Rich dog, poor dog: Foreclosures fill animal shelters while high-end pet products take off

Rich dog, poor dog: Foreclosures fill animal shelters while high-end pet products take off
Rich dog, poor dog: Foreclosures fill animal shelters while high-end pet products take off

Rich dog, poor dog: Foreclosures fill animal shelters while high-end pet products take off

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When people lose their jobs—and their homes—things like food and vet care for their animals start to look less like priorities.

At the Animal Welfare League in suburban Chicago Ridge, behind doors plastered with posters asking for donations of dog food, are hundreds of panicked, barking dogs. Communications director Terry Sparks says the number of animals they’re dealing with has doubled since February—and it’s clear to her that a lot of them are victims of the ongoing foreclosure crisis.

“We find a lot of real estate agents finding abandoned animals in houses,” says Sparks. “They’ll go to show a house that’s been foreclosed and they’ll find a poor starved dog in there.”

Linda Estrada, the League’s Executive director, was present when a vacant house turned out to have not just one starved animal—but two. “There was one dead dog and one live dog, and he was bones covered with skin,” says Estrada. “He was a skeleton. We pulled him through, but he couldn’t even walk.”

And while those stories are tragic, it’s no picnic when people bring in their own pets to shelters. Cook County Animal Control’s Donna Alexander has seen older people—and their aging pets—especially hard hit.

“The bills keep on getting higher and higher and higher, and they can’t afford to keep [the pets],” she says. “So we get a lot of elderly cats coming into the system, and a lot of elderly dogs and a lot of very tearful owners that reluctantly have to give them up.

And those elderly dogs, they don’t get adopted so fast. “If you see a fifteen year-old dog with arthritis in a cage, you’re going to be a bit reluctant to try and adopt it,” says Alexander. “Because you want the dog to live more than a year if you’re going to put your trust in this dog and you know the dog’s only got about a few more months.”

An un-adoptable dog. That’s pretty grim. And although official numbers are hard to come by, it’s clear that the recession has produced hordes of abandoned and relinquished pets.

(Meanwhile, there’s this weird data point from the city of Chicago that we should explain: The number of animals coming into Chicago’s animal-control system has actually gone down in recent years. But all of that reduction is in stray animals—which have been dropping sharply in number for years because of an aggressive spay-and-neuter program. But the number of pets who have been handed over to shelters by their owners has gone up in the city as well.)

Rich Dog
Even with more pets becoming homeless because of the recession, the pet products industry has continued to grow, increasing its business through every year of the recession. This year, The American Pet Products Association says the industry will bring in nearly 51 billion dollars. That’s five percent more than in 2010. The Association’s president, Bob Vetere, says much of the growth is in high-end food and convenience products.

“People who aren’t feeling the pinch at all—or feeling it much less, they’re migrating to even higher end types of foods and types of products,” Vetere says.

He means products like the High-Tech Pet Company’s electronic Pet-Activated Door. A story about this product from HGTV ends with “The door will set you back three hundred dollars,” an HGTV announcer says in one clip, “but that might be a small price to pay for your dog-duty emancipation.”

Emancipation? We thought letting the dog out was the easy part.

And then there’s the food, from companies like the Canadian firm Orijen, which touts its “Regional Red” kibble as “setting an entirely new standard for dry dog foods…[replicating] the same diverse balance of fresh meats, fruits, vegetables and grasses that dogs would encounter in their natural environment.”

Regional Red also costs about five times as much as Kibbles’n’Bits.

Vetere says the high-tech products tend to be purchased by baby boomers and young professionals, people who want to be able to keep up their lifestyles while making sure their pets at home are taken care of.

So some dogs—maybe they’re the canine One-Percenters—are doing just fine in the past few years. But as with people, it has not been a good time for most dogs to get old, sick, or poor.

* * *

For this week’s Windy Indicator, we cut over to the Glenwood Sunday Market in Rogers Park, where, alongside the organic farmers and the artisan ice cream vendors, David Nels has set up shop on a Sunday morning, sharpening knives. Customers drop them off, and Nels puts them on his slow-turning whetstone while the owners go pick up their organic greens and grass-fed beef.

He says the bad economy has been good for his business. “We’ve started to become less of a wasteful society,” says Nels. “We’ve actually gone from, ‘We’re gonna rely just on restaurants and take-out,’ to ‘We’re watching more cooking channels now, we’re becoming a little more daring.’”

Which means: Cooking more at home.

Which means: Wanting a sharper knife.

So: Knowing that money can be scarce, Nels has the following advice for anyone considering buying an expensive carbon-steel knife from Germany or Japan: Check out a thrift shop or a garage sale first.

“Sometimes people will discard something just because it’s dull,” he says. “You know what? Only a few dollars to get it sharpened and you might find yourself a little treasure. I’ve had people come back with big smiles on their faces, they’ve found two- three-hundred dollar knives at a Goodwill store, and they paid two or three dollars for them.”

He also says: Don’t be so quick to get rid of a knife that’s not the latest and greatest.

“People will sell what their parents gave them or handed down to them as a wedding gift, and not realize the quality of the knives,” Nels says. “And a lot of the knives made 20 years ago are really good quality metal.

“A lot of the knives made today are made with surgical steel: Very good knives—they’re a little bit lighter—but they don’t hold the edge as well as some of the older models. You’ll find yourself sharpening a lot more with some of the newer models versus some of the older ones that have heavier, harder steel.”

If he’s giving customers advice that means they’re going to come and see him less often, then it sounds like David Nels is not kidding around about having plenty of business.