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December 12, 2012

Taking It to the Streets, Page 4: Building Trust to Build Relationships

Pets for Life follows the principles of showing up, coming back, and making good on your word

All Animals magazine, January/February 2013

  • Kasey Gardner waits to get free vaccinations for his dog Kane at a Chicago event. Chris Lake/For The HSUS.

Years before she would crisscross the Gulf Coast in a rental car, years before she would then spearhead the launch of Pets for Life in the fall of 2011, Arrington spent a sleepless night in her Durham, N.C., home—both nervous and excited for what the next day might bring.

Arrington was launching her new nonprofit, Coalition to Unchain Dogs. On this Saturday, she would be walking door-to-door for the first time. She’d printed fliers on her computer, ready to talk to owners about alternatives to leaving their dogs tied up outside.

The very first house Arrington approached belonged to a woman named Ms. Harris. She knocked, and a face peered from behind a window curtain. They locked eyes. But the door never opened. Arrington left a note, then came back the next Saturday. This time, Ms. Harris opened the door but left her screen door shut, allowing Arrington to talk about her program, which requires clients only to sign up for a free spay/neuter appointment to receive a free fence.

On that second visit, Arrington got a casual, “OK, leave me your number,” and so she returned the Saturday after that. This time, both doors opened.

Eventually, Ms. Harris agreed to get her three dogs neutered, including Spot the pit bull, who was living on the front porch in a carpet-covered crate. Spot belonged to her grandson, who was in jail at the time. Arrington drove the dogs to their appointments, and one weekend, volunteers built a backyard fence, giving the dogs a space to run free.

"It wasn’t because she didn’t care, and it wasn’t because she was a bad person. It was just that I was a stranger in her neighborhood, and she had to make sure that I was OK."

“The basis of all of this with Pets for Life was just that lesson of, you have to build trust and you have to build those relationships, and Ms. Harris really taught me that,” Arrington says. “And it wasn’t because she didn’t care, and it wasn’t because she was a bad person. It was just that I was a stranger in her neighborhood, and she had to make sure that I was OK. And I get that.”

And so, Pets for Life emphasizes building those relationships. It emphasizes showing respect, setting aside judgment, creating a consistent presence, and setting realistic goals. The core principles revolve around the simple, powerful acts of showing up, coming back, and making good on your word—particularly in communities all too familiar with being let down.

That approach hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Standing on his porch, his papillons perusing their fenced-in, concrete front yard, Ramos, the recovery center manager, is asked why Pets for Life has found a foothold in Philadelphia, why people like him and his wife have begun volunteering.

“It’s real people working for real people,” he says. “When I first spoke to Janice, and then I met [other staffers], it wasn’t like, ‘Greetings Earthlings, we are gathered here to help you with your problems. Just come to us. We are here to help you.’ It was more like, ‘How you doing? Long time no see.’ It was the human contact. And plus, it’s people who really love their pets. They don’t do this for a paycheck. They do this because they love what they do.”

“She’s a beautiful woman who loves her dogs so much that she’s going to stay in this situation in order to keep them.”

In the Chicago community of North Lawndale, where 45 percent of residents are living below the poverty line, where racial and gang tensions persist with neighboring South Lawndale, Pets for Life manager Laurie Maxwell had been, for weeks, keeping an eye on a boarded-up house. There were often two pit bulls out front, but she could never get their owner, Del Smith, to come out and talk. Through a window, Maxwell even asked for a phone number; Smith instead offered to take hers. She never called.

Finally, out driving one night, Maxwell saw her standing alongside an ice cream truck. She stopped quickly and hustled over. “I was so looking forward to meeting with you,” she told Smith. “Let’s talk.” And so Maxwell bought her a chocolate ice cream cone, and the two finally chatted there under the train tracks—Smith telling her she could opt for public housing but she didn’t want to give up her dogs, Momma and Rocky. Instead, she would continue slipping in and out through a basement opening in that boarded-up building.

That night, Smith agreed to let Pets for Life pay for Momma’s spay. The program eventually helped spay the puppies from Momma’s final, accidental litter as well, while Smith in turn has introduced Maxwell to most everyone on her block. “We talk all the time,” Maxwell says. “She’s a beautiful woman who loves her dogs so much that she’s going to stay in this situation in order to keep them.”

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