Tough Times

By Chandra Orr

February 5, 2010 6 min read

Nonprofits are taking a hit in these uncertain economic times, and that includes local animal shelters and rescue groups. Donations are down, and the number of homeless animals is on the rise as families downsize or lose their homes to foreclosure.

You may not have the funds to contribute cash, but there are plenty of ways to help animals in need.

"Most shelters right now are overwhelmed with the numbers of animals they are being asked to help," says veterinarian Jo-Anne Dixon, executive director of the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, in Hailey, Idaho. "With so many folks facing the realities of this new economy, the demand on shelter services has risen exponentially, and the current economic climate has caused a decrease in private donations, threatening their ability to provide lifesaving services at a time when the need is perhaps the greatest."

Most shelters and rescue groups operate as nonprofits, relying almost exclusively on private donations. During downturns, they feel the pinch.

"Financial issues are always facing shelters, regardless of the economic climate," says Kristine Mayberry, president of Second Chance Pet Adoptions, a nonprofit no-kill shelter in Raleigh, N.C. "Most shelters do not receive government assistance and must raise the money through private and corporate donations, but with the economic turn, our donations and adoptions are down 20 percent from this time last year."

If your budget doesn't leave room for cash contributions, consider sharing your time -- or your home -- to help an animal in need. Here are five ways you can help, even when times are tough:

1) Open your home. "Becoming a foster parent to a dog in need is one of the few volunteer opportunities in which you can literally save a life," says Micaela Myers, spokeswoman for Pit Bull Rescue San Diego.

Fostering a dog or cat makes room for more rescued pets and saves animals from euthanasia.

"The number of animals that a rescue can save often directly correlates to the number of foster homes available, but in this economy, our biggest challenge is finding enough fosters," Myers explains.

In many cases, rescue groups provide food and cover medical expenses; the animals simply need temporary places to stay and a little TLC until they find new families.

2) Use your skills. "If you don't have money to donate, then donate your time or your skill. There are hundreds of ways to volunteer at shelters, from walking dogs to stamping envelopes," Dixon says.

Volunteers are always needed to help at adoption events, transport animals to veterinary appointments and pitch in on administrative tasks, such as returning phone calls and answering e-mails.

"We are always in need of volunteers, and everyone has a special talent that can help benefit the animals," Mayberry says.

Be creative when offering your services. Tech-savvy volunteers, for example, might offer to maintain an organization's Web site, design posters and fliers or take candid snapshots of pets available for adoption.

3) Host a food drive. Chances are your local shelter can use a hand with the grocery bill. Help out by hosting a pet food drive. Set up a donation box at work; circulate fliers in your neighborhood; get the kids' Scout troop involved.

In addition to asking people for food, ask them to donate basic pet supplies -- such as cat box filler, toys, beds, treats, collars and leashes. Most shelters post wish lists on their Web sites.

Other frequently requested items include blankets, bath towels, paper towels, trash bags, hand soap, cleaning products and office supplies.

When planning a donation drive, think outside the box. Many rescue groups collect old cell phones, ink cartridges, soda cans and even used vehicles to help raise cash. Contact organizations directly to find out about their current fundraisers.

4) Start at home. Shelters and rescue groups appreciate the hands-on help, but controlling the influx of unwanted animals is a top priority, so get your pets spayed and neutered.

"The reality of the pet overpopulation problem in this country -- where 4-6 million healthy adoptable pets are being needlessly euthanized each year because they don't have homes -- is that we are not going to 'shelter' our way out of the problem," Dixon says. "No number of shelters can keep up with the ability of animals to reproduce."

Do your part to stop the cycle of pet overpopulation. Schedule an appointment to have your pet fixed.

5) Skip the pet store. When it comes time to add a new member to your family, contact a local shelter or rescue group first. You'll have dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of animals to choose from, and the knowledgeable volunteers will ensure that you get a good fit for you and your family.

"When you are looking for a new pet to add to your family, adopt a shelter animal," Dixon says. "Adopting saves lives; it is as simple as that."

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