Puppy love 

Pets of the homeless add stability and warmth

On Jan. 26, Tiffany and Silouan Alberts went to a homeless couple's camp near Rainbow Falls. Five days before, Tiffany had given the couple a ride there in her pickup truck, after they were evicted from a site near a car wash in Manitou Springs. They'd left a sack of belongings in her truck, and she wanted to return it.

The couple was gone, and the campsite was in tatters.

"It was like a tornado hit their little spot in the world," Silouan says. "It was literally destroyed. The sleeping bags were torn into pieces."

Then they heard a whimper and discovered a 4-month-old puppy entangled in a collapsed tent — hungry, thirsty and frightened. It took them 10 minutes to free the pup, he says. They later learned she had been trapped for five days.

They decided to take her home and call her "Puppy."

"It's such a wonderful little dog," says Silouan. He wondered how anyone could have left her in that state.

Pets of the Homeless, a national nonprofit based in Nevada, reports that 5 to 10 percent of homeless people in the U.S., have dogs or cats, though the number in a given community can be as high as 24 percent.

Pikes Peak United Way's 2014 Point in Time homeless survey — the most recent available — counted 1,219 people locally who were unsheltered, housed in emergency shelters, or living in transitional housing at the start of last year. Using Pets of the Homeless' figures, 61 to 293 of them would have pets. But the actual number of homeless people is likely higher, as United Way itself notes, and since the survey doesn't ask a question about pets, no one knows how many respondents actually do have them.

Especially in winter, it's natural for some to worry about such animals. Patty Tierney, an animal lover who lives near Uintah Gardens shopping center, remembers having observed a homeless woman with a dog at the shopping center for many months; the woman talked to herself, but never seemed to care for the animal. Then, it was gone. "Hopefully, the dog ran away," Tierney says. "There are some [people] that should not be given that right, to own an animal. They don't have proper shelter half the time, and they're out in the elements."

But generally speaking, that worry tends to be misplaced. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, an assistant professor at Colorado State University vet school who works in the shelter medicine program, says "most animals can do fairly well if they're up off the ground." The animals that homeless people bring to her, she adds, are "quite well cared for.

"What I have found with the people I've worked with is, they'll get beds for their animals before themselves," she says. "They'll get coats for them."

Police Officer Dan McCormack, with the Colorado Springs Police Homeless Outreach Team, says he's never witnessed abuse other than officers twice finding dogs tied to trees with no food, water or shelter. (The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region took them in.) And Anne Beer, Pikes Peak United Way's vice president of income and housing stability, says the question about pets might be added to future surveys, because some homeless people refuse to come into places that won't allow their pets, too.

At the Salvation Army shelter on South Weber Street and the Springs Rescue Mission on West Las Vegas Street, homeless people can house their pets in kennels during their overnight stays. "I've never seen an animal that I felt I had to take some action to protect," says the Rescue Mission's Sarah Stacey, who adds, "They're actually getting a lot of love and attention, because they're people's companions."

Those bonds can be incredibly strong. Pets of the Homeless founder Genevieve Frederick says she knows of a veterinarian in Texas who learned that the hard way.

"She took a homeless man's dog away from him because she figured he couldn't take care of the dog," Frederick says. "She gave it to the local animal shelter. The dog was old, and they euthanized the dog. When the man found out, he committed suicide, because that was the only thing he had. She feels guilty to this day that she caused this whole thing to happen, because she wanted to do good by that dog, but both of them died."

Now that veterinarian is a donor to Pets of the Homeless.

For Stan Painter, his 2-year-old pit bull is a lifesaver. Pumpkin, he says, keeps him from succumbing to outbursts caused by what he describes as "bipolar disorder characterized by explosive personality episodes." Painter says the dog can sense when an episode is imminent and gets antsy, which makes him focus on her instead of his disorder, and that calms him down.

"That's my kid," he says, hugging the dog outside the Marian House Soup Kitchen one recent day. "I love her to death."

