The Satya Interview with Andrea
Animal Therapists by
After graduating from Ramapo College with degrees in
psychology, international studies and cultural anthropology, Andrea
Brooks worked in Israel,
Palestine, Tanzania and directed HIV/AIDS prevention education programs
in East and West Africa. Most recently, she joined the staff of Pets
Are Wonderful Support, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping
people with HIV/AIDS and other disabling illnesses together with their
companion animals, educating the community on the benefits and risks
of animal companionship, and advocating on behalf of the human-animal
This past June, PAWS was honored as the Organization Grand Marshal for the San
Francisco Pride Parade. Kymberlie Adams Matthews and PAWS Director of Education
and Client Advocacy, Andrea Brooks, took a moment from their respective Pride
Week celebrations to discuss the value of unconditional love.
Can you give us a brief history of PAWS? How and why was the organization founded?
PAWS was started in the mid 1980s, actually stemming from the AIDS epidemic.
Volunteers for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Food Bank saw the need to help
support the pets of people living with AIDS. Many of these volunteers were people
living with AIDS themselves and realized that some of the food bank clients were
neglecting their own nutrition by giving their food—distributed freely
by the food bank—to their animals. They also avoided going to the doctor
in order to have money to bring their animals to the vet, and stopped buying
medicine to help financially support their animals. This was quite a dire situation.
It became apparent how intense the human-animal bond was for this community.
You have to figure the client’s social networks had pretty much deteriorated
and they were faced with a disease for which there was no cure. But through it
all, their companion animal was with them and they were willing to sacrifice
everything to keep what quality of life they had left.
Realizing that something needed to be done, the volunteers got the food bank
to carry pet food and products. In 1987 “PAWS” became a separate
organization. In a perfect world there would be a cure for AIDS and no one with
a debilitating illness would worry about losing their companion animals. But
here we are, doing what we can.
That’s an extraordinary beginning. Your mission statement explains that
PAWS “helps improve the quality of life for persons with AIDS and other
disabling illnesses by offering the emotional and practical support to keep the
love and companionship of their pets.” In what ways does PAWS accomplish
The pet food bank is still one of our strongest services. People can access it
once a month. We also offer a free check up every year to all of the animals,
as well as a vet fund of $200 per human client (if clients go over, they get
additional subsidized or emergency veterinary care). We also offer a free or
reduced rate on grooming and full transportation services for any pet-related
need. Other services include dog walking, in-home cat care, animal fostering,
food delivery, and specialized services for homebound clients. Our foster care
is an important service—emergency foster care is available if someone goes
into the hospital or is evicted.
We have a new client advocacy program to make sure both disabled individuals
and property managers understand the rights regarding companion animals in housing.
We also educate landlords and advocate for someone who is disabled, from start
to finish, to make sure they get approval to have an animal. We actively engage
in outreach to educate the community and alert potential clients of these services.
Human beings have a need to feel important to someone and to feel cared for.
Do you think companion animals provide emotional support?
For our clients the human-animal bond goes beyond companionship. It is an intense
interaction—a special bond that actually enhances the quality of life.
It never fails to amaze me how intense the connection is. When you have AIDS,
so many things are important—getting the right foods, getting medicine,
getting your bills paid. But to our clients their companion animal becomes most
important. People often break down and start crying when they talk about what
it might mean for them to lose their animals. I often hear people say “I
could not live without that animal. This is who gets me up in the morning. This
is who gets me outside. This is my best friend.” Those are the anecdotal
things that I hear all the time.
This relationship is backed by scientific data, case studies and hard research
that validates the therapeutic emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual
effects of human-animal relationships. Companion animals can decrease feelings
of loneliness and isolation by providing companionship to all generations. People
are more apt to smile, talk, reach out to people, and experience a greater sense
of well-being if animals are present. This is extremely important to our clients.
Can you tell us about the conference you sponsored in Los Angeles, The Healing
Power of the Human-Animal Bond: Companion Animals and Society?
Our conference was designed to highlight the current research and health benefits
of the human-animal bond—looking at what’s going on now and what
the future holds. We also addressed the legal rights of people to have companion
animals with regards to public access and housing. We tried to get a wide array
of community members involved: people from the animal assisted therapy community,
lawyers, activists, academics and researchers—bringing all of these people
together to network and communicate about the issues.
You know, we are not specifically an animal rights or gay rights oriented group—although
I would definitely say a percentage of the staff are both. We are actually much
more oriented towards human health—quality of life issues. So it is pretty
unique to bring people together under that umbrella. There are more specific
animal welfare and animal rights conferences, but this is more of a unique crossover
in bringing human welfare and animal welfare together. It really helps make important
How does someone become a client?
Since we began as a result of the AIDS epidemic, for a long time our services
were reserved for people with disabling HIV and AIDS. But it has always been
clear that the importance of animal companionship for someone who is ill is not
limited to people with AIDS. In 2000, we conducted a pilot project to look at
the impact that broadening the community we serve would have on our clients and
our agency’s resources. And in 2002, we changed our mission to help people
with any disabling illness—psychiatric disabilities, cancer, heart or back
problems, etc. You just need proof that you are a San Francisco resident, have
a low income, and a diagnosis from a doctor.
People with serious medical conditions often are led to believe that they should
give up their companion animals. Can you discuss zoonotic infections?
Actually when PAWS was just getting started, we were fielding questions regarding
zoonotic diseases every day. A zoonotic disease is transmitted from an animal
to a human. When someone’s immune system is compromised—i.e. suffering
with AIDS—that person is at greater risk of catching a disease. When the
AIDS epidemic was at its peak, there was an incredible lack of knowledge about
how to protect oneself from zoonoses in a safe and easy manner. Doctors and veterinarians
were not armed with the proper information. The result was devastating for many
companion animal guardians—they were told that because they had disabling
HIV or AIDS, they needed to give up their animal. This led us to work with a
team of veterinarians well-versed in zoonotic diseases to help us develop our
Safe Pet Guidelines—step-by-step guidelines that are easily comprehensible
and discuss how to protect people that are immuno-compromised from zoonoses.
Really, the basic thing is hygiene. It’s that simple. But there are still
people in both the human health and animal health professions that tell people
afflicted with AIDS or other immuno-compromised disorders to give up their companion
animals. Same with pregnant women—even today some doctors advise pregnant
women to give up their cat for fear of toxoplasmosis. We still distribute these
guidelines. We actually are currently updating them and they will be reprinted
and sent out this summer.
How can people volunteer with PAWS?
People can always connect to us if they are in San Francisco. We always need
people to donate to and support our organization because we are privately funded.
It is also really important that people start PAWS chapters in their own areas.
On our website we have information to help people start an organization similar
to ours. We started with just one service, a pet food bank. It’s important
to start small and provide a good service and then add to it as you can. And
partnering with another organization is extremely beneficial—like an animal
hospital or shelter that has the infrastructure in place, is an ideal partnership.
We really take all sorts of donations—if someone has a business and can
provide printing or graphics, pet food donations, any sort of animal supplies—we’ll
take them and distribute them to our clients. There is so much that needs to
So along those lines, what would you say your challenges for the organization
There are so many people out there who need help. Even with all the services
we provide, there will still be calls from people we can’t help—people
outside our area or in really unique situations that we are not able to provide
I am always amazed at how dedicated our staff really is. We put a lot of time
and effort into helping people that aren’t even clients. But sometimes…there
is only so much you can do. It is what we can’t do that really affects
us. That’s the greatest challenge. Trying to stick to limits and not feel
bad about what we can’t do, focus on feeling good about the work we do
accomplish. We are only a staff of seven and we have about 500 human clients,
which is close to 650 animal clients. And we keep on growing.
That’s crazy! What does your volunteer base look like?
We have a fairly strong base of about 350 volunteers and we need that to provide
the services. Our volunteers are incredibly important—the absolute backbone
of our organization. They are the ones going to the client’s homes and
helping to take care of the animals. They have taken on the responsibilities
of not only helping animals, but also a person. Someone is actually letting you
into their home. It is a very intimate and unique dynamic. PAWS volunteers have
all different kinds of schedules and availability. We need office volunteers
during weekdays; for animal care, both in the evenings and morning. Our Food
Bank needs delivery teams, and there are tons of special events and outreaches
at varying other times.
Can you share some of your goals?
We definitely want to keep improving our services. We actually do regular needs
assessments with our clients to see how we can be serving them better. So our
goal is really just trying to keep filling holes and better advocate for our
clients and their animals. Basically our ultimate goal is to be able to serve
all low-income, San Francisco residents living with disabling illnesses, who
are in jeopardy of losing their loving companion animal. And doing this all in
a way that is sustainable for the long haul.
To learn more about PAWS or to volunteer, contact www.pawssf.org or (415) 979-9550.