Keeping New Yorkers and Their Pets Together in Tough Times

Keeping New Yorkers and Their Pets Together in Tough Times

More and more people are giving up their pets to city-run shelters due to housing insecurity — and in response, the city’s not-for-profit animal care and control agency has hired social workers to help New Yorkers keep their best friends. 

Katie Honan, The City

Republished with Permission: The Roosevelt Island Daily News

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Deedra Cheatham said she would have never left her domestic abuser if she didn’t have a safe space for her family, which includes her pet turtle, Danny-Lee, May 19, 2022.
Deedra Cheatham said she would have never left her domestic abuser if she didn’t have a safe space for her family, which includes her pet turtle, Danny-Lee, May 19, 2022. | Katie Honan/THE CITY

Animal Care Centers of NYC brought on two counselors in April to work on special cases and has kept dozens of pets out of animal shelters, according to Jaime Kruse, the senior manager for community resources. 

“Most of the time when we speak to these clients, they just want someone to talk to,” Kruse told THE CITY. But ACC staff didn’t have the training needed to communicate with people facing particular hardships, so they created the social worker positions, he said. 

“We as normal laypeople don’t always have the skills or training to effectively communicate with people in these situations,” Kruse said. 

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When people come to shelters to bring in their cats and dogs (and guinea pigs, turtles and rabbits), intake staffers now know to pay increased attention to the humans, as well.  The staffers look out for situations and scenarios like a mental health crisis or signs of domestic violence before referring them to the social workers.

Since starting the program in April, ACC’s social-services team has worked on 181 cases that involved 347 animals, Kruse said. 

The most common situation ACC deals with is pet owners entering homeless shelters, which clients across the city experienced 44 times since spring, animal shelter data shows. Homeless shelters typically do not allow pets to accompany their owners.

“Within these last couple of months we’ve really started seeing an increase of people who are facing financial troubles or housing difficulties,” he said.  

People often look to surrender their pets when eviction looms, they are in domestic violence situations, or they’ve been hospitalized or jailed, Kruse said. 

ACC, formerly known as NYC Animal Care and Control, hasn’t been able to help every person keep their pet, Kruse said, but since the program launched, 70 clients have stayed with their pets, and 14 re-homed their animals with family or friends. 

Cats Having More Cats

Affordability challenges, from housing to health care, are the main reasons that New Yorkers part with their furry friends, according to ACC’s data. 

Will Zweigart, co-founder of the Brooklyn animal rescue group Flatbush Cats, said his organization is raising money to build an affordable veterinary clinic to address the sometimes steep cost of caring for pets — including the need to spay or neuter them.

“Pet owners who are finding these cats outside but don’t have access to affordable vet care — those cats are going to be having more cats,” he told THE CITY. “There’s a massive affordability gap — it’s why you’re seeing a massive increase in surrenders.”

A shelter for people who’ve experienced domestic violence includes space for their children and pets.
A shelter for people who have experienced domestic violence includes space for their children and pets. | Courtesy of URI

Housing insecurity is a tandem problem. Currently about 53,000 people live in city-funded homeless shelters, according to the most recent city data. But for years, most people entering could not bring along their pets.

In 2019, there were no pet surrenders due to eviction, according to ACC data shared with THE CITY. By 2020, the number jumped to 37 pets, and by 2021 the number was 66, according to ACC’s data. Already this year, 94 pets have been given up because of evictions.

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Last year, the City Council passed a bill that expanded shelter access to people with pets, requiring the city to report instances when a person gives up their pet when entering a shelter. 

Deedra Cheatham was for years reluctant to leave an abusive partner for a number of reasons, including the question of where she could go with her beloved pet red-eared slider turtle, named Danny-Lee.

But she finally felt safe enough to leave her 15-year relationship after learning about a pet-friendly homeless shelter in Brooklyn. 

She entered the city-funded residence operated by the nonprofit Urban Resource Institute in 2018, along with her two children. A short time later, Danny-Lee joined them after her brother smuggled out the turtle in a bucket while the ex was at work. 

“I was adamant that I would not leave my pet turtle,” Cheatham, 39, said in May at the opening of the organization’s first shelter in Queens.

Urban Resource Institute, the largest domestic violence services shelter operator in the country, now runs nine pet-friendly shelters in New York City through their People & Animals Living Safely program, or PALS. In all, they have 234 residential units for families with pets. 

‘That’s How I Began to Heal’

The city’s typical Department of Homeless Services shelters only allow a person to bring a pet if it’s an emotional-support animal or service dog, following extensive documentation from a mental-health professional, Kruse said. Even after an individual or family is officially approved to bring an animal along, they could still be placed in a shelter that doesn’t allow pets. 

And if a person is approved to take along a pet, there is a waiting period to ensure the animal is healthy and vaccinated. In all of these scenarios, the pets are usually brought to an ACC facility first. 

Kruse’s team assists pet owners entering shelters with the paperwork needed for service animals, or to apply for special accommodation within the city, he said.

For residents of domestic violence shelters, being able to bring their pets with them is a crucial part of their recovery. 

“When I got her into safety with us, she was calm,” Cheatham told THE CITY of her pet terrapin. “That’s how I began to heal – my children began to heal.” 
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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