An ex-con who finished a 10-year sentence in mid-2013 for aggravated robbery, Painter adopted Pumpkin from a friend who was headed for prison himself and planned to take her to an animal shelter. "I rescued her right before Easter," he says, adding that she's put on 25 pounds since then and has all her shots.

Painter has acquired a canine coat and earmuffs for the dog as well, and says the two of them stay warm when "she sticks her nose in my armpit."

Homeless people like Painter can thank several nonprofits and their volunteers, such as Vicki Gramm, who started Coats 4 Canines about a year ago and has given away about 250 dog coats so far, and Evelyn Fitzpatrick, a veterinarian who provides vaccinations and food.

"The homeless take care of their animals before they take care of themselves," Gramm says. "They are their only comfort or link to reality sometimes and, of course, protection if they need it."

Fitzpatrick, who runs the Colorado Springs branch of Street Petz, a Westminster-based nonprofit, was recruited to the cause in 2010 by her college classmate Yukiko Kuwahara, who oversees it.

"I called her about something, and she said, 'I'm starting this new nonprofit to help pets on the street.' I said, 'Sure, [I'll help],'" Fitzpatrick says. In the beginning, with the help of volunteers from Urban Peak, she carried a backpack filled with dog food around the city's core. She gave her first rabies vaccine to a homeless person's dog in January 2011. The next week, she vaccinated seven dogs. From there, the effort expanded to include hundreds of animals.

On Wednesday nights, members of her soccer team and friends help her fill plastic bags with dog and cat food to prepare for her Thursday visits to Monument Valley Park, west of Marian House. They also bag treats and cat toys. All the goods come from donors, such as the Pikes Peak Browns Backers, whose October food drive brought in 1,000 pounds of food. Vet supplies are donated by drug companies, she says, and about a dozen volunteers help her distribute when they can make it.

Fitzpatrick is always there, even last year when Christmas and New Year's fell on Thursdays. If the temperature dips below 30 degrees, though, she forgoes vaccinations due to the possibility of complications.

On this Thursday, Fitzpatrick, Gramm and a handful of volunteers are greeted by throngs of pets and their owners forming a line behind her SUV. Besides homeless people, others came who simply don't have the money for pet food and shots. Many of the dogs were puppies getting their first in a series of shots for parvo and other diseases. Some people didn't bring their pets, but picked up food.

"Large dog, small dog?" Fitzpatrick asks, reaching into her vehicle loaded with 250 pounds of dog and cat food and medical supplies.

Catherine Walker, homeless until a year ago, says she's come for food for Cocoa Puff, a 9-month-old teacup Chihuahua she's holding that she says she adopted from a woman who's headed for prison.

A man who won't give his name left his 5-year-old husky mix, Trina, at his Stratmoor Valley home and needs food for her. "I'm barely able to feed myself," he says. He's unemployed except for an occasional day job.

Rod Whited, who was injured in a fall from a semitractor-trailer and can't work, lives in his van with his 9-year-old golden retriever, Daisy May, showing her age with a graying muzzle and plodding steps. "She's my best friend," Whited says. "I spend all my time with her." She's there for her regular rabies shot and food.

Fitzpatrick asks Whited, "What's your address?" as she fills out paperwork. "That van over there," Whited says. She replies, "I'm gonna put it down as 14 W. Bijou, which is the soup kitchen."

Fitzpatrick enters every dog and cat on a log sheet and puts stickers from the vaccination vials on papers she hands to the pets' owners. Next time they come, they'll present those papers, so the vet can know which shot is due. One woman on Thursday fishes the paper from her bra.

Rosy, a 4-month-old gray pit bull, is jumping and pulling against her red leash, held by William Jackson, a well-groomed 27-year-old. Jackson says he's fresh out of prison on drug charges and living with his mom. Money is scarce and the dog, a gift to his kids for Christmas, is waiting for her second shot, he says.

Mary Wolfe stands in line with Pepper, a German shepherd-Rottweiler-Doberman mix who's had two litters of puppies so far. Wolfe rescued her along the highway near Midway south of Colorado Springs. As she waits to pick up food, she says of her dog, "She runs this whole park."

