December 12, 2012
Taking It to the Streets: The HSUS's Pets for Life Program Brings Pet Care to the People
Block by block, program helps pet owners in overlooked neighborhoods
by Michael Sharp
On the concrete front porch of this rundown row house, along a narrow street in a rough neighborhood named Hunting Park, eight men sit outside drinking one October afternoon. Two pit bulls and a small dog lie at their feet; the adjoining house next door has boards across its first-floor windows.
These men watch skeptically as a stranger approaches.
Kenny Lamberti is just weeks into his job as Philadelphia manager for The HSUS’s Pets for Life program. And already he’s been cautioned, more than once, that perhaps it’d be better to just avoid this stretch of town, this house in particular.
“What’s going on?” Lamberti says, with a wave.
A few stares.
And finally, from one of the men: “You looking for somebody?”
No, Lamberti tells them, introducing himself. He points to the good-looking pair of pit bulls, asking where they came from. He tells them he has one himself at home, his beloved Ruben. Others start to mention their dogs. Slowly, the conversation begins to loosen.
Eventually, Lamberti explains why he’s out learning these streets: The HSUS has targeted this neighborhood with a new program to help pet owners. He mentions that he’s a dog trainer and the program offers free classes. This piques the interest of one man whose German shepherd is apparently scaring everyone.
After about 45 minutes, Lamberti hands them new leashes and collars—items he’s carried for precisely these moments—and tells them he’ll be back. At least one of the men is still skeptical: “We’ll see about that.” But he does return. One day, he brings more collars, more leashes, and some much-needed flea and tick medication. Another day, he drops off Pets for Life T-shirts. In the weeks that follow, these men—among them former gang members recently released from prison, trying to move forward with their lives—will help spread the word about this initiative to assist pets and their owners in inner-city communities. In the weeks that follow, these men, on their own, will direct dozens of new people to free rabies vaccinations, to free spay/neuter appointments, to those dog training classes.
But on Lamberti’s fourth visit, it’s decided they’ll simply take their dogs out through the neighborhood. And so they walk—eight men, five dogs. “Hey, do you guys know other people that have dogs?” Lamberti asks them, still trying to get a feel for pet owners in Hunting Park.
They point out homes. These people have dogs. This lady feeds all the neighborhood cats. At one point, a woman leans out her window and examines this peculiar parade; most of the men happen to be wearing their new black T-shirts. She yells out: “You all look like a gang of peace.”
Eleven months later, Lamberti still chuckles at the thought of that moment, that gang of peace. “That’s Pets for Life, really,” he says. “It just started with saying hello.”