For the Anayas, it meant doing the unthinkable–leaving the dogs they raised at a shelter.

By Jeff Truesdell Alex Tresniowski
April 03, 2009 07:11 PM

It is quiet in the pickup truck as Steve Anaya and his wife Clarissa drive an hour from Stockton, Calif., to Sacramento. In the back are their two pet dogs–Lucky, 7, a shar-pei/pit mix, and Noki, 5, a Lab/pit mix (above)–but for them it’s no joyride, either. Their solemn journey became necessary after Anaya, 30, was laid off from a communications company last November. “I knew in my heart this was something I would eventually have to do,” he says. “But I just kept putting it off and putting it off.”

Finally, Anaya arrives at a Sacramento animal shelter to do what he has been dreading–give away the pets he and Clarissa have raised from puppies. Indeed, the brutal recession marked by so many foreclosures and firings is devastating some families in yet another way, forcing them to surrender pets they can no longer afford. Shelters around the country have reported a spike in the number of animals being brought in, and most of those “have been family pets,” says Betsy McFarland of the Humane Society of the United States. “When people have to move from homes to apartments, oftentimes they can’t take their dogs.” At the Sacramento SPCA shelter alone, nearly 1,000 more animals were surrendered in 2008 than in the previous year. “A lot of people tell me, ‘My animal hates me, my kids hate me,’” says Kimberly Whipple, one of the shelter’s intake clerks. “We just try to make them feel not so guilty.”

By the time they trudge through the shelter’s doors, most pet owners “have already tried many, many things to place their animal–offering them to friends or other family members,’” says the shelter’s executive director Rick Johnson. “Once they end up here, they’ve made a really tough decision.” The shelter does place 71 percent of surrendered dogs in caring homes or with other rescue groups, and that is some consolation for families giving up their pets, but not much.

Steve Anaya–who has two young daughters, one 18 months, the other born in February–managed to find a new job, but at only a quarter of his previous income. Now, he has to watch every penny just to pay his mortgage, and the several hundreds dollars a year it takes to feed and care for Lucky and Noki became, Anaya says sadly, “just one of the corners I had to cut.” He drove his dogs to Sacramento to give them a chance with someone else after a Stockton shelter told him they were so full, most surrendered pets were euthanized.

Still, handing them over is heartbreaking. Anaya leaves his dogs in his truck with Clarissa and his kids while he fills out paperwork in the shelter’s lobby. Finally, at the last possible moment, he brings them in, leaving them with a clerk before hustling away. Even two days later, he can barely recount the moment without tearing up. “I just kind of hugged them and told them that I loved them,” he says. “It’s the American dream to have a house and some kids and a dog, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.” He takes a moment to compose himself. “It’s really tough not having Lucky and Noki around,” he says. “But I know they’re going to bring happiness to whoever adopts them.”

Read more about how the economy is affecting pet owners in the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands now.

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