By Holly Bloom
INDIANA -- Megan S. Alexander, a junior fashion merchandising major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, adopted a kitten advertised in the local newspaper during her freshman year in 2008. She did not realize what it took to care for the cat.
"I adopted my kitty when I got on campus for my first year of college," said Alexander during a Nov. 1 interview at her North 6th Street apartment. "After I adopted her, I realized I didn't have the time or money to keep her. I had her give her up."
Alexander is not the first IUP student to face the facts of life with pets - and to force local animal shelters to face the facts of life with students who abandon pets.
The Indiana County Humane Society is one of two animal shelters in Indiana. The society took in 1,742 animals in 2009, according to executive director Lisa M. Grosch.
Grosch knows firsthand that many of the shelter's animals arrive at the end of IUP's academic year when students leave campus to go home for the summer, leaving abandoned pets in their wake.
"About 10 years ago when I worked here as a humane society officer, my job was to rescue the homeless animals," Grosch said during a Nov. 3 interview at the shelter. "After the year ended and students went back home, there would be animals running loose from students leaving them behind."
Grosch estimated in a Jan. 3 phone interview that the shelter's average animal intake at that time would jump by about 10 percent when semesters ended at IUP.
"An increase of about 10 percent of the intake were strays that were brought in at the same time that coincided with the semesters ending and that were picked up in the general vicinity of IUP and off-campus housing," Grosch said in a Jan. 3 email.
Sarah R. Peacock, 26, a volunteer at the shelter and an IUP graduate, said some students are not responsible enough to care for pets.
"Most college kids want the companionship of a pet but don't want the responsibility of vet bills, walking the dog or cleaning the litter box," said Peacock during an Oct. 27 Facebook chat. "They don't' have the time to dedicate to having a pet and thus return him or her to the shelter. Most college kids live in the moment and don't think about the long-term needs of the animal."
Exchanging pets as gifts is an additional complication, Grosch added. College-student couples are primary contributors to the problem, Peacock said.
"Often, couples adopt pets when they reside together," Peacock said. "After breaking up, they return the animal to the shelter. It's heartbreaking for everyone involved."
The shelter does accept animal returns from students, Grosch said. But about five years ago the shelter imposed restrictions on anyone under age 21 seeking to adopt pets.
"Before anyone can adopt an animal from the shelter, there are background checks, home visits and telephone calls made to previous veterinarians," said Grosch. "We can check on the animals the person owns now or has previously."
Four Footed Friends, Indiana's other shelter, also has restricted adoptions, including the age restriction for would-be pet-owners. Manager Patty Stutzman said the shelter does not receive as many student-abandoned animals as the Humane Society receives. Nevertheless, the shelter's policies deter student adoptions.
"We do not let people adopt who are younger than 21 years old," Stutzman said in a November phone interview.
She added in a Jan. 3 interview that Four Footed Friends has allowed IUP students to adopt pets. But the shelter's requirements include written permissions from landlords, and the documents must be confirmed by shelter staff members.
Four Footed Friends board member Stephen Osborne added that the shelter's policies are not intended to be anti-student.
"It's not a student thing, per se," Osborne said in a Jan. 7 phone interview.
And the shelter does not keep detailed numbers on animals abandoned by students.
"Anecdotally, however, students do abandon and leave animals," Osborne added.
Humane Society policies do not prevent students from adopting elsewhere, said Grosch. Student-abandonment problems persist here.
"Now we get a lot of animals being brought here from students that adopt them after looking at ads in the newspaper or other shelters," Grosch said.
Shelter worker Peacock has seen the students bringing animals to the shelter.
"Most students just don't have the time or aren't willing to donate that to their pets," said Peacock. "This does a great disservice to the animals that are adopted. They are returned on account of their poor behavior when in fact no one has taken the proper time to work with their pets."
Students contribute only a fraction of the number of animals given up to shelters nationwide each year. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that up to 7 million "companion animals" enter U.S. animal shelters annually from all sources.
Indiana is not the only college town in Pennsylvania that faces the consequences of pet abandonment by college students. Chris K. Showers, public relations manager at Centre County Paws in State College, said she can't count the numbers.
"The students literally just leave them in their apartments when they leave for the summer," Showers said during a Nov. 17 telephone interview. "I can't tell you how many animals we have found homeless in apartments."
In Indiana, Alexander said she now knows the responsibilities required to care for animals.
"I felt so bad for giving up my kitty after I adopted her," said Alexander. "I learned my lesson."
Alexander said she does not plan to adopt another animal until she graduates in 2012.
-- By Holly Bloom, a senior journalism major and communications minor, is from Curwensville, Pa.
Euthanasia: Local shelter policies
Indiana's two local animal-welfare organizations administer different policies on euthanasia -- destruction of life:
Four Footed Friends is a "no kill" facility, according to Manager Patty Stutzman. The shelter will not euthanize animals it admits. If the facility is overcrowded, it will turn away animals.
Indiana County Humane Society is a "low kill" facility, according to Executive Director Lisa Grosch in a Jan. 4 email. As Indiana County's only "open-admission" shelter, the Society accepts all strays.
"We do euthanize, but it is mostly based on sick, aggressive animals more than on overcrowding," Grosch wrote. "In cases concerning overcrowding, we transfer animals to other shelters as much as possible."
Sidebar: Fast Facts: For more info/To get involved
For more information on this story or to get involved in local animal-welfare organizations, please contact the following sources:
Indiana County Humane Society
65 Haven Dr.
Indiana, Pa. 15701
Four Footed Friends
220 Beck Road
Indiana, Pa. 15701-4727
Stephen W. Osborne
Four Footed Friends
Chris K. Showers
Centre County Paws
1401 Trout Road
State College, Pa. 16801
Western Pennsylvania Humane Society
1101 Western Ave.
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15233