One of the earliest owner surrenders of a pet to an animal shelter that I can recall handling was in 2007. A woman had become homeless, and despite loving her young Great Dane deeply, she didn’t think that living in a car was fair to him, so she made the difficult decision to bring him to the shelter.

She was absolutely certain that he couldn’t live without her, he loved her too much and euthanizing him would be the kindest thing for him. I was very new to sheltering, only in my first month or two, but I sat with her for an hour, meeting her dog and listening to her story.

After hearing about our program and experiences with rehoming pets, she eventually agreed to let us put him up for adoption, and he was quickly adopted to a wonderful family and lived out his life on their farm. They sent me pictures of him playing with their farm animals and their son for years afterward. I never heard from his original mom again and think of her and how much she loved that dog often, and I tell new staff handling owner surrenders their story as part of training.

In the intervening years, I have done thousands of owner admissions to shelters and talked to thousands of people having to bring their pets in for housing-related reasons. I have seen pets lost, confused and afraid when their people leave them. I have seen pets refuse to eat, refuse to move, refuse to even look at staff once in shelter housing. However, like the Great Dane, most pets are resilient, incredibly so, and most adapt to their changed circumstances.

I am at least the second home for all of my pets, save the dog who came with my husband and stepkids. After the usual settling-in, getting-to-know-each-other period, all of my pets have been happy in my home. Until recently, when I forgot who I was for a moment and adopted a pair of kittens, I have only adopted adult pets.

My first dog was somewhere around 8 years old when I adopted her. I did the classic new shelter worker move of adopting a dog my first month in my first shelter. She became my heart dog; I still miss her almost 10 years after her passing. She is the standard by which I measure all other dogs, but I will never know the life she had before me. I don’t know how she got the pellets the vet removed embedded in her body or if her family knew she had a mast cell tumor when they brought her in. I don’t know how she became so well mannered and good with cats or if her yen for people food came from being fed table scraps or if she was simply a garbage disposal dog from birth.


None of that really matters; she was my Helga, and she didn’t know any differently and she adapted beautifully. Mine is a very common adoption story. Pets live in the now, and with patience and kindness, the vast majority are able to adjust to new homes. People, however, have a harder time with the transition.

While our pets usually move on from their distress at being separated from their homes and people to being happy in a new home, their original families remember the heartbreak. Handling the human side of a surrender is by far harder for shelter staff. I can recall a particularly challenging admission over 10 years ago now, where a dog’s owner was incredibly difficult to work with. Somewhere in his early 30s and a bit rough around the edges, he was clearly impatient, giving me me short, curt responses and was angry that I was taking so long by asking so many questions about the dog.

When I finished the paperwork, he didn’t even look at his dog, just shoved the leash in my hand and stomped out. As he walked down the sidewalk, he passed by the lobby windows, and I saw him crying. Grief manifests differently for different people, and his manifested with anger. He is another that I have never forgotten and tell new trainees about to help them understand why our patrons are sometimes so difficult or angry when we’re just trying to help them.

So, how do you mend these broken hearts? The cats who won’t eat, the dogs who cry in forlorn harmony in the kennels in the night and the humans who miss their best friend. There is no easy answer to this. As a society, I think we have a lot of work to do. If we value the human-animal bond, it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to ensure that pet ownership isn’t only the province of the wealthy.

There are too many homeless pets for that, not to mention the incredible benefits to humans in having pets. Midcoast Humane maintains a pet food pantry at both our locations as well as supplying pet food to seven human food pantries throughout our region. We also have a public assistance program to help ameliorate costs for one-time medical issues, offer low-cost spay/neuter surgeries and conduct low-cost wellness clinics throughout the region. We do not want anyone’s well-loved, cared for pets to have to enter a shelter. We would far rather do what we can to help families stay together, but we are one small cog in a very large machine.

We only have one veterinarian and she can only do so much. We are reliant on donations from our community and grant funding for the programs we run and solving a systemic problem necessarily needs the system to participate in its rectification. Landlords, vet clinics, animal rescues and shelters, and human shelters are all important in this conversation, as are our legislators. There is no one facet of this that will solve all the problems that cause families to give up their animals, and even if there were, there would still be a need for animal shelters as safety nets, but I think we start where the animals start: in the community.

If the hearts and minds of our community agree that we do not want pets to become homeless, that has to mean all the pets. It means we have to help those who need it, when they need it. This is easy to say and much harder to do, but I can’t think of anywhere more able to figure out how to do that hard work than Maine.

Jess Townsend is executive director of Midcoast Humane. 

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