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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The great guinea pig giveaway has begun

Liliana Bravo, an adoption supervisor at a New York City animal shelter, with one of the many guinea pigs to be surrendered in recent weeks, Sept. 20, 2022.

By Sarah Maslin Nir

In recent weeks, so many people have called Bill Crain’s Hudson Valley farm rescue to surrender their ducks and chickens — many purchased at the height of the pandemic lockdown — that he finally marched into a local farm store and demanded to speak to a manager. His plea: Stop selling chicks and ducklings.

“They think the pandemic is over, and they don’t want to devote time to taking care of them anymore,” Crain, 78, said in an interview from his Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, New York, where he said there are so many calls from people hoping to give up their pets that he must turn birds away — his coops are full.

“It’s a crisis that people are abandoning these animals,” he said.

One of the slim silver linings of the pandemic’s earliest days was the addition of animals to many families. Some people, decamping from virus-besieged cities for the countryside, stoked a craze for backyard fowl. There was an emptying of animal shelters as people stuck at home found unexpected room in their lives for cats and dogs. Socially distant and lonely, or with kids to entertain, many cleared pet store shelves of gerbils and lizards, chinchillas and snakes.

Gloomy prognostications of a swift, post-pandemic boomerang of dogs and cats back to shelters do not appear to be bearing out. But as the world rights itself — workers back in offices, students back in school — other sorts of pets are apparently not so lucky. Those who rescue and advocate for smaller animals fear that they are seeing the beginning of a tide of reptiles, birds and rodents — even some fish — given up by once enthusiastic families.

Small animal surrenders spiked by more than 50% nationwide in the first six months of 2022, compared to the same period the year before, according to Shelter Animals Count, which collects data from more than 6,000 shelters, though they still remain about 20% lower than pre-pandemic. In contrast, surrenders of cats and dogs have climbed less than 7% over the year before, and are still about 15% below 2019 levels.

In New York City, so many guinea pigs have flooded the city’s animal shelter system — 600 so far this year, more than double pre-pandemic numbers — that the City Council is considering a bill that would ban their sale in pet shops. Most are under 3 years old, indicating they were pandemic purchases, said Katy Hansen, a spokesperson for the city’s shelter system, Animal Care Centers of New York City. The population spike has forced the shelters to invest in a new $20,000 guinea pig tower, where the animals live stacked in sliding trays.

On Wednesday, a box containing 22 guinea pigs of all ages was found abandoned in the lobby of a Staten Island apartment building, Hansen said. “This situation has become untenable,” she said. “We are at our wits end.”

There are other, less quantifiable warnings: Some city pet store owners say that customers who at the height of the pandemic scooped up creatures such as hamsters and bearded dragon lizards as playmates for cooped-up children have brought them back.

People who foster guinea pigs in New York say they are overrun. In Central Park, rescues of domestic red-eared slider turtles nearly tripled to 29 this year so far — though the parks department cautioned that the numbers could mean more sightings of distressed turtles, not more animals. Rabbits and guinea pigs have also been found. It is illegal to release animals in city parks.

A constellation of factors is apparently driving the surge. Christa Chadwick, vice president of shelter services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, suggested that part of the uptick may be because many shelters were not taking in animals over the course of the pandemic. And, she noted, shelters are glutted with small animals in part because adoptions overall have slowed.

“It’s important for the public to come back in droves to shelters,” she said. “Whether it is for cats or dogs or chickens or hamsters.”

Rising rents, inflation and housing insecurity have also forced people to make difficult decisions about keeping even beloved pets, said Hilary Hager, vice president of outreach, engagement and training at the Humane Society of the United States. “I would never want to suggest to anyone that people don’t care,” Hager said. “There are just a lot of other factors that are coming into play.”

Jade Perez’s family acquired a dog and two kittens to stave off the loneliness of lockdown, she said. But when rising rents forced her family to downsize to a smaller Staten Island apartment, she put Honey, the guinea pig she had bought just before the pandemic, up for adoption on Craigslist.

“We have a lot of animals, and we just can’t take care of the guinea pig now,” said Jade, who is 17, citing inflation’s toll on the prices of food and supplies. “He’s not living the best life he can.”

Petqua, a pet store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is now the temporary home of two guinea pigs, three turtles and a tiny school of betta fish, all recently relinquished by their owners. Some are castaways from the flurry of pet purchases at the start of the pandemic, according to Sam Laroche, who operates the shop. He accepts surrenders — even those not purchased from his shop — and finds them new homes.

He is expecting a leopard gecko soon, from a man who said he was moving and couldn’t take his lizard with him. “He’s very sad,” Laroche said.

The phenomenon is also international. In England, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported a 24% increase in reports of abandoned animals from January to July over the same time period last year. That included 3,363 abandoned exotic pets, among them 1,455 fish and 685 snakes.

In September, during the society’s “Guinea Pig Awareness Week,” it announced it had seen a 90% increase in guinea pig abandonments, on top of a 49% increase in rabbits.

Why families are holding onto cats and dogs but relinquishing smaller animals may have to do with human attachment, several experts said. On Staten Island, Jade said she was able to bear parting with her guinea pig because Honey was less interactive than her dog and cats.

“They look adorable, but I think people have this misguided conception they are going to be able to provide this companionship and fill a void that the are looking for,” said Allie Taylor, president of Voters for Animal Rights, a nonprofit organization that pushed for New York City’s guinea pig bill. “And when they don’t, the animal ends up paying an ultimate price.”

At Safe Haven farm, where the aviaries are filled with 98 rescued fowl, Bill Crain and his wife Ellen, 78, have taken to urging callers to give their birds a second chance.

They’ve had at least one success: When a man from Manhattan called to surrender pandemic ducklings because his family was summering in Nantucket, the Crains played on his conscience to reconsider: “We said look, it would be a good model for your kids,” Crain said.

The man took the ducks with him on vacation.

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