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December 12, 2012

Taking It to the Streets, Page 2: Real People Caring for Real People

HSUS program brings pet care to underserved neighborhoods

All Animals magazine, January/February 2013

  • Volunteer Cornelius Payton talks with young pet owners at a Chicago outreach event.  Chris Lake/For The HSUS

It’s a unique approach, hitting these streets, helping these pets who have historically flown under the radar in the animal welfare world, and doing it all by, first and foremost, building relationships with the pet owners.

The HSUS operates Pets for Life programs in targeted neighborhoods of four cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, and most recently, Los Angeles. The program evolved, in part, from the organization’s post-Katrina campaign in the Gulf Coast, where intensive market research began to debunk the animal sheltering community’s longstanding notion that urban pet owners were ideologically opposed to spay/neuter. Rather, the research showed that cost and lack of information were bigger roadblocks—and that simply getting out and starting conversations, offering free spay/neuter vouchers, and holding large-scale outreach events clearly made an impact.

Today the program reaches underserved, often overlooked neighborhoods chosen not only for their poverty levels but for their lack of access to pet care resources, particularly for residents without cars. The notion of food deserts in the United States has gained steam recently—areas without access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other items needed for a healthy diet—and this program seeks to address the pet care deserts that often accompany them.
 
So far, the results have been extraordinary: In 2012, Pets for Life helped more than 10,000 animals with free services like vaccinations, spay/neuter, training classes, new leashes and collars, food, flea and tick medication, and one-on-one advice for pet owners.

Just as important: This program buzzes and builds with a contagious, pay-it-forward momentum. It’s evident within the four targeted cities, where new clients regularly become new advocates and volunteers. And it’s evident beyond, as grants from PetSmart Charities have enabled The HSUS to mentor groups in 10 more cities, from Phoenix to Milwaukee to Camden, N.J.

“We’re never naïve,” Lamberti says. “We don’t think all of the sudden the streets are going to be lined with rainbows and chocolate fountains. The suffering is still going to be there, but you’re going to make improvements, and it’s going to stabilize on some level. And every block that you move to, you build your little army with you.”

"I don't mind skipping a meal every once in a while ... as long as my dogs have what they need."

Indeed, Pets for Life doesn’t just reach out to these communities, it embeds within them—engaging pet owners who traditionally have not visited shelters, or called animal control, or in many cases, made a vet appointment. That was another lesson learned in the wake of Katrina: The push to reduce pet overpopulation, to relieve suffering, had to expand beyond the animals entering shelters, as hundreds of thousands more were never making it there in the first place.

“It’s not just about spay/neuter. And it’s not just about dogfighting. And it’s not just about chaining,” says Pets for Life director Amanda Arrington, a driving force behind the creation and implementation of the program. “It’s about all of these things that haven’t been addressed and that we need to, as a field, take a look at and see where we’re failing these pets and where we’re failing these pet owners.”

City block by city block, success stories are now emerging. Take it from J.C. Ramos, a care manager in a Philadelphia recovery house for Latino men just out of jail or detox. The program funded vaccinations and spay/neuter for his five dogs and three cats.

“There’s a lot of people who have good intentions and really love their pets, but good intentions don’t count at the end of the day,” he says. “It’s good that programs like this exist because there’s people who would give their lives for their dogs. Like me, I don’t mind skipping a meal every once in a while … as long as my dogs have what they need. Sadly, there’s people who can’t afford it.”

Or take it from Victoria Santiago, a faithful volunteer who lives a stone’s throw from Ramos: “No matter what I do, I’m never going to be able to repay what you guys have done for me and my family, my community, my friends. So, thank you.”

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