Lilo, a 4-year-old German shepherd-Great Pyrenees mix, was found wandering the streets of Chattanooga, Tenn., alone. All she had with her was a leash and collar - which had a heartbreaking handwritten note attached to it.
"Please keep my name. My name is Lilo," the note read. "Please love me. My mom can't keep me and is homeless with 2 kids. She tried her best but can't get help. I cost too much for her."
"She really loves me and I'm a great dog and love to be loved on," the note continued. "Please don't abuse me."
Lilo was found by a local resident on Jan. 20 and taken to McKamey Animal Center. When she first arrived, "she was really scared," said Lauren Mann, the director of advancement at the shelter.
"We all cried reading the note," Mann said. "We see a lot of sad stuff every single day, but it just really hit us all. The last line is gut-wrenching."
Staff at the shelter felt that Lilo's mom sincerely loved her dog and couldn't see any option but to let her go. They could also sense that Lilo was desperately missing her family.
"We decided collectively that we were going to do everything we can to reunite them and get them back on their feet," said Mann, who has worked in the animal sheltering world for nearly six years and has seldom seen an owner write such a note.
"It definitely stands out," Mann said.
Shelter staff decided to share her story on social media, in the hope that her owner might see it. They titled the Facebook post: "A Note To Lilo's Mom: We're here for you" and also shared a video on TikTok.
"We are so sorry that you had to make the decision to leave her behind. We know many folks are struggling to care for their pets right now," they wrote. "We know how hard it must be to give up an animal you so clearly loved because you can't provide the care she needs. We understand."
"We want you to know she is safe, and we will take the very best care of her. She will be loved by our staff and volunteers, we will keep her name, and we promise you we will do our best to find her a wonderful new home," the post continued. "But if you are reading this, we hope you will come forward to reclaim her. We will help you with whatever you need to care for her, to the best of our ability."
Staff assured Lilo's mom that "we understand, we will not judge, and we are here to help in any way we can," and also mentioned that they are "well connected" with resources and agencies that help people dealing with homelessness.
It only took one day for a friend of a friend to spot the post and pass it along to Lilo's mom - who the shelter declined to identify to protect her privacy. She called the shelter and spoke with Mann, and later that day, Jan. 25, she came to the shelter to see Lilo, Mann said.
"There was not a dry eye in the room," said Mann, who asked Lilo's mom specific questions in advance to verify that she was, in fact, her owner. "I swear, if a dog could cry like a human could, she was crying."
Lilo - who Mann described as "very fluffy," "very, very sweet" and "well-tempered" - was ecstatic to be reunited with her human. Lilo's mom, Mann said, was elated, too.
"We had some private conversations, and she was very grateful," Mann said. "I told her: 'you're not alone. There are so many people out there that are dealing with homelessness right now. It's an awful thing to have to go through but there are resources and people who care.'"
Lilo's mom and two young children are currently staying somewhere that does not allow animals, Mann said, and shelter staff are working with the Family Justice Center, as well as a local pet-friendly shelter to get the family relocated promptly. Lilo, meanwhile, will stay at the shelter as long as is needed, until she can go live with her family again.
"We're doing everything we can to expedite the process and get them back together as soon as we can," said Mann, who previously worked at a domestic violence and sexual assault center for women. Lilo's mom's story, she said, "really hit my heart heavy."
Shelter staff shared an update on social media, as many people became invested in Lilo's story from afar, and were hoping for a happy outcome.
"We are actively working with the family to set them up with a safe haven, shelter, and resources to stay together and tackle homelessness," the post reads. "We are thankful for everyone who has advocated for the family, and shared our post."
While leaving a letter with an abandoned dog is a relatively rare occurrence, Mann explained, Lilo's story, sadly, is not.
"This past year, we've taken in almost 5,000 animals, and almost all of them have a story like this," Mann said. "She just happened to be lucky because she had a note attached."
Amid inflation, people across the country are no longer able to afford their pets. The problem is compounded by the fact that Americans adopted animals in record numbers at the height of the pandemic.
According to data from the American Pet Products Association trade group, 35 percent of pet owners are worried about the expense of having a pet in the current economy, and of them, half say they may need to surrender their animals.
"It's a lot of factors all rolled into one big national crisis," said Mann. "We have a couple dogs who have been waiting over a year for an adopter."
In addition to inflation, veterinary services have become increasingly expensive, Mann continued, and there's also a lack of pet-friendly affordable housing.
"We're all doing what we can to get through it every day," she said, adding that the shelter is currently above capacity, and its primary priority is to find homes for pets, and in cases where it's possible, reunite them with their owners.
The shelter has programs to make animal ownership more affordable, including a community pet food pantry, vaccine and microchip clinics, low-cost spay and neuter services and rehoming resources. McKamey Animal Center also partners with other local animal organizations to offer additional support.
"We are super dedicated to doing what we can to keep pets and people together," Mann said. "There's definitely a stray problem in our area, as there is in probably all of the country right now."
Mann and her colleagues hope Lilo's story inspires people to reach out to their local animal shelter and offer support - whether through adopting, fostering, donating supplies or volunteering.
While some might be quick to judge Lilo's owner for abandoning her, and perhaps believe she doesn't deserve to be reunited with the dog, situations like these deserve empathy, Mann said.
"Compassion and kindness are what people and animals need right now more than ever," she said.