Jenn House, The Union Democrat

A case can be made that the real victims of the nation's economic crisis are not the jobless, the foreclosed upon or the bankrupt.

Instead, they may well be the cats, dogs and horses abandoned or neglected by those people.

For many of these animals, through no fault of their own, are facing cold winter days without shelter, food or proper medical care.

To be sure, most people facing hard times take care of their pets.

Maybe they forgo dinners out or nights at the movies to make sure the animals still thrive. Or, if conditions are dire, they might find new owners who are willing to love and care for them.

Unfortunately, a growing minority is choosing a far less responsible path:

• In late December, Tuolumne County Animal Control officers found a starving and abandoned mare off Red Hills Road in the Chinese Camp area. She was thirsty, hungry, hardly able to eat and barely walking. Animal Control Manager Jennifer Clarke said months of neglect had likely brought this emaciated horse to the brink of death.

The mare, in fact, was euthanized within two weeks to spare it even more suffering. Her owner, who could face abandonment charges, has not been found.

• Animal Control last spring seized eight young, but still starving horses from property in the Columbia area. Four of them were nursed back to health and adopted out, but four remain at the shelter. The owner could face neglect charges.

• Haus, a Rottweiler, was left on his own last fall in a Jamestown-area home by owners who hurriedly departed. After the home's new owners found him, Haus was taken to Animal Control to await euthanasia. But Friends of Animal Control founder Darlene Mathews rescued him and placed him with foster parents who not only nursed Haus back to health, but later adopted him as their own.

Haus's story had a happy ending, but many more animals don't fare nearly as well.

Norcal Equine Rescue, based in Oroville, recently put down 10 ailing, neglected horses in an "Equine Euthanasia Day."

"Absolutely unprecedented," said Clarke of the grim occasion, adding that horses - which are costly both to buy and care for - are perhaps the recession's most tragic victims.

"There's no market for them anymore," said Clarke. "Placing an old horse these days is virtually impossible."

Even in the best of times, horse ownership is not cheap.

Now, with incomes down, savings depleted and jobs on the line, it has become prohibitive. Hay has doubled in price over the past couple of years and, said Clarke, annual upkeep costs for even a healthy horse are climbing toward $1,500.

But "dumping your horse on someone's back 40," she added, is not only cruel, but illegal. Instead, she suggests, equine rescue organizations can help care for or place animals.

Even in a worst-case scenario, it is kinder to have a veterinarian euthanize an aging or sick horse than to let it starve to death.

Clarke said dogs and cats have also been innocent victims of the economic downturn. "Typically, a lot of the animals we bring into the shelter are reclaimed by owners," she said. "But now a lot of those owners just aren't coming in."

Which, in many cases, can mean death for their pets.

It is often said that you can judge a man by the way he treats animals and in these trying times, character may be severely tested.

For the sake of our pets, who depend on us for survival, let's resolve to pass those tests.