WHEN A DOG OR CAT is surrendered to a shelter or dies of a disease that could have been prevented, some want to blame the owners. If they couldn’t care for the animal, they should never have gotten it in the first place, right?
But people’s lives can change in an instant; jobs end, children get sick, families lose their homes. A national survey conducted in January 2016 found that six out of 10 Americans couldn’t cover an unexpected $500 car repair or $1,000 medical bill.
That doesn’t leave much slack for the family dog. Paw Fund, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit founded five years ago by animal advocate and longtime activist Jill Posener, has very deliberately disconnected from the blame game. Preventable diseases, uncontrolled breeding and overflowing shelters are crises not just for pets and owners, but also, for our communities as a whole. That’s why Paw Fund provides the pets of homeless and low-income residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties with free vaccinations; free or low-cost spay and neuter; basic wellness care, such as dewormers and flea preventives; and sometimes even nail clipping. The goal is what Posener, Paw Fund’s executive director, calls “harm reduction.”
“The truth is that relatively small interventions can keep dogs and cats healthy, in their existing homes and out of the shelters,” Posener says.
It started in 2011, when an outbreak of canine parvovirus raced through the camps of homeless youths in People’s Park in Berkeley. Parvo is easy to prevent, but making sure their pets get a series of vaccinations can be challenging for street kids. Posener sprang into action. She recruited a vet tech, loaded vaccines into her car and took the lifesaving shots right to the animals who needed them, week after week, until the epidemic abated. And with that, Paw Fund and its harm-reduction approach was born. People trust Paw Fund to be there for them without judging them, and Paw Fund trusts its clients to truly need its services. “We don’t ask for proof of income,” says Posener. “People feel bad enough when they can’t provide for their pets. We don’t need to rub it in by making them prove they have no money.”
The Paw Fund model seems to work, and it’s catching on. It’s not unusual to find 80 people and up to 150 pets at its monthly open-air clinics in Berkeley, patiently waiting as long as two hours in the sun, rain or Bay Area fog. Since its founding, Paw Fund has provided care to more than 5,000 at-risk dogs and cats, coordinated more than 1,500 free or low-cost spays and neuters, and given more than 10,000 free vaccinations at its monthly clinics and pop-up clinics in trailer parks and inner-city neighborhoods across the East Bay. It also mentored two startup organizations with similar goals in Brentwood and Oakland that are now self-sustaining.
Traditional rescue per se isn’t Paw Fund’s primary mission, but sometimes, people beg to surrender a basket of puppies or kittens. When that happens, Paw Fund often persuades the owners to spay or neuter the parents, and picks up the tab.
Many people want to have their pets sterilized but literally can’t make it to the vet appointment. They may be afraid to take time off from work, or don’t have a driver’s license, or live under a freeway overpass. Paw Fund volunteers will pick up a dog or cat at the crack of dawn and deliver the animal back after the procedure. That kind of block-by-block, pet-by-pet outreach led the City of Berkeley to award Paw Fund the contract to run its free spay/neuter program in 2016 and then to extend the contract into 2017.
Paw Fund, a 501(c)(3) based in Emeryville, Calif., is staffed largely by volunteers; vets, vet techs and even a tax preparer work pro bono. In 2017, plans include hiring a part-time medical director to oversee clinics and to make home visits and treatment possible, including humane euthanasia at home. Because, no matter how rich or poor their people are, every pet deserves to live as healthy a life as possible and then to go peacefully when the time comes.