After more than a year of life in lockdown, Drama’s not used to having multiple visitors vie for her attention. The pup is peering shyly out from her crate and letting her feline brother, Mr. Mo, hog the spotlight as members of the HSUS Pets for Life team in Philadelphia drop off leashes and cat litter on a hot August afternoon. But Drama’s owner, Denise Young, is overjoyed to welcome these familiar faces back into her Fairhill home—if it weren’t for them, Drama probably would’ve died almost three years ago.

“They literally saved her life,” says Young. Drama had developed pyometra, a life-threatening uterine infection. She needed an emergency spay surgery—one that cost $6,000. As Young frantically weighed her options, someone slipped her a phone number. Enter Pets for Life.

The Humane Society of the United States launched Pets for Life in 2011 to increase equity in access to pet resources—such as spay/neuter surgeries, veterinary care and other services and supplies—for those who live in areas with high rates of poverty. It’s rooted in the understanding that everyone loves their pets, but some people face structural challenges to obtaining what they want and need for them.

Pets for Life has served approximately 30,000 pets in Philadelphia alone over the past decade.

“Just like in more affluent communities, people in underserved neighborhoods truly care for their pets and would do anything for them,” says Melissa Mccloskey, Pets for Life’s Philadelphia city manager. “We’ve seen people not paying their electricity bills so their pet can be fed.” Take Louis Montalvo, whose eight dogs were spayed and neutered through Pets for Life. “I’d probably live on the streets with my dogs before I’d give them to anybody,” he says.

A program known primarily by door-to-door outreach and word-of-mouth that offers pet care and services at no cost, with no catch, might sound too good to be true … which is why the first step is often assuring people that Pets for Life is the real deal. Luckily for Drama, Young took Mccloskey at her word when they first spoke.

“I could hear it in her voice that she was going to help me, that sincerity,” says Young. “It meant someone else cared as much as I did and that meant a lot to me.”

Meeting new people and building those trusting relationships is Mccloskey’s favorite part of her job. “It has a huge impact on the greater community, too; the clients we support are going to tell their neighbors not just how much of a difference Pets for Life made for their pets, but also for them and their happiness, because pets are family.”

Over the past decade, Pets for Life has served approximately 30,000 pets in Philadelphia alone, 81% of whom had never been to a veterinarian—not for lack of their owners’ desire but rather due to barriers such as cost and transportation. Many of the program’s clients have had negative experiences with enforcement agencies or faced racial profiling and other institutional discrimination, which can justifiably create distrust. These issues aren’t unique to Philadelphia; nationwide, there are millions of people like Young and pets like Drama waiting for animal welfare to create a more equitable system.

Far too many people are having to disproportionately work harder and spend more. This is everywhere.

Amanda Arrington, The HSUS

People are doing the best they can, says Amanda Arrington, senior director of Pets for Life. “Far too many people are having to disproportionately work harder and spend more. This is everywhere. This is the crisis in companion animal welfare right now, and it has been for a long time.”

Then throw a global pandemic into the mix.

The first few months were the hardest, says community organizer Carmen Alvarez: “It broke my heart.”

Before everything shut down, the team was facilitating an average of 300 spay/neuter surgeries each month. During pandemic lockdowns, spay/neuter wasn’t considered an essential service.

“That had serious repercussions,” Arrington says, as did COVID-19’s economic impact. “Vulnerable communities are even more financially distressed now; it’s this sort of perfect storm of limited infrastructure and greater demand. How do we continue to be there for the community through that?”

Jazz the cat peeking out from beneath a chair.
Jazz received new toys during an August drop-off.
Meredith Lee

By showing up any way they can.

“We never stopped,” says Mccloskey. She and Alvarez worked within the new restrictions, dropping supplies at people’s doorsteps and calling just to check in. This summer, the team was finally able to resume socially distanced visits with clients again.

Young’s house was the first stop the team made that August day, as they maneuvered their bright blue van through a labyrinth of potholes and one-way streets. The sight turned heads, from potential new clients to old friends.

“I’m so in love with you guys,” gushed Sharlene Wright as her ginger cat, Jazz, curiously sniffed a new teaser toy during a drop-off. Others stopped the team to find out what they were doing—Alvarez says they’ve even been approached at traffic lights. That lifesaving phone number continues to be slipped from hand to grateful hand across the city.

“I didn’t know there was stuff like this in Philadelphia,” says Montalvo. “Now, when something’s wrong with my dogs and I reach out to Melissa, help is right there.”

Pets for Life is closing the service gap that exists for people and pets in underserved areas. Learn More

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