10 min read

We've Kept So Many Pets Out Of Shelters With The Smallest Gestures

By Bernice Osorto, ASPCA Safety Net Manager If you visit me at work, don't expect to find me sitting at a desk behind a computer. I spend my day - usually outdoors - and the entrance to LA County's high-intake animal shelter in Downey, greeting clients as they approach with dogs on leashes, cats in carriers, kittens and puppies in shoeboxes, or injured pets in towels.

I'm a manager for the ASPCA's "Safety Net" program, and since June 2014, I and my colleagues, Erica Macias, who is stationed at the Baldwin Park shelter, and Miguel Ruelas, who divides his time between both Downy and Baldwin Park, have interacted with thousands of pet owners and helped more than 3,400 animals remain in their homes.

The ASPCA collaborates with the LA County Department of Animal Care and Control and the LA County Animal Care Foundation to offer services to qualified clients living in the Downey and Baldwin Park service areas. The services - which can include free and low-cost spay/neuter, medical care, vaccines, assistance with licensing fees and boarding - even help with fence repair - are granted through an ASPCA voucher system via partnerships with local veterinary clinics, pet service providers, and local animal welfare organizations. They can make the difference between a family keeping a beloved pet or having to relinquish it.

We also refer clients whose pets require euthanasia to veterinary partners so families can be present and say goodbye when their pets are put to sleep. When Shiloh, an 11-year-old cocker spaniel battling cancer, could no longer walk, her family brought her in to be relinquished. Instead, we provided a voucher so they could take her to a veterinarian to be humanely euthanized.

One of the first things I ask people is, "Is there anything I can do to help you keep your animal?" No matter where the conversation turns, my goal is to keep that pet from entering an already overcrowded shelter.

It's tough, the work that we do. I used to teach high school Spanish and saw stray dogs on my daily drive through Watts. My colleague Erica, a former child care social worker, says this is where she needs to be: educating the public, offering resources, giving people options. Miguel spent 12 years in the hotel business and says this is the hardest work he's ever done, but by helping people help animals, he's helping his community.

Our clients have stories that start with sadness, but end with hope.

Recently, Erica met a man who couldn't afford to neuter his young pit bull, Charlie, and brought him to the shelter. He kept saying, "I don't want to leave him here." Erica provided a voucher for a free neuter so Charlie could stay with his owner.

I remember a single mom who planned to relinquish four very young puppies, but I talked her into keeping them. In time, she found homes for each, and even made their spay/neuter appointments. I guided her, but she did the work. I told her, "You're a hero to these animals."

Miguel recently provided food and supplies to a family that discovered three kittens in a box next to railroad tracks. Because shelter staff doesn't have resources to care for such tiny kittens, the family's two younger kids volunteered to feed and care for them until they were ready for adoption, and their dad agreed. With a monthly income of just $1,200 for a family of eight, they were willing to take on three more family members in order to save them.

To me, it's about empowerment - and that makes people feel good. But it's also risky. Sometimes people can't - or won't - take on that kind of work.

We're not shy about telling people about the large numbers of pets that are euthanized at local shelters. Pit bulls, chihuahuas, and cats are the most vulnerable. Most times, people aren't aware there's a pet overpopulation problem. But with some clients, a light comes on, and they realize their actions are contributing to the problem. Yet they've never had access to information or resources, so they're very grateful.

All three of us safety net managers are fluent in Spanish - a necessity in this region where 95 percent of our clientele are Latinos. Erica also has a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in public administration; Miguel has several years of community college; and I have a bachelor's in Spanish as well as a California Spanish Teaching Credential. Miguel and I also volunteered at Downtown Dog Rescue, an organization that rescues dogs and also helps low-income pet owners.

Sometimes, it takes more than a common language or years of experience to connect with clients. Technology is an issue. Not everyone has internet access or email accounts. One time a pit bull named Bronco was brought to Baldwin Park because his owner's landlord forbade pets. Erica took his picture and distributed it to a network of rescue groups to help him get out of the shelter. We'll also email photos and information about clients' pets to veterinary service providers so the animals can get the surgery or treatment they need.

It can be hard to stay focused. Miguel, who grew up in Inglewood with dogs, chickens, rabbits, and turtles, acknowledges there are moments when he must take time to process difficult situations before moving on. Erica walks the kennels each evening. And I study my list of clients and contemplate how little they have to live on, and how grateful I am to be able to offer them help.

In the end, we all recognize that it's not a person's means or financial situation that defines his ability to responsibly care for a pet. It's that a little help, and a lot of compassion, can go a very long way.