CARACAS, Venezuela – It was Sheldon’s 6th birthday, and Mary Cruz Lema realized she had to give him up.
As Venezuela’s economic crisis had deepened, she and her husband had been struggling to feed their beloved black and white schnauzer. Their collective salaries – hers as a schoolteacher and his as a nurse – equaled no more than $10 a month, barely enough to cover meals for themselves and their two children.
The last time Sheldon had had a dog treat was in November. By January, their budget was so tight that Lema stopped buying pet shampoo and begin limiting his meals to one a day. By June, his only sustenance was a few leftover vegetables from the family table. Once playful, Sheldon became lethargic – sitting in a corner in distress.
“I looked at the dog and couldn’t sleep,” Lema said. “It felt urgent.”
So she took a step that is becoming increasingly common in this collapsing nation: giving up the family pet.
If life in Venezuela has become hard for humans, it has become even harder for many pets. With inflation soaring toward 1 million per cent, dog food and veterinary care have spiraled out of reach for millions of people. One kilo – or 2.2 pounds – of dog food, for instance, now costs nearly the equivalent of three weeks’ salary for a minimum-wage worker.
The result, animal specialists say, has been an exploding population of abandoned dogs on the streets and rising numbers in underfunded shelters. Although there are no reliable national figures on the phenomenon, officials from eight shelters in the capital, Caracas, said they had seen a roughly 50 percent rise in the number of pets left at their facilities this year. At the same time, pet adoptions have a dropped by as much as a third, they said.
“People are being forced to choose their priorities, and dogs for the most part aren’t one of them,” said Esmeralda Larrosa, owner of the Kauna Animal Foundation, a Caracas shelter. Her facility, she said, is now struggling to feed its 125 dogs – including 15 that arrived within the previous two weeks. “The rise in abandonment we are seeing is simply crazy.”
On one recent morning, dozens of dogs, many of them emaciated, languished inside Evelia’s Shelter in eastern Caracas. The smell of dog urine filled the air – a scent hard to wash away in a city where businesses and homes have running water only intermittently. A tiny, skeletal black poodle – brought in a week earlier – sat in one corner. A 1-year-old golden retriever, recently surrendered by a man unable to feed him, roamed the yard.
“Every day is incredibly sad,” said Aida Lopez Mendez, 53, one of the shelter’s owners. “We never thought the situation could get so tragic.”
As prices of goods and services surge, Larrosa said, she has been forced to cease most vaccinations and medical treatments for the animals. Anesthesia injections for animal operations, for instance, can cost the equivalent of $50.
At the same time, donations to shelters have fallen drastically. To get by, Larrosa is feeding her dogs discarded pieces of meat from a nearby restaurant. And new animals are arriving in ever-worse conditions.
“We mostly get malnourished dogs now,” she said. Three such canines were left at her door last month; two died within weeks.
For pets as well as people, the crisis here is likely to get worse. This petroleum-rich country’s woes are the result of a combination of factors – including lower oil prices, corruption and failed socialist policies. In an attempt to stabilize the economy, President Nicolás Maduro – the successor of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 – announced a 3,000 percent minimum-wage hike last month.
So far, though, that measure and others have seemed to backfire, with prices for basic goods almost doubling.
Some shelters are considering closing once they’re able to place all their dogs.
“It’s a critical situation because we have to spend three times as much as we used to to maintain each animal,” said Mariant Lameda, owner of the Network of Canine Support, which has 270 dogs. Only one has been adopted this year, compared with 13 last year, and more than 200 in 2015.
The crisis is forcing people such as Johnny Godoy, a 40-year old businessman, to make desperate decisions about their pets. Unable to get by on the money he makes selling paper products, Godoy is planning to move to Peru, a journey of more than 2,000 miles. He has spent months trying to find a family with whom he can leave his 6-year-old miniature pinscher.
“Because of the country’s situation, it’s hard to find someone who wants to keep her. But I can’t take her; I’m leaving by bus, and we still don’t know how long it will take for us to get settled,” he said. “We’re going to miss her horribly.”
For Lema, the teacher, saying goodbye to her dog was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. On that late June morning, she recalled, she walked out of the house holding Sheldon, accompanied by her two children, as representatives of an animal aid group arrived in a car to pick up the dog. The three of them were crying. Her boy, who is autistic, was especially distraught.
She gave the aid workers Sheldon’s purple pillow, his little red quilt with polka dots, and the dog. As their vehicle started to pull away, her 13-year-old son started hitting the car window, shouting for his pet.
Lema said she kept Sheldon’s dog tag.
“We miss him every single day,” she said.
Rachelle Krygier/Special to The Washington Post
The Washington Post’s Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this report.