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01/10/2007

Left Behind

What happens to pets when owners die?

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"If anything would happen to me, the dogs would go to my parents," said Paige Wiard of her five dogs. Wiard said Acme Creek Kennels, where she boards her dogs, could help find them a good home. Clockwise from bottom with Wiard are Anton, Abby, Krystal, Libby and Hilda.

TRAVERSE CITY — At her father's funeral in Florida this spring, Angela Petty was approached with an unusual request that gave her pause — and paws.

It seemed that her father's cat, Sammy, had nowhere to go with his owner gone. Would the Petty family of four and two Labs mind a seventh member, asked a friend of her father's.

"When we were approached, I knew what the right answer would be,” said Petty, whose family cat had died unexpectedly just months before her father died. "It was almost like it was meant to be.”

Situations like Petty's, though not tracked statistically, are "sadly common,” said Brian Manley, who founded the Mancelona-based animal rescue organization A.C. Paw 11 years ago. Manley said the most common scenario is when an older person dies, leaving their elderly pet behind.

"Usually, Grandma dies and no one wants the cat — people just don't think ahead to that,” he said. "The sad part is the animals themselves are older, so often, the only option is they must be put down.”

Of the 4,000 animals Manley's group has rescued through the years, he estimates between three and four percent were orphaned after an owner's death, "but a lot of times, we don't even know because some are just let loose and become strays,” he said.

Thinking of death is hardly uplifting, but it is exactly the kind of thought process that needs to happen when another's welfare is dependent upon a caregiver, says one local animal lover. When Paige Wiard took an extended trip to Europe this past spring with her family, she left her five dogs behind. Though she was worried about leaving them, she was equally worried about what might happen to them should something happen to her.

"It was important to me,” said Wiard, who is the kennel manager at Acme Creek Kennels. "I'm single, no boyfriend, no kids, so my dogs are very important to me.”

Wiard did eventually get to go to Europe with a peaceful mind — her boss assured her that the dogs would be given good homes should something terrible happen.

"A lot of people ask me if they die, would I take care of their dog's placement — and I say yes because it's just something I would do without thinking of it,” said Carol Finch, Wiard's boss and owner of Acme Creek Kennels. "When you deal with someone for years, you just have a certain bond.”

Informal agreements such as Petty's and Wiard's are common. Still, there are legal resources to formalize an animal's continued welfare past its owner's death, said Carolyn Matlack, lawyer and publisher of Animal Legal Reports Services. Michigan is one of 36 states that have pet trust statutes on the books, meaning that specific trusts can be set up for an animal, covering expenses for veterinary bills and such.

"Pets are a responsibility, and part of that is facing the fact that if something happens to you, anything could happen to them,” she said.

Though setting up a trust is a sure-fire way of ensuring care for a pet, Matlack also suggests striking informal agreements with friends and family, then listing those contact names on a small, wallet-sized card.

"At the very least, this ensures that your animal will have food and water the first few days if something happens,” she said.

Even if the risk is higher for the elderly to die before their companions do, animal shelters nonetheless encourage adoptions for this age group. Some even subsidize the fees through a special program.

At the Cherryland Humane Society, older prospective adopters are counseled on finding friends or family members to take their pets should they die before they even sign the adoption papers, said Mike Cherry, the society's executive director.

"It's a good topic to talk about because we've advised many of our elderly to try as best they can to make sure they have someone to take their pet,” he said.

Despite the risks involved, Cherry said he still believes adopting as an older person is beneficial for both human and animal.

"Many people getting along in years resist the idea of getting a pet, but there is some therapeutic value to having companionship,” he said.

To help foster the adoption process, anyone older than 60 can apply for the "Pets for People” program funded by Nestle Purina PetCare, which pays the adoption fees, Cherry said.

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