When I signed the contract as executive director of Peaceful Animal Adoption Shelter (PAAS) in Vinita, Oklahoma, my goal was to save thousands of dogs and cats through local adoptions.
We had a brand new, beautiful facility, and within the first 60 days, we realized we had more than 50 dogs and 50 cats in the shelter and an owner-surrender waiting list of more than 150 dogs and 175 cats.
The number of adoptions? Four.
I knew then that PAAS had to pivot and address what was going on in our community more comprehensively. While some pets were at the shelter for reasons beyond anyone’s control, many had loving homes and their surrender was preventable if we could provide more options for people. With the desire to be that resource for our community, we sought out support to start a Pets for Life (PFL) program.
More than once, I’d heard advocates and partners express the idea that if you can’t afford a pet, you shouldn’t have one. I knew differently. I felt differently. I share the PFL philosophy that a lack of financial means does not equate to a lack of love felt for and provided to a pet.
I knew that implementing Pets for Life in Vinita would mean taking free medical care, services and information to people and their pets in areas of our community where access to resources are limited due to the systemic challenges of poverty. We identified the areas to focus on and geared up to receive training from The HSUS PFL team on how to start strategic door-to-door outreach. I knew the program had been successful in big cities, but I wasn’t sure how it would work in our little town.
At the same time, I had to work on building an understanding of and support for the program within the community. Many of the area veterinarians had already made it very clear to me that a mobile clinic was not welcome in Vinita, so we had to find another way to deliver services. My plan was to bring board members, local veterinarians and even our chief of police into the conversation, so community leaders would be on board and contribute to our approach.
I arranged to have the PFL team come talk with people in our town so everyone would feel heard and could share their concerns. At this meeting, tough questions were asked and thought-provoking information was shared, but everyone in the room wanted the best for our community members and our pets. Through PFL, we had been given a new way to look at what is possible if we all work together. Our board was open to a new way to reach people and pets in Vinita, and not long after that meeting, I received an email from the town’s most popular veterinarian saying that he liked the program! The Chief of Police was also on board from the moment he heard what the program was all about. It was all shaping up for us to change the future of companion animal welfare in our town, extending beyond animal control and sheltering to include an in-depth, long-term community connection.
We immediately began working more closely with our animal control department and rethinking policies that were long overdue for an overhaul. Could tickets that were being issued for noncompliance instead be prevented by offering people resources and simple alternatives? Could excessive fines that made it impossible for people to be reunited with their seized pets be eliminated? I knew that by having these conversations, we were on our way to making PAAS the complete community resource I always wanted it to be.
The next test—did the community really want us to knock on their doors? How were we going to talk to people we had been told to avoid for our own safety?
On the first day, Lacee and Rhonda, the PFL outreach team, headed out to the area of town that you “aren’t supposed to go to.” Knocking on a stranger’s door was a new concept, but once the first door opened everything changed. People smiled, we shook hands and bonded over the pets that we all love. Yes, some people were cautious--no one had ever just knocked on their door to offer a free service before. These were the people and pets we had judged from a distance, but within a few weeks, we became their friends. We signed them up for free spay-neuter appointments, we handed out leashes and collars, and most importantly, we reached a new audience by building relationships based on respect.
Our shelter operations manager, Rhonda Norris, has been thrilled with the changes we’ve seen. “PFL has completely changed my way of thinking about people and pets living in poverty in our community,” she says. “Lacee and I attended the PFL training and while the information we received during the classroom training was excellent, the epiphany came when we hit the streets for outreach training. We visited underserved areas, knocked on lots of doors and it became crystal clear … people love their pets and the pets love their people. Who was I to say someone doesn’t deserve a pet because of how much money they have? Instead of judging, let’s support! Let’s turn our shelter into a positive, valuable resource for our community.”
Vinita is a small town—population 5,554 to be exact. Everyone knows someone who knows someone and soon everyone will know PAAS Pets for Life. Because PFL literally goes door to door, street by street, Lacee has been out visiting homes in our area of focus a few days a week. Her constant presence is building excitement and trust in the community. There is now someone available to answer questions about spay-neuter, flea allergies and how to housetrain a dog. We quickly realized we are not just serving the pets of our community, we are also serving the people connected to them.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Pets for Life has already changed the landscape of our community. An entire area of our town that was invisible to us before, we now see clearly. The houses we used to avoid are now filled with people and pets we know. In just one month, we have met 46 pet owners who we would have never had the chance to know otherwise. We have served 84 pets and provided many of their owners with supplies, and signed up 59 pets for spay-neuter surgeries. We’ve started a tsunami of change and hope our story will inspire you to reach outside your walls, both figuratively and literally. We have shifted our thought process; we now work to hear everyone’s story and realize those stories are valuable to all of us. We are becoming the true community resource we have always wanted to be.
The PFL program will continue to build bonds within our community that will last for generations. This is a new chapter for all of us—our staff, our board, local veterinarians and pet owners, even those we haven’t met yet.
Please share comments and ask questions—we’d love to hear from you and tell you more about our experience!