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When pet owners are imprisoned, shelter programs step in to help


When a person is arrested, their pet can become lost in a shelter, sometimes for good.

So Sharmila Colquhoun and Nikki Smith get to work, researching names, conducting interviews, making phone calls, checking databases and knocking on doors.

Both are special case advocates, or social workers, at New York’s largest animal shelter, responsible for helping those arrested, evicted, or hospitalized track and eventually recover their pets. They each handle about five cases a week; some simple and others that require leg work akin to that of a private detective.

Since starting their team of two in March 2022, Colquhoun and Smith have helped more than 480 people and 760 pets survive hardship and separation. When the city posted the job openings, they both applied immediately, bringing experience in nonprofit work and project management, as well as a love for animals.

Although protocol for treating pets in the event of incarceration, domestic violence, hospitalization, or homelessness varies across the United States, it often ends in permanent separation of pet and owner. . Sometimes, if there are no family members or friends to intervene, the animals are euthanized.

But, like the new Special Case Advocate team at Animal Care Centers in New York, organizations across the country are implementing programs to keep pets with their owners through short-term separation or rehoming them if a no one can provide care anymore.

If an animal is present during an arrest, the New York Police Department contacts the animal shelter, which keeps the animal for three to five days. Colquhoun and Smith then try to determine whether the animal should be rehomed or, depending on availability, move to the shelter’s long-term foster program, which allows a subset of adoptive parents to keep an animal for up to 90 days.

“In an ideal situation, the police will provide us with the contact details of the person and we will contact them, or hopefully a family member, who can speak on their behalf to find out, for example, how long the person could be incarcerated, or if there is someone else who can care for the animal while it is in jail,” said John Cicolella, director of community resources for the shelter.

Elinor D. Molbegott, a Long Island animal-law attorney, answers legal questions online as pro bono work — and says she gets several questions a month about separating a pet from its owner imprisoned.

A 2018 question asked what could be done about a service dog who was adopted while its owner was imprisoned for three weeks; another asked if people are legally required to pay an impound fee after they’ve been arrested and their pet sent to the shelter.

In early June of last year, police in Doraville, Georgia arrested Sherry Baird with her black Shih Tzu, Onyx, in the back seat. It was a hot summer morning, and while officers searched his vehicle, Onyx baked in the sun for nearly four hours. Baird was taken to DeKalb County Jail and charged with drug trafficking. Onyx was taken to the animal shelter.

It was the last time they saw each other.

Baird was released from jail after five weeks, with help from the Bail Project, a nonprofit that pays bail and provides pretrial services to people who cannot afford it on their own. She said she told police when she was arrested that she would like to get or pay for a foster parent to care for Onyx, and tried desperately to determine the dog’s whereabouts while she was behind bars.

Officials told him to contact the animal shelter, but the shelter would not accept phone calls from the prison. She returned home with messages from the shelter telling her that Onyx had been adopted.

“She was like a baby. She went everywhere with me,” Baird said. “It really broke my heart.”

Vincent Medley, director of American Pets Alive, said there’s a growing philosophy among animal advocates that pets should be kept in their homes – and reunited with their owners – whenever possible.

“The old model was to pick up the animal, the shelter is the solution, the shelter will find the right place for the animal,” Medley said. “Now we want to do everything we can to keep this animal at home.”

The placement is also considered better than sending the animal to a shelter, Medley said.

In a previous role at the American Humane Society, Medley taught “dog encounter training” at police academies, which included instructions on taking a dog into custody when arresting its owner, but also information on how to quickly contact an organization that can understand what to do with the animal.

In Arizona, the Pima Animal Care Center created the Safety Net Program which secures foster homes, usually up to 90 days, for animals whose owners are away due to arrest, rehab, hospitalization or eviction. Shelter spokeswoman Kayleigh Murdock said the facility works directly with the Tucson Police Department: “If there is an arrest and there is a pet at the residence, we are immediately called to be on hand to help.”

Special Case Advocates in New York also help pet owners who become homeless. Advocates will often help connect a person with a mental health provider who can provide a letter certifying that person’s animal is an emotional support animal, which can facilitate the animal’s admission to a shelter. .

“We try to get the full story, whether they have concrete housing plans, whether they have an underlying mental health issue and give them a chance to understand the process based on that. is happening with them personally,” Colquhoun said.

Becca Kinsella is a social worker with the Homicide and Major Crimes Unit of Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that provides free criminal defense services. She and her colleagues attend arraignments to help clients in areas such as childcare, housing and pets – all of which can be seriously disrupted after just a night or two in jail.

“A missed day of work can mean the difference between having a job and still moving forward and being able to support yourself, being able to support your family, being able to support your pets,” Kinsella said.

Happy endings are coming. Advocates at New York’s Animal Care Centers, for example, will ask adoptive pet owners to give up the animal if the previous owner is able to care for it again.

Adopters “are the legal owners at the time, so they can say no. But we’re making this effort to reach out, and honestly it’s been pretty successful,” Cicolella said.

Keri Blakinger, now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was jailed for two years following a drug arrest in 2010. She writes in her book, ‘Corrections in Ink,’ that her greatest worry when she was arrested was what would happen. to his dog, Charlotte.

The animal was taken in by a friend of Blakinger’s apartment complex property manager, who told Blakinger’s parents that Charlotte would be kept for as long as needed. “I was on the one hand relieved to know that she had been found, that she hadn’t run away, that she wasn’t somehow lost in the shelter,” Blakinger said of the discovery of the prison. that Charlotte had been adopted. “On the other hand, though, it was a bit bittersweet because this family of complete strangers took him in and gave him things that I never could.”

After a two-year sentence, Blakinger was released from prison. Charlotte’s parents agreed to return Charlotte. But first, she and Blakinger got to know each other again.

“I took her for a walk near my old apartment, where I was living when I was arrested, and I could see the moment it clicked, and she remembered who I was. was,” Blakinger said. “She stopped trying to walk away and started walking beside me. Soon after, I ended up bringing her home for good.

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