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A breath of fresh air in D.C.

New Pets for Life mentorship cities include the nation's capital

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

Shakela Brown speaks with D.C. resident Julia Warren about free pet services.

Shakela Brown walked to her car, hoping to sit and rest for a minute after hours of door-to-door canvassing in southeast Washington, D.C.

But when she pressed the button to unlock her car, nothing happened. After trying it a few more times, she called the dealership: Turns out the clicker needed a new battery. She tried a few stores. She walked up and down Minnesota Avenue. She crossed over to Pennsylvania Avenue.

No luck.

“When I did the community assessment [for the neighborhood], I knew that there’s not that many resources really,” says Brown, who manages the humane education outreach program for Washington Humane Society (WHS). “I got the firsthand chance to see that … because there’s no CVS or Rite Aid at this particular part of southeast. You’ve got to catch the bus and go at least a mile or two.”

Ultimately, it was a minor headache for Brown, but as she helps implement this Pets for Life model of community outreach, the moment provided yet another glimpse at the challenges facing pet owners—particularly those without cars—in underserved communities.

WHS is one of five organizations to recently receive a $50,000 grant from PetSmart Charities and training from The HSUS to establish the program. With a presence now in 30 cities across the country—Oklahoma City, Reno, Santa