Two weeks ago, 456 people from one of Atlanta’s most underserved neighborhoods lined up, some for hours, for rabies shots and other free services for their dogs and cats. Almost half of the pet owners signed up to have their animals spayed or neutered, another 91 for the weekly dog training classes. The outreach was the work of Pets for Life, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that offers pet care to four low-income and underserved communities nationwide. The Atlanta chapter, with its two employees and 50 volunteers, is located on Hollywood Road in northwest Atlanta and serves the Center Hill community. “Many of our volunteers come in here with preconceived ideas that the people in our community don’t care about their pets,” said Rachel Thompson, coordinator of Pets for Life Atlanta. “But they love their animals just as much. It’s a matter of helping the people at the other end of the leash.”
Q: Can you talk more about Pets for Life?
A: We bring animal welfare outside the shelter walls. We work in neighborhoods that are below the national poverty level and void of all animal care resources. You won’t see a PetSmart or a Walmart or a veterinarian in our neighborhoods. Spaying and neutering is a big part of our program.
Q: How long have you been in Atlanta and what have you accomplished?
A: We have been here two and a half years. In March, we spayed or neutered almost 200 animals. When you realize how many litters that will prevent, we are making a difference. We also are making very small steps in changing ideas.
Q: How so?
A: If you look at a community above the poverty level, 80 percent of the pets are spayed or neutered. If you look at a community below the poverty level, 80 percent are not.
Q: Is the discrepancy a matter of resources or cultural differences?
A: It is all tied together. Spaying or neutering was not an option for people in our community because of resources. People learn from what’s around them. People have had many years of breeding their dogs.
Q: How do you change that?
A: We build relationships and that doesn’t happen overnight. We literally go from door to door. If someone knocked on your door and said they wanted to take your dog and get them spayed or neutered, you might call the cops. Our clients have to trust us.
Q: How do you pay for your services, which are free?
A: We do a lot of fundraising and we will have to do a lot more. I did not expect that we would be doing 200-to-300 spays and neuters a month.
Q: What do volunteers get out of the program?
A: Pets for Life gets into your soul. At my first outreach event, here comes an older man who had walked an hour carrying a 60-pound dog with mange because he heard there was someone who could help his pet. That was my moment.
Q: How did you get involved in Pets for Life?
A: I was working as purchasing manager for a major restaurant chain and I couldn’t wait to get done with my desk job so I could volunteer working with animals. Basically, I volunteered myself into a job. I still can’t believe I get to do this every day.
Q: What do you get out of it?
A: I am so appreciative of people who let me spend time with them and share information. That is the human element.
The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at email@example.com.
For more information on Pets for Life, or to volunteer, visit humanesociety.org/petsforlife.