DAYTON, Ohio, March 13, 2008— -- Kathy Bayer, a real estate agent in Dayton, Ohio, always leaves for work in the morning with her briefcase -- and a cat carrier. She makes sure that the trunk of her car is well-stocked with pet food.
They call her the cat lady.
It started 10 years ago, when Bayer took in a kitten she found abandoned in a vacant home. That single act of compassion has now become her mission.
"For an animal lover, you can see it in their eyes when you come in and their spirit is broken, and they'll just cry ... and we try to reassure them," she said.
Her colleagues pitch in, too, calling Bayer when they suspect foreclosure victims have abandoned more than just their homes.
"They are, a lot of times, hiding in the closets or the basement because they are too afraid to come out," Bayer said. "We usually put food down and then watch overnight to see if it's gone."
She could just throw them out, like so many additional victims of this current wave of defaults. But she doesn't. She has found new homes for more than a dozen cats so far, paying their medical bills out of her own pocket.
"We spend thousands of dollars a year rescuing cats ... and that's fine. But now, the market is slow, so there's not as many houses selling for me to get the income to help the cats. … so that's a concern as well," Bayer said.
As more families are forced from their homes, the fallout is painfully clear at animal shelters nationwide.
In Dayton, where foreclosures are up 50 percent from last year, every shelter in the city is overrun.
Mark Kumpf, director of Dayton's Montgomery County Animal Resource Center said the pets are suffering as a result of the foreclosure crisis, describing these animals as the "second class of victims in the national economy."
"When we receive large numbers of foreclosure pets, relinquishments, it makes it very difficult to do what we hope to do, which is find good homes for all the animals in our facility."
But in a fragile economy, fewer families want the added expense of a new pet.
Across town, at the SICSA animal shelter in Kettering, Ohio, animals are living in every possible nook and cranny.
"There are animals housed in the bathroom, there are animals housed in the break room," executive director Rudy Bahr said. "I think there are two cats in our break room. People can't go in and have their lunch."
Brian Baker, an animal control officer who rescues animals in Montgomery County, said he is finding more and more malnourished, flea bitten and filthy animals locked inside abandoned homes.
Even those animals that appear healthy can have myriad problems. Paula Fasseas, founder of PAWS, the largest no-kill animal adoption agency in Chicago, said the expense associated with caring for these animals is their biggest challenge.
"About 75 percent of the animals that come in, they may look fine, but they could have worms. People don't get them vaccinated, they have all kinds of illnesses. … We treat them all," she said.
For some pet owners, the decision to walk away was grueling. Sylvia Wise dropped off her dog Missy at the PAWS animal shelter because her new apartment doesn't allow dogs. She said that giving up her companion of more than seven years was harder than the day she lost her job, and even worse than the day the bank foreclosed on her home.
"She's my baby," Wise said. "I have two grown children and she's what I call my most obedient child. I've tried and I've tried so hard. And I've had to accept the reality that if you don't have your home, there's nowhere to really put your dog."
But there are some happy endings, because some of these pets will be adopted by new owners.
"I'm hopeful that … she'll get someone who will love her as much if not more than me," Wise said. "Sometimes you have to do what's best for them, and I think this is best for her."
But that doesn't ease today's pain.
"It hurts," Wise said. "And I know one thing. I won't get another animal … 'cause separation is too hard."
Thinking about adopting a pet? CLICK HERE for tips from the Humane Society.