Wolfe says she became homeless after her apartment burned and she was forced to leave temporary housing in a motel. She either lives with friends or camps in places she won't name, and although she says Pepper sticks to her like glue, she did get lost once. Several people in the camp formed search parties. "We were up all night," she says. When they returned to camp the next morning, there sat Pepper.

Wolfe refuses to stay in a shelter, because Pepper wouldn't be allowed to sleep in bed with her.

Hercules, a pit bull-mastiff crossbreed, comes with his owner, Chris Heller, who says she soon might be homeless. She got Hercules from her husband, and the 6-month-old puppy recently had his first shot. "He's like another child of mine," she says.

Larry Roberts, with a full and graying beard and well-worn clothes, stands in line by himself. Bandit, his 9-month-old chow-pit bull mix, is "back at camp," he says. A Vietnam veteran who moved here in the last few months to be near his two kids, Roberts says his dog is his alarm system. "It's kinda to let me know someone's around," he says. "Sometimes I can't hear, but my dog can."

He learned of Street Petz from his homeless friends. This is his first visit, for food. He says he's searched trash cans behind barbecue restaurants for bones and meat for Bandit.

More than an hour after she arrived, the crowd thins, but Fitzpatrick stays around, talking with passersby. After more than four years of helping pets of the homeless, she knows names of most who show up — and she echoes what others say about the way they put their pets' needs before their own.

"These people are struggling to eat," she says. "We have dogs that are hungry, and some people feed their dogs before they feed themselves."

Fitzpatrick, 43, an associate vet at Banfield Pet Hospital at Southgate shopping center, helped with lost pets during the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, and last summer spent three weeks in Thailand working with abused elephants.

She was named Street Petz's Veterinarian of the Year a few years back, and has drawn her two daughters, ages 10 and 14, into the mission when they have free time.

Besides providing food, Fitzpatrick says her primary goal is to prevent disease in street pets. To do that, she doesn't judge. "These guys that don't have a job, friends or social network — these dogs give them unconditional love," she says. "Some of them, that's all they have. If I can help them get back on their feet, that's what I'm trying to do."

Three summers ago, she says, heroin users hovered in Monument Valley Park, eying the syringes she uses for shots. "It was the homeless that warned me," she says. Since then, police officers cruise the area during her giveaways. HOT team Officer Brett Iverson dropped by on Thursday.

Shutting her trunk, Fitzpatrick bids farewell and heads home to her two dogs and a pet rat. She says she'll keep at it "as long as I have supplies and demand."

A few days after the Alberts family took home Puppy, the dog from the homeless camp near Rainbow Falls, a Manitou Springs police officer knocked on their door. The officer had been talking with their neighbors and mentioned a woman was looking for her puppy; the neighbors told the officer the Alberts couple had found one.

The officer told Silouan and his wife that Puppy had to be returned to her homeless female owner, who had filed a missing dog report, Silouan says. Police told him the woman had fled for her life when her partner flew into a drunken rage and pulled a knife on her. He demolished the campsite and later was arrested and jailed, police told them.

Humane Society spokeswoman Gretchen Pressley says the homeless woman not only filed a report, she came to the shelter looking for the pup. "There were no signs of neglect whatsoever," Pressley says. "For many animals, we have nobody who even looks for them."

On Jan. 30, Puppy was handed over to the woman, after being neutered at the Humane Society, Pressley says. Costs of boarding and the procedure were reduced "because of her financial situation," but Pressley declines to be specific.

"We really try very hard to help people be responsible pet owners," Pressley says. "Having a home is no guarantee you're going to be a responsible pet owner."

Silouan says it was hard to relinquish Puppy, but harder to imagine depriving someone who already had lost everything of her canine friend.

"While I really fell in love with this puppy, in my heart I felt if this is the most valuable thing in this woman's life, if she found her way to the Humane Society, maybe this is super important to her," he says.

"For people who already don't have anything, taking away a companion, that's a hard thing to do."

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