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On a hot June day two years ago real-estate agent Cecily Tippery turned a key and entered an empty house. She had specialized in selling foreclosed properties in Northern California for nearly two decades, so she was used to the heartbreaking scenes that often awaited her: rooms trashed and full of graffiti, lawns overgrown with weeds, toys left behind when families were forced to leave their homes.
But nothing could have prepared her for what she found that day. When she opened the door three parched and hungry dogs -- a dachshund, a basset hound, and a Chihuahua -- were on the other side. She later found a dead turtle in the backyard and a frightened calico cat hiding on the property. Their owner had left all of them to fend for themselves.
"It was awful," Tippery, 58, says. "Those dogs were just so happy to see somebody."
With the current national economic crisis, this is a scene that has become increasingly common. Across the United States the number of pets abandoned because their owners can't afford to care for them is on the rise, according to reports from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. Many of these animals will be euthanized, but a far less humane fate awaits those left to starve in empty homes.
Fortunately, in one of the hardest-hit areas of the country, there's Tippery. When she found those abandoned animals on that summer day Tippery knew immediately that she had to help. But she couldn't just take them home with her since her husband has severe allergies and the couple already had two Kerry Blue terriers, a breed that causes fewer problems for some allergy sufferers. Instead, she called a local no-kill animal-rescue/relocation agency and started to work with them to find homes for the pets. Then she hit another roadblock: A vet found that Abigail, the basset hound, had cancer. She could not qualify for adoption without costly surgery. Tippery didn't flinch -- she and a coworker fronted the $1,200 for the procedure. In the end each of the four refugees found a new family, and Tippery, who manages a team of Realtors in an office outside San Francisco, found a new calling.
Tippery got to know local pound and animal-rescue organizations, and her whole staff decided to join the effort. So when the foreclosure crisis started to pick up speed, they were ready. Now, when one of the agents finds an abandoned animal, they all work together to hit up friends, family members, and anyone else who might want to adopt the pet. Last year they even helped place two large turtles in a local preschool. "Once I tried to give a cat to a home buyer as a bonus," Tippery says with a laugh.
Rescuing foreclosure pets sometimes isn't easy. In many states animals are considered personal property until they have been abandoned for a certain length of time -- in California, until a new law went into effect at the beginning of 2009, it was over two weeks. "Without water a cat or a dog probably wouldn't last more than a week," says Robert Reisman, DVM, a veterinary medicine expert with the ASPCA.
When Tippery and her colleagues found an animal before the waiting period was up, they made sure that each day someone from their office stopped by to feed and play with the pet. Figuring out the logistics of the animal-care duties was often part of the team's weekly staff meeting.
"It's not as if I made it a rule that you have to do this if you're gonna work here," says Tippery. "It's just part of who we are. Luckily, most of us have that connection to animals."
Tippery's foreclosure real-estate business is booming. Still, she continues to squeeze rescue efforts into her erratic schedule, simply because she must. So far Tippery and her colleagues have been able to help as many as 20 animals. "Most people would do the same," she says.
Tippery has become a kind of spokesperson for foreclosure pets. With help from local news outlets she is spreading the word about the issue in hopes that more pet owners who are facing foreclosure will take steps to ensure their animals' safety. She has also found homes for several pets in her office's care by publicizing their plight.
Another bonus to the exposure? It helped her and her colleagues connect with community members and other real-estate agents who are sympathetic to the cause. Now an informal network of would-be competitors are working together. After one news story aired Tippery got a call from an agent who's caring for more than a dozen rescued foreclosure pets in his home.
Tippery even found a solution for saving one pet that would work for her allergy-prone and already-pet-filled household. "I think I'd been through that house four times before I saw him," she recalls. "Then one day I was cleaning up in the kitchen and there was this overturned light fixture sitting on the counter, filled with dark water. I dumped it out into the sink, and a little goldfish flopped out."
Tippery scooped it up and put it in the first clean container she could find, a plastic soda cup, then filled it with bottled water from her car. "Mr. Fish" traveled with her for the rest of that day -- a little orange copilot in her cup holder -- before Tippery herself was finally able to take him home.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.