound waiting for a patriotic patron to release them from their cages.
No one knows how many of the pets in the northern San Diego County pounds and shelters are the offspring of Marine families. “But it only makes sense that most of them are,” Araiza said. “The Marines ship out and the pets come in.”
He is hoping for a Christmas rush to empty the near-full cat cages of cats of every shape, color and temperament. The dogs are groomed and bathed and fluff-dried in special blower cages to enhance their chances of snagging a new owner. If that does not happen, the most senior inhabitants of the shelter will be put to death, making way for a new batch of pets. The life span of an unadopted pet in the Oceanside shelter is from 21 to 30 days.
Sharon Zupancic, publicity director for the shelter, said she spoke with one Marine’s wife who was determined to try to keep her Great Dane.
“She was trying but she said as she left that she didn’t know how long she could put up with it,” Zupancic said.