Drew Desjardins of Mr. Drew’s Exotic Rescue and Education Center in Lewiston is taking care of Odell after the 3-year-old ball python was left at the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta with a letter stating the owner had fallen onto tough times because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Desjardins has taken in eight pythons since the coronavirus took hold in March. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Like a baby in a basket, owners left Odell the ball python on a loading dock at the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta with a note: “My parents are struggling and can no longer provide proper care for me. I am extremely friendly and love to be held. I have not eaten in weeks and need a meal :(”

This letter came with a 3-year-old ball python that was left at the Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta. Odell is now in the hands of Drew Desjardins at Mr. Drew’s Exotic Rescue and Education Center at the Pepperell Mill in Lewiston. “I take in what they don’t,” Desjardins said of the Humane Society. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Off he went to Mr. Drew’s Exotic Rescue and Education Center at the Pepperell Mill in Lewiston. Most summers, Drew Desjardins might see 20 reptiles given up by owners who cannot afford them anymore. This summer, it has been 60 to 70.

Janet Tuttle has turned away 50 horses at Rockin’ T Equine Sanctuary and Rescue in Lisbon Falls. She is at capacity and hesitant to adopt out what she has, concerned they are going to come right back this fall when the new owners also cannot afford them.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic, recession and 2020 uncertainty, pet owners are walking away, turning to free clinics and hitting free pet food pantries in greater numbers around western Maine.

A Greater Androscoggin Humane Society free vaccine clinic in June drew 100 cats and dogs. The next one in July drew 150.

In the past, “seeing 60 in a clinic would be big for us,” said Executive Director Katie Lisnik.

Two more are scheduled for September and October.

Janet Tuttle, right, shares a laugh with her sister, Deb Doherty, at the Rockin’ T Equine Sanctuary and Rescue in Lisbon Falls. “I sleep in the house, but I live in the barn,” Tuttle said of the time she spends with her rescued animals. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Knock on wood, during COVID it’s been relatively quiet in terms of surrenders, quieter than normal,” Lisnik said. “We are anticipating that it will pick up, just based on evictions and people needing to move to find work, as the economic crisis really kicks in and the relief programs start falling off. I think it’s just really a matter of time.”

The shelter’s already exploring options, according to Lisnik.

“Are we able to provide temporary foster care or boarding? Are we able to help with medical costs to help keep the animal in the home?” she said. “We’re looking to possibly partner with more human food pantries so that pet food (can be distributed) during those pantries, as well. Just trying to look at what else is going on as a community and how can we help and collaborate.”

At the Franklin County Animal Shelter, the staff is seeing increased demand at a free pet food pantry.

“We used to only hold it every other week. Now we’re holding it weekly, and sometimes people are calling in asking for assistance during the week, as well,” said Catherine Chapman, animal care supervisor. “It helps us. It helps them. It’s a better solution, if we can make it work.”

Tina Billings at Responsible Pet Care in Norway said he has fielded more calls from pet owners asking for help with spaying or neutering. In the past, the group has received grants to defray that cost, but it has received none this year.

“A lot of people need help that way,” Billings said. “I think financially, it’s hit people hard, especially when you have animals and you don’t have the money to fix them.”

Tuttle, who has 22 horses at her rescue, said donations are markedly down and hay has gotten expensive, between $4 and $5 a bale.

“I’ve had a lot of phone calls — they don’t have a job or they can’t afford them anymore,” she said. “It is sad and it’s going to get worse once the pastures are gone. A lot of them are going to go to slaughter. It’s going to happen that way because people will just let them go to anybody. They go in the pipeline and then end up for meat.

“It’s a sad life for a horse. One day, they’re a hero. The next day, they’re a zero, just because they got old. I’m very protective of the ones I have here. I’m very careful where I place them.”

Tuttle said she has found homes for three rescues this year.

“Two have come back already — financially, they can’t afford the hay,” she said. “People can’t do it, they just can’t afford it. And I know, because we’re struggling big time.”

Tuttle said she is planning a benefit auction for September, hoping it will defray some of the cost of the 3,500 bales of hay the rescue needs for this winter.

Janet Tuttle spends time Tuesday with Delijah at Rockin’ T Equine Sanctuary and Rescue in Lisbon Falls. “They all have stories here,” Tuttle said of the rescued animals that live at her farm — including “the pig that is going to a vegan home.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Desjardins said he has fundraisers for his rescue center planned for Wednesday afternoon at Lost Valley Brewing Co. in Auburn, and another set for next month at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner.

He said he is seeking many bearded dragons, ball pythons and turtles.

Odie the Australian Shepheard came to live at Rockin’ T Equine Rescue last fall after his owner did not want him. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It wasn’t right away. March, we might have got one or two, but people were still adjusting,” he said. “August, we really saw the most and I think it’s all because of so much uncertainty. Some people are back to work, and that’s great, but some people aren’t. And some people have to catch up on rents. People are (saying), ‘Well, I can buy groceries for me or my snake?'”

Desjardins’ center has been closed since March, surviving on donations and animal shows. Cold-blooded reptiles do not need to eat every day, Desjardins said, and he breeds rats and mice, so food costs are lower for him. But there is still extra electricity for heat lamps, bedding and space.

Like Tuttle, Desjardins has been cautious about adopting out the abandoned pets to new homes.

“The way things are with COVID,” he said, “what makes you think you’re not going to be in the same situation?”

Odell the ball python arrived at his center Sunday, small for a 3-year-old, and ate as soon as he was fed.

Desjardins shared the handwritten letter from Odell’s former owners on social media, hoping it makes people think about getting a pet and being responsible for its future.

“There’s going to be a point we’re going to have to say no (to taking in more unwanted animals),” Desjardins said. “We’re making due with what we can, but there’s going to be a point where we can’t — that’s the concern. What happens after that? Where are they going to go? To someone who doesn’t know how to care for them? Or are they going to release them?”

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