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Pet aides

AIDS patients get help to keep furry friends

(Published October 4, 1999)


Special to The Common Denominator

PETS-DC relies on the motivation and dedication of individual volunteers to provide food, daily care, foster care and adoption services to pets of D.C. residents who are sick with complications of the AIDS virus.

While the organization, with only one full-time staff person, is still reeling from the unexpected death last May of its acting executive director, Gregory Johnson, 160 volunteers continue to serve the groupís 146 clients and their pets. The organization was left without leadership for three months this summer.

Chip Wells, who was on sabbatical, came back to his job as executive director in September. The gap left calls unanswered and some volunteers wondering what to do, said one volunteer. The group "made do" over the summer, says Wells, but did not have to discontinue any existing client services.

Penelope Brown, a PETS-DC volunteer for three years, started off expecting to learn more about dogs and contribute to the AIDS community. She said didnít expect to become a thunderstorm expert in the process.

Macy, an 11-year-old mixed-breed dog who is petrified of storms, joined Brownís home last month with her sidekick, Lido, a 6-year-old mixed breed. Macy doesnít just hide during storms, she rips apart the carpeting, plus anything else in her path, including ó on one occasion ó cans of paint thinner. Luckily, whenever thereís trouble with Macy, Lido barks until help arrives.

Brown adopted the duo after their owner and PETS-DC client, Paul, died in July. Brown, who is now a professional dog trainer, decided to keep the dogs she had volunteered to care for. Macy, especially, became very depressed after Paulís death, dropping 12 pounds in a matter of weeks.

"Macy is just beginning to surface," Brown says. "I would just hate to stir things up for her again" by putting her in another home.

Paul, who lost his sight due to an AIDS-related eye infection, CMV, lived longer than anyone expected. Brown credits his dogs. "I know the value of pet-assisted therapy," says Brown. Macy and Lido accompanied Brown when she visited Paul in a nursing home during his last weeks.

PETS-DC has two-day training sessions for volunteers on the nature of AIDS and pet care. Training in-cludes information on stages of the disease and how each person is affected differently. There are holes in the volunteer support system, Brown says, such as knowing whether or not your cold is bad for a client. PETS-DC advises volunteers to consult their own doctors, not able to be more specific due to liability concerns.

Also, volunteers are supposed to be coordinated by regional team leaders, who set up walking schedules and coordinate other volunteer activities. Itís a "very large job," says Brown, and some regions in the city donít have one at all. Dupont Circle, historically home to the cityís largest gay community, has been without a team leader for two years.

Wells, one of the founders of PETS-DC, said the organization is modeled on similar groups in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The founders expected to handle more foster care and adoptions at the start, when "clients came to us in the last months of their lives," says Wells.

Now, with the advent of HIV-treating drugs, clients are contacting PETS-DC while still in the earlier stages of HIV infection. Medications used to suppress HIV in the bloodstream cost upwards of $15,000 per year, resulting in higher demand for pet food and supplies provided by PETS-DC to people under strong financial pressure.

Wells says that providing veterinary care, grooming and pet food now makes up 90 percent of the groupís work. "It makes us happy that weíre not doing that many adoptions," says Wells. The core goal of the group is "to do whatever is necessary to keep our clients and their pets together."

PETS-DC is funded through individual donations, the United Way and the Combined Federal Campaign, private foundations such as Broadway Cares, local group Brother Help Thyself, and the AIDS Walk Foundation. Corporate support comes from Petsmart, Petco and the local veterinary and grooming community.

The group also runs two major fundraisers every year: Pride of Pets dog show on Dupont Circle every May, and the Top Cat photo contest at Franklynís Coffee House in Adams Morgan every October.

Top Cat contestants can enter cat pictures for $5 per photo, which will be on display at the coffeehouse for the entire month. People can come in and vote for their favorite photo at $1 per vote. The cat that raises the most money wins a prize package including a weekend trip to a local getaway, a cat tree and other kitty supplies. "The competition is tough," says Wells. The winner is announced at an Oct. 30 costume party at the coffeehouse. The event raised over $3,000 last year.


For information on upcoming events and volunteer opportunities, call (202) 234-PETS.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator