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Full animal shelters mean lost pets depend on kindness of strangers

Sharon Rooke, kennel associate at Headwaters Animal Shelter, holds Nemo, a mixed breed puppy awaiting adoption.

At McDonald's drive-through these days, Heather Schwengler doesn't ask if you want to super-size your order.

"Have you lost a cat?" is what she's asking customers.

On Oct. 20, Heather was dropping a friend off near Eighth Street, when she and her car mates spotted something in the street.

Heather called and a kitty jumped into her car.

Its back had trauma marks on it. The cat was covered in grease and oil. But he knew he'd found a friend.

The aspiring vet tech took the cat home, cleaned it up, and is looking for its owner. Heather believes the affectionate male is about two, hasn't been neutered, and is part Siamese, part tabby. He has slightly crossed blue eyes.

"He was purring like a motorboat by the time I got home," she said.

No central organization has a good handle on the number of stray, unwanted or missing pets in the country. Estimates range anywhere from 5 million to 10 million. More than half are eventually euthanized. Half of the pets in shelters are relinquished by their owners; the others are strays usually picked up by animal control officers, said Krista Maloney, communications officer for the ASPCA.

"Unfortunately, you can't find those (exact) numbers because I don't believe they exist," said Martin Montorfano, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.

The issue of missing pets came into public focus recently when two missing dogs, Izzie the squat yellow lab, and Ozzie, her gray English setter companion, ran away from their Big Sand Lake owners this fall.

Doug and Sarah Herman, Fargo attorneys and seasonal residents, blanketed the area with posters. Izzie was found when a hunter spotted her three days after a newspaper ad ran. Ozzie is still missing.

The Hermans did the right thing to find their pets, said Headwaters Humane Society manager Rochelle Hamp. Locally, the shelter takes in 400-500 abandoned, relinquished or found pets every year.

"Call us immediately if you've lost a pet," Hamp advises.

Headwaters keeps detailed records of lost and found pets and tries to match lost and found animals. Currently the shelter has a waiting list, and has for a long time. That's mainly because it doesn't euthanize animals just to make way for more strays.

It's licensed to take 60 dogs and 100 cats.

When the shelter is full and people like Heather find animals, the finders must keep them until the shelter can make accommodations, Hamp said. "Space is determined by our adoption rate," she said. When adoptions slow, the waiting list grows.

Hamp said there have been misconceptions about the shelter's funding sources, which come mainly from donations and fundraising. "We're not a governmental agency like the dog catcher," she said. Taxpayers are sometimes under the mistaken belief that the shelter takes tax dollars, so it must then take an unwanted pet.

Hamp advises people who lose or find pets to contact them immediately, so the pets can go into the record base. Then contact the media. She said the local radio stations are very generous, giving airtime for lost and found pets. Then contact local authorities. Posters and ads certainly help, she added.

And Hamp said dozens of Web sites have sprung up in the last few years that are invaluable in tracking lost pets.

Headwaters' meager budget, $125,000 annually, is stretched thin caring for the constant full house of animals.

It did obtain a grant to implant microchips in all adopted animals. And Hamp urges pet owners to have pets "chipped." It only costs $30. Otherwise pets should wear collars with their owners' names on them.

The shelter works with pet owners who want to relinquish unruly pets, to give them obedience training in hopes of keeping them at home. But lifestyle and social changes in human lives often result in upheaval of a pet's life, sometimes landing the animals on a "surrender" list.

Heather, who filed a report with Headwaters, is settling in with her unnamed cat, which has taken up a nightly position on her pillow.

For lost or found pets, Headwaters' number is 237-7100.