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.
Real people caring for real people
HSUS program brings pet care to underserved neighborhoods
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Pets for Life clients become dedicated volunteers
PFL teams win hearts, minds, and loyal fans
Brandit is an unlikely Casanova.
The 14-year-old Pomeranian is deaf. He’s going blind with cataracts. And he sits here now, shaking in the arms of his owner. Yet this small dog has fathered at least a dozen litters, earning his name by “branding” each of Betty Hill’s female Chihuahuas.
Hill has single-handedly helped Pets for Life sign up an additional 48 animals for spay/neuter appointments, including a dizzying 40 in one afternoon. She can rattle off a list of who’s been neutered in the neighborhood and who’s holding out. Armed with a water gun, she’s on guard to keep the unaltered male cats from up the street away from the last of the unspayed females. Heck, on this Saturday, she’ll even walk Pets for Life staff down the block to meet another neighbor, who leans out her window and signs up her Chihuahua for an appointment.
The black-and-white cat lying against the house across the street is most definitely in her crosshairs. “I’ve got my eyes on her,” Hill says, raising her voice slightly as if to give the cat fair warning— though there is a little wait with this one, as she’s somewhat recently given birth. “Eight weeks more. I’ve got her clocked.”
In many ways, Hill symbolizes a humbling, heartwarming trend: So many of those helped by this free program stick around to pay it back and pay it forward, becoming volunteers, advocates, and ambassadors.
Their voices are invaluable.