By Joseph Robertia
They’re a companion on hiking trips and car rides. Their snuggling is warmth on cold winter nights. They’re protection from intruders. Their loving personalities and unconditional affection can brighten a stormy mood. The bond between people and their pets can be special, but for the unprepared owner, a fatal illness or accident could mean bad news for their animal companions.
“So often people think their pet will die first, but it’s not always true,” said Erin Knotek, of Moose Pass, who was recently left trying to help find homes for pets of people who had passed away unexpectedly.
“People think the family will take them, but that isn’t always the case,” she said. “In the month of June, I received two phone calls from families. ‘My mother died. Can you help me place her dogs?’ Another phone call was (regarding) a man who lived alone in Moose Pass. He died while working carpentry on a person’s home. His family, traveling from Outside, just couldn’t take his 10- and 13-year-old dogs.”
In cases of a death or incapacitation where a pet owner didn’t leave proper instructions or funds for the long-term care of their pets, the Alaska State Troopers, animal shelters and eventually the courts may all become involved in deciding the fate of an animal.
“It does happen from time to time,” said Marianne Clark, chief of the Soldotna Animal Control Shelter. “Usually it’s people who have passed away and left behind multiple pets. Their family may be able to take in one or two, but the rest are surrendered.”
Clark said she may contact the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Anchorage to alert them of the unique situation, or, if the pet is a pure breed, she may notify rescue groups that specialize in that breed. But other than that, there isn’t much extra she can do for the suddenly displaced pets.
“Unfortunately, government agencies have to treat every animal equally, regardless of the circumstances,” she said. “We have limited resources and have to follow the ordinances on how long they can stay, which is 72 hours, not counting weekends and holidays.”
Clark suggested that people with pets have a solid plan in place for after they’re gone, such as working out an arrangement with someone who can attend to a pet’s needs.
A trustee may need to be appointed to handle financial matters, while a beneficiary is responsible for the care of an animal on a day-to-day basis. These agreements may need to be made legal. Sonja Redmond, a Soldotna attorney of wills, trusts and estate planning, said there are several options available to pet owners.
“In the long term, people can appoint someone in a will, and it’s appropriate to leave a sum of money for the guardian or trustee,” she said. “People can also choose someone as a caregiver and provide a small life insurance policy by naming them as the beneficiary, but they need to be sure the caregiver will honor their wishes.”
There are numerous websites that offer legal services in establishing pet trusts, but Redmond said that, regardless of which option is chosen, someone — such as a family member, close friend or co-worker — should still be selected to attend to the pets right away.
“People with pets should think it through and discuss it all with someone,” she said. “An arrangement needs to be made to take care of the pets right away, because anything in a will or trust doesn’t become available immediately. Anything dealing with legal documents takes time.”
For those without close family or friends who can step in, Knotek recommends that pet owners join pet-related clubs or organizations. Faith Hayes, a member of the Soldotna Off-Leash Meet-up Group, said that organization also has a fund for caring for the pets of people who have had a tragedy befall them.
“For people who find themselves in the hospital without anyone to take care of their pet, this fund allows people to care for the dog or put it in a kennel until they can get out and pay it back,” she said.
The Peninsula Dog Obedience Group and the Kenai Kennel Club offer classes in training and agility, which could help pet owners find like-minded people who may be able to help. These classes also have the added benefit of making pets more manageable for the beneficiary, according to Knotek.
“Folks need to train their dogs in such a way that will lend well into another person’s home,” she said. “Get your dog around kids, other dogs, older folks and such. Socialize them in case you can’t care for them anymore.”