Tara Cooley has friends on five Las Vegas streets where limited incomes are the norm. She and a colleague walk those streets in the densely populated area and look for pets — in yards or wandering the streets. Cooley and her friends knock on doors. They talk to residents about their pets and those stray animals, many of whom belong to neighbors. Most of the pets have never seen a veterinarian.
Cooley tells the residents that she works for The Animal Foundation and that a new program has made it possible to offer free spaying and neutering to pets in their area, which encompasses Sunrise Avenue and Charleston Boulevard on the north and south and 25th to 28th streets on the west and east.
“Free?” is usually the startled reply. “Yes, free. And with your permission, we’ll also give your pets the shots they need and a microchip ID tag as well,” they are told.
If a resident agrees, but doesn’t have transportation for the pet to go to The Animal Foundation clinic, transportation arrangements are made. The resident isn’t asked about income level or immigration status. If the pet owner lives in the specified area and has a pet that could benefit from spaying, neutering or vaccines, the pet qualifies for the free service.
The program Cooley represents is Pets for Life. The Humane Society of the United States, in partnership with PetSmart Charities, chose Las Vegas’ The Animal Foundation as one of five organizations nationally to receive $50,000 grants from the Pets for Life program.
The Las Vegas grant is intended to cover the cost of two community events to launch the program and spaying, neutering and vaccinations for 500 pets in the chosen underserved community. If the program is successful, the grant can be renewed, and additional neighborhoods can be served.
“Some people say that individuals in poor neighborhoods should not have pets, but the pets exist and I’ve found these pets are loved,” Cooley says. “In fact, the pets are in some ways even closer to these families than in other areas because members of the family are often home all day … spending time with their pets.”
For people with limited incomes, veterinarian visits are often unaffordable. As a result, pets reproduce and some families end up with multiple pets, and other animals are simply unwanted and are strays until picked up by Cooley or by animal control.
“Give the family the opportunity to make sure no more puppies or kittens are born to their pets and they are usually very enthusiastic,” Cooley notes.
The Pets for Life program grew out of the Humane Society’s experiences in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Amanda Errington, national director of Pets for Life, said the Humane Society financed four sites to start, in Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Two years ago, PetSmart Charities joined the effort by providing grant money to other organizations. In 2013, 111 groups competed for the grants that finally went to The Animal Foundation and four other organizations.
Errington said the enthusiasm and capabilities of The Animal Foundation, from Executive Director Christine Robinson, development manager Betsy VanDeusen, Cooley and volunteer coordinator Jessica Brooks, went a long way in convincing the Humane Society to seriously consider The Animal Foundation’s application.
Once the grant was awarded, Cooley and Brooks went to Philadelphia for training. Errington and program manager Kenny Lamberti came to Las Vegas to help with the program’s first community event, Feb. 22 at the East Las Vegas Community Center. That event, advertised by fliers taken door to door by Cooley just to the homes in the selected area, offered free vaccinations for pets. Three volunteer veterinarians vaccinated 180 pets.
As of April 1, 173 clients had been seen through the event or in person in the neighborhood. They owned 283 pets, 188 of which were unaltered. Of those 188, 79 surgeries have been completed. A second event featuring free vaccines will take place in May.
Nationwide, Humane Society 2013 statistics show that 9,509 pets were served in 10 cities. Eighty-six percent of the pets were unaltered. Seventy percent had never seen a vet, and 72 percent said yes to spaying or neutering.
The Animal Foundation contributes Cooley’s time to the program and that of volunteer coordinator Brooks. A core group of 10 volunteers helps with the program, with Cooley trying to make certain that residents see the same individual each time they interact with the program. Among the grateful recipients of program benefits are two people who would like to volunteer for the program and who are now in-neighborhood ambassadors, telling their friends and neighbors about Pets for Life.
Cooley, a former teacher with a background in family and consumer services, came to The Animal Foundation a year ago after having volunteered with the organization. Her title is event coordinator and she spends half her time working on Animal Foundation events, the rest of the time with Pets for Life.
Cooley says part of her job is still that of an educator as she talks to clients about wellness care for dogs. Some funds have been available through the grant for “extra” veterinary services for some pets she sees. Donations to The Animal Foundation also mean that Cooley can occasionally present toys, food, leashes or pet beds to specific clients who could use those items. Along with in-kind contributions from Las Vegans, PetSmart, Lowe’s and Mia’s Pet Pantry are among the many community partners who have been known to contribute discontinued pet items to the effort.
“People in the area know me now,” Cooley says. “Sometimes I just leave a pet toy and a card if I knock on a door and no one is home. Later we meet and establish mutual trust. Now many clients contact me with all of their pet questions and concerns, even emergencies. If I don’t know the answers, I try to get answers for them.”
One of Cooley’s favorite clients is Jesus Hernandez, who acquired his retriever-mix dog Lobo on New Year’s Day 2014 from his brother-in-law. Hernandez’s previous dog had died when hit by a car.
Weeks later, Hernandez recalls seeing Cooley in the neighborhood and wondering who she was. She introduced herself and they talked about Lobo. Hernandez was more than happy to have Lobo neutered to take care of “no more puppies.”
Hernandez, retired from the former Sahara and bartenders’ union, is so enthusiastic about Pets for Life that he accompanied Cooley when she and Andy Bischel, development director for The Animal Foundation, made a presentation about the program at the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas.
Jennifer Rodriguez also responded to Cooley’s program and agreed to surgery for three dogs, two of her own and one who seems to have adopted her family. Rodriguez says spaying and neutering is too expensive for her budget, and she was very glad to have help through the program. In the case of her dogs, Cooley personally took the dogs to the shelter for their surgery and brought them back in the afternoon.
More information about services offered by The Animal Foundation is available at www.animalfoundation.com.