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August 2005
Companions for Life
The Satya Interview with Andrea Brooks

 

Animal Therapists by Sue Coe
Animal Therapists by Sue Coe

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 bond.

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 this?
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 links.

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 be done.

So along those lines, what would you say your challenges for the organization are?
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 assistance for.

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.

 

 


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