SALEM - The little gray cat with white marking on her face and ruff sat up like a princess. Watching all of the bustle inside Kitty City, the cat still wore her collar, with a green bell and a confident expression that she belongs.
But the cat doesn't have a family anymore. She is one of many animals surrendered - reluctantly - over the past month by people who have lost their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis, said Deborah Vaughn, shelter manager at Salem Animal Rescue League.
"We started really noticing it a month ago," said Vaughn, who estimated 10 cats and two dogs have been surrendered due to foreclosures.
Valorie Hayes, a spokeswoman for the rescue league, is hopeful some of these animals might go back to their families.
Hayes plans to ask the rescue league's board of directors to consider expanding its Safe Place program, which has helped victims of domestic violence keep their pets by providing a place to leave animals temporarily when they enter a women's shelter. Instead of giving up their pets forever, the women could reclaim the animals in a reasonable time frame.
Because it worked for the domestic violence victims, the staff wondered if something similar might help families in foreclosure. It's also not the first time the shelters have stepped in to respond to a trend.
For example, when Meals on Wheels volunteers noticed seniors sharing their dinners with their pets, Salem Animal Rescue League helped arrange to have pet food delivered with meals, she said.
"Now, we are seeing this new trend with foreclosures, and we look at ways we can help," Hayes said.
The program would work for people who are able to find a pet-friendly rental home quickly and get back on their feet, she said. If they're going to a building that doesn't allow animals or if they are chronically homeless, they wouldn't qualify.
All the cats now in the shelter were surrendered, meaning right now, the shelter has the option of putting them up for adoption. But the question is, can the shelter find a way to slow down the adoption process and keep the animals longer, in the hope the owners can reclaim them?
"There's no formal program in place, but we're trying to decide how to treat these cases," Hayes said, noting the problem is space and staff, she said.
Vaughn said she receives two to three calls every day from people who want to give up an animal. The rescue league typically can accommodate 60 cats - 30 to 40 at the shelter and the rest in foster care.
Ray Denis, the rescue league's director of development, said the staff has seen whole families giving up their pets before they go into homeless shelters due to the mortgage crisis.
"If you don't think that's heartbreaking," he said, leaving the rest unspoken.
As for the gray cat, the volunteers are taking good care of her and monitoring her behavior carefully, Hayes said. No matter the past circumstances, cats always feel a little disoriented when they arrive at a shelter, she said.
A stray may actually be grateful to be out of the cold, but a cat who came from a good home may sit quietly, like the gray cat, she said.
How to Help
Donations can be made online at www.sarl-nh.org. Click on the Donate tab. Or by check mailed to the Salem Animal Rescue League, 4 SARL Way, Salem, NH 03879.
Foreclosures in past 60 days
Rockingham County Foreclosures
According to Real Data Corp., which publishes Registry Review, 2007 saw 472 foreclosures in Rockingham County. Rockingham and Hillsborough counties are expected to bear the brunt of the mortgage crisis, says state Banking Commissioner Peter Hildreth, citing studies which suggest 2,000 to 3,000 New Hampshire homeowners could be in foreclosure by the end of 2008.