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Four-legged victims of the war

Last month, a German shepherd named Sasha who'd become suddenly homeless arrived at the SPCA of Wake County in search of a new family. Sasha's dad, a local reservist, was shipping out for Iraq and didn't have anyone to take care of her in his absence.

As America's troops departed their homes for the Persian Gulf in droves this spring, they left behind tearful partners, parents and children who could write them letters and wait, faithfully, for their return. But many also were forced to leave their companion animals behind, some with no options but local shelters, where surrendered pets often face euthanasia. In Cumberland County, the home of Fort Bragg, the county animal control shelter takes in 1,000 cats and dogs a week--and kills 900 of them.

Statistics like that have led pet owners whose military duties call them overseas to look for other options for their animal companions. After Sept. 11, when the conflict in Afghanistan broke out, some soldiers drove up from North Carolina's eastern reaches to leave their animals at the Wake SPCA, a private non-profit shelter that earned a good reputation Down East during Hurricane Floyd rescue efforts four years ago, says spokeswoman Mondy Lamb.

Since the war in Iraq began, the Wake SPCA has taken in a handful of pets from Triangle-area reservists who have nowhere else to leave their pets, Lamb says. Sasha was one of the lucky ones; a new family adopted her the very next day after her dad left her to fulfill his reservist duties.

Across the nation, animal shelters, private non-profit rescue groups and animal rights activists have mobilized a safety net to provide more "no-kill" options for military pets.

Statewide and national animal groups have set up foster home referral services, which pair soon-to-be-abandoned pets with temporary families until their people return.

In Myrtle Beach, S.C.--close to the large concentration of servicemen and women at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base--Steve Albin, the founder and sole staff member of a service called Netpets, has his hands full trying to keep up with the flood of animals needing temporary families since President Bush began massing troops on Iraq's borders. Netpets' rescue service began in 1995, but after Sept. 11 the military foster program took off overnight, says Albin. He takes on-line applications from members of the American military all over the country, and in Canada and Europe, and puts them in touch with volunteer families who are willing to take in an extra cat or dog for a few weeks or months. His Web page gets more than a million hits a day.

"I had no idea when I started this what I was getting into," says Albin, who began the project with his own money and has begun to get some private donations -- though no contributions from the government whose employees he helps. Asked how many animals he's placed in foster homes since September 2001, Albin laughs. "I stopped counting when I got to 2,000."

Albin is not alone in his effort. The N.C. State Animal Response Team compiles and maintains a list of potential families for shelters and rescue groups to aid military families. A statewide coalition of government agencies and animal groups, NCSART, was organized after Hurricane Floyd--and the lack of a cohesive animal emergency response--led to the deaths of more than 3 million pets and farm animals in 1999.

NCSART's efforts at providing a central clearinghouse for animal-related emergency planning has been helpful at the Cumberland County Animal Haven, a private non-profit sanctuary in Fayetteville, hometown of Fort Bragg. With room for only about 125 animals in her "no-kill" shelter, having an outside resource like the statewide list is really helpful, says Executive Director Caroline Parsons, especially given Cumberland County's dismally low adoption rate.

Still, if there's any good news for military pets in the recent Iraq conflict, it's that the delay between planning the war and actual deployment gave families more time to make arrangements for their care, and rescue groups more time to string the safety net, Parsons says.

"There was a long period of time where people knew they were going to go," she says.

To volunteer to foster a military pet, visit:

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