Are Banks Responsible for Animals Caught in Foreclosures?
Earlier this week, a bank foreclosed on an animal sanctuary in Rhode Island. The owner was evicted, 136 animals were left behind. The Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says that somebody could face charges of animal neglect and cruelty if the Bonniedale Farms animals aren't provided with basic care ... and that somebody could be Wells Fargo Bank.
It's the worst possible situation for the cats, dogs, ducks, geese, sheep, horses, pigs, and llamas who were living at the sanctuary because they'd already been abandoned once. There's no doubt that the immediate priority is making sure they get the care they need and that some sort of plan is put in place to find them a new home. But this situation raises a bigger question: Who is responsible for the re-abandonment of these animals?
Banks aren't good property owners and, even in better times, they have a hard time keeping up with the upkeep of their properties. With the high foreclosure rates in the past few years, cities and states around the country (including Rhode Island) have started to take abandoned property care into their own hands to keep their neighborhoods safe and clean. Usually foreclosed and/or abandoned properties have furniture, clothes, and trash left behind that someone needs to deal with. Family pets are abandoned all too frequently, but one or two dogs or cats are easy enough to drop off at the local shelter. What does a bank do with 136 animals?
Wells Fargo wouldn't let Bonniedale Farms' owner back onto the property to care for the animals. The bank also allegedly refused help from the RISPCA. I assume these decisions were following some sort of foreclosure protocol, but this situation is entirely unprecedented, and protocol doesn't apply. The management company in charge of the property spoke to the state veterinarian the day after the owner had been evicted, so they might have come to a temporary arrangement for vet students from the University of Rhode Island to help out with the care under the supervision of the RISPCA. But there's a lot of concern about the future of the animals, and what happened between the owner's eviction on Monday and the agreement on Tuesday. When the RISPCA President visited the site, he found animals without water, and some of the animals might have disappeared.
With the owner not allowed back on the property, the bank has assumed responsibility for the site and everything on it. It's obviously way out of its league, and should have engaged the help of RISPCA and the state veterinarian sooner. But what about the owner's responsibility?
I don't know where the legal lines are drawn for abandonment in this situation. Since this is unprecedented in the state of Rhode Island, it's possible there's not a clear legal answer. But this is what bothers me about the other side of the story: foreclosure is not a surprise. Dan MacKenzie, the owner, was served notice last spring that his mortgage was on thin ice, and when the moving trucks arrived earlier this week, there were still 136 animals on the property. Back in March, he knew he was less than two months away from foreclosure and asked for financial help from the community. There was some response, but it was too little, too late.
Banks are institutions that have never given us a reason to think they'll suddenly act sympathetically for the sake of animals or children. If he was expecting foreclosure by May, it shouldn't have been that big of a surprise when there was a knock on his door in December. He asked for help in March to keep his farm of over 100 animals afloat, and when it sank nine months later, over 100 animals went down with it. There had to be a moment in there when he knew the future looked bleak. Even an eternal optimist would realize that reducing the number of animals would reduce costs and therefore make a recovery more likely. Why didn't he start working with the shelter months ago, networking with sanctuaries around the country, asking people in the community to help with fostering? In the half a dozen or stories I've read on Bonniedale Farm, I haven't seen mention of any efforts to place the animals.
Maybe he wouldn't have been able to find placement for all of them, and maybe we'd be seeing these exact same articles of the struggle with the bank to provide proper care for the animals after the owner's eviction. There's no excuse for Wells Fargo for making it so difficult for these animals to receive basic care. But maybe dozens of them would have been safely placed by now, and fewer of them left behind to suffer.
MacKenzie is probably a big-hearted man who gave everything he had to these animals and, like so many others who are hit hard by the economy, the numbers stopped adding up. I feel for him and everything he lost. I live in a state that's taken one of the hardest hits in this economy, and I know it's not easy out there. But animals don't understand finances and debt and mortgage payments. They only understand being left behind. Whether you take in one companion animal, or a dozen rescues, or a farm full of hundreds of animals who need sanctuary, those animals depend on you. It's up to you to make sure they're taken care of. Sometimes that means putting aside pride and asking for help. Sometimes it means facing harsh realities about your own uncertain future. Dog rescues get calls every day from people who "have to move tomorrow" and need someplace for their dog to go.
There's no excuse for waiting to the last minute to figure out where your dog will end up if you can't take him. The more animals you're dealing with, the more you need to plan ahead, so you don't end up with 136 animals with no place to go when you lose the farm.