The Hurricane Katrina crisis – 10 years ago, next year – was a wake-up call for our movement on so many levels. One takeaway: most disadvantaged and underserved people with dogs or cats love their animals, but typically they have been unable to afford or access basic services for them. Many of the animals we rescued from neighborhoods in New Orleans and other communities were not spayed or neutered and had never been inside a veterinary clinic. But it wasn’t as if they didn’t love their animals. There was a gap between what the caretakers wanted and what they were able to provide, mainly because of economic means. A lot of us who went down to New Orleans got a lesson in not making judgments about people and staying focused on providing services to sync up the compassion of people in poverty with the actual care their animals needed.
An estimated 23 million pets in the United States are in homes where their caretakers live at or below the poverty level, and that typically leaves the animals without access to veterinary care. That’s three or four times the number of pets who end up in shelters each year. Spay/neuter rates among these animals average less than 20 percent — the exact opposite of the national average of 80 percent. Almost 90 percent of pet owners in these high-poverty areas have never reached out to their local shelter or animal service providers, and close to 80 percent of their pets have never seen a veterinarian.
Our Pets for Life program is aimed at addressing this circumstance, by taking veterinary care and services to some of the country’s most underserved neighborhoods. By bringing these services, including spay and neuter programs and wellness care, to neighborhoods with the most pressing needs, we are working to both cut down on the population of homeless pets and to provide a better quality of life for the animals themselves, ensuring they remain in loving homes. And thanks to our partner, PetSmart Charities®, which has invested almost $2 million in this program since 2013, we have just managed to extend this lifesaving program to five new jurisdictions.
To help implement this program, the Central Oklahoma Humane Society in Oklahoma City, the Nevada Humane Society in Reno, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society, Humane Ohio in Toledo, and the Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C. will each receive $50,000 from PetSmart Charities, in partnership with The HSUS. From The HSUS they will receive hands-on, in-depth training, consistent guidance, and ongoing support. This expands the reach of our Pets for Life Program to more than 25 cities across the country.
The HSUS has been running our Pets for Life programs on the ground in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles since 2011, focusing on community outreach and securing very tangible results. Through October of this year alone we have provided direct care services to over 15,000 dogs and cats and spayed/neutered over 10,000 – for the benefit of the animals and to the joy of the people caring for them.
We first identify an area of focus where a large percentage of people live at or below the poverty level and where there are little to no pet care resources – animal care “deserts,” as we refer to them. We then reach out to the community directly with services and information. Our teams go door to door in the neighborhoods, we often provide transportation for the dogs and cats to their spay-and-neuter and wellness care appointments, and we keep showing up. We aren’t just there for one day, we maintain a continuing presence and become the trusted resource on pet issues. We also focus on the humans along with their companion pets.
Recently during a day of outreach, knocking on doors in Atlanta, members of our Pets for Life team met Valerie and her dog Ming Ming. Ming Ming’s eye was swollen, red and irritated. Instead of assuming Valerie didn’t care or that this was a situation of cruelty or neglect, we talked to Valerie and found out she was very worried for her dog, but she was unemployed and didn’t have the money to get Ming Ming’s eye looked at. So PFL stepped in and we took her to see a veterinarian. Ming Ming had a scratched eye that was treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. “Ming Ming’s eye is healing nicely!” Valerie wrote to our team shortly after. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
In addition to such direct community outreach, and perhaps even more importantly, we’ve been mentoring dozens of other dog-and-cat care organizations in how to implement the program, developing a new, risk-based strategy that is one of the most viral ideas in our movement. These groups are now actively extending their own reach to underserved areas and putting these practices to work, so that every pet – regardless of where he or she lives – has access to wellness services, spay-and-neuter, and other critical information and resources.
You can help us grow the Pets for Life program and continue its success across the country today.