What happens to abandoned pets, why students should think twice before adoption


Eastern Box Turtle.JPG

Paige Anson

Imagine being dropped off in a park by your loved ones. Left with no family, shelter, nor food or water. How would you survive?


This is a scenario that is all too familiar among rescued animals housed in shelters and wildlife conservation centers around Story County.


It is also a topic that animal control and wildlife conservation teams wished people knew more about. Particularly, regarding the negative impacts abandonment has on not only the animals left behind, but also on the surrounding ecosystems and community, said Amy Yoakum, a natural resource specialist with Story County Conservation.


Coming from a place where meals are likely provided and exposure to wildlife and nature’s elements is likely minimal, death is a common fate for most abandoned pets, Yoakum said.


“You may think you’re doing the right thing [releasing your pet], but if you release [it] into the wild, it is likely going to die… and it’s probably not going to be a very pleasant death,” Yoakum said.


This goes for all varieties of species kept as pets: fish, turtles, snakes, bunnies, cats and dogs, etc., Yoakum said.


This is not the only potential negative outcome of animal abandonment.


If lives are not lost the potential for harm still exists, Yoakum said. In the way that some animal species can negatively impact the health of the environments and ecologies the animal finds itself in when they are dumped outside.


Yoakum, Marlene Ehresman, a cofounder of the Iowa Wildlife Center, and Aquatic Invasive Species Program Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Kim Bogenschutz, are all individuals who have experienced such impacts first hand.


For all three, the situation they most often see involves non-native, abandoned “pet” or animal species using up resources in a habitat they aren’t typically found in, therefore reducing resource availability for native species.


Currently housed at the Iowa Wildlife Center’s temporary headquarters in Ames is one animal that is a living example of a non-native species that can create resource competition for native species when abandoned — in this case, a native species that is already struggling against extinction.


“The Three-Toed Box Turtle…This was a pet that somebody had. [This turtle] can live to be [35-50] years old [in nature]. To release it in Iowa, it may not survive Iowa’s cold. If it did find its way to a sand prairie [a suitable habitat for the animal], it would be competing with our endangered [Ornate] Box Turtle,” Ehresman said. “That’s what starts happening when people start releasing pets into the wild.”


The Ornate Box Turtle is a species that is native to Iowa’s rare sand prairies, and make up roughly less than one tenth of a percent of what is left of Iowa’s historically dominant prairie land. Because of this, the species on its own hangs in a precarious balance between survival and extinction, Ehresman said.


The Three-Toed Box Turtle and similar species, like its cousin often sold in pet stores, the Eastern Box Turtle, could kill off the ornate turtle species entirely: be that through resource competition and/or the ability for non-native abandoned “pet” turtles to pass on bacterial or viral diseases to the native turtles, Ehresman said.


Yoakum and Bogenschutz see similar situations as Ehresman with non-native species harming natives’ resources in the aquatic ecosystems in the area.


One case they dealt with last year in Ames was in a pond by an apartment building, Yoakum said.


“Last fall we discovered [an invasive species] called Brazilian Water Weed by Perfect Games. That one for sure came from somebody dumping their aquarium,” Yoakum said.


The harm in Brazilian Water Weed growing in a non-native area involves its ability to rapidly reproduce and choke out native species from their ecosystems, and its ability to ruin a recreational swimming or fishing excursion, Bogenschutz said.


Also found locally have been abandoned and invasive goldfish species in Lost Lake at Ledges State Park.


“You actually have to walk in quite a ways to get to Lost Lake. Somebody carried them in order to put them in there. I think that sometimes people think they’re saving the fish, but most aquarium fish are not going to survive,” Bogenschutz said.


The adaptive ones that do survive, Bogenschutz said, can quickly overcome a body of water, using up the resources of native fishes and starving them out.


Currently, Yoakum, Bogenschutz and Ehresman, along with other Story County and Ames community members, are working to raise awareness about the impacts animal abandonment can have on the environment, animals and people, and are working to provide resources for those looking to re-home pets they no longer want or can care for.  


They are hoping that through increased awareness people will be less likely to abandon their pets in nature, which is a lot less expensive, damaging and time consuming for those who work to maintain native wildlife in Iowa, according to Bogenschutz.


“With the plants there are herbicides available for most of the invasive species we get now… But they’re really expensive. There’s one that costs about $2,000 a gallon. When it comes to [non-native] fish and [other invasive species like] zebra mussels, there currently isn’t any sort of pesticide that would kill [only them]. So, if you have to get rid of them you have to kill everything and sort of start over,” Bogenschutz said.


As for resources that are available to those who need help re-homing their pets, the Ames and Story County animal shelters serve alongside the Iowa Wildlife Center as a resource for people looking to re-home their animals: no matter their species.


“We can at least provide temporary housing for most animals… [and we] get them immediately to experts who know how to take care of them,” Ames Animal Shelter and Animal Control Supervisor, Ron Edwards, said.


The Story County shelter also handles a variety of animals, although their reach is slightly broader than the Ames shelter, said Anna Henderson, an animal control officer with the Story County Animal Shelter.


“We provide animal control for rural Story County and any contract cities that don’t have a police department of their own. We take strays in… most times it’s dogs and cats. We have the occasional farm animal like pigs, horses, turkeys, chickens. Occasionally, in some of the towns we’ve gotten in some reptiles and other exotic animals,” Henderson said.


The Iowa Wildlife Center, with help from the IDNR, also works to re-home both non-native and native species. They also work to conserve native species’ habitats and to educate community members about why they should not abandon non-native, or any, animals in nature, Ehresman said.  


One encouragement that Yoakum, Bogenschutz, Ehresman, and Edwards all make to people in effort to reduce animal abandonment cases is for perspective pet owners to seriously think about their ability and desire to take care of an animal as a pet before they get one.


“Think about not just vacations, but long term… [think] cost association. Animals cost money and it takes time to care for them and commit to them. You’ve got to have those resources planned and available,” Edwards said.


Along with awareness as to the impacts of one’s choice to abandon an animal, these resources can also inform people of current legislation involving animals in Iowa, such as the fact that it is illegal to own native species in Iowa, according to Ehresman.


It is also illegal under Sec. 3.111. “Standard of Care” of the Ames Municipal Code to abandon one’s animal(s):


“Abandon shall mean ceasing to provide control over, shelter, food and water for an animal without having made responsible arrangements for such care, custody, and physical control to be provided by another person,” according to the section in the Ames Municipal Code.


Violations of the section 3.111 is punishable by a $50 fee for a person’s first violation and a penalty of $100 for each repeat violation, according to Sec. 3.501 of the Ames Municipal Code.


Repeated offenders for a fourth or subsequent time can be punished with a penalty fee of at least $500 and no more than $750, according to Sec. 3.124 (1) in the Ames Municipal Code.


Other legislation that exists includes Iowa Code Title XVI Subtitle 1 Chapter 717B.8, which states that the abandonment of cats and dogs can result in a “simple” misdemeanor which is punishable by up to one year of jail time according to the section.


In this unnamed initiative against animal abandonment of which Yoakum, Ehresman, Bogenschutz, Henderson, and Edwards all participate in, there is hope for more advocacy in the future, Yoakum said.


There are also tentative plans for an animal surrender event in July-August at the annual Rummage Rampage community sale event in Ames, Yoakum said.


Anyone looking for more information on abandoned animals, Iowa wildlife, animal rehoming resources or invasive species can contact the Ames and Story County shelters, and can reach out to the Iowa Wildlife Center and the IDNR on their websites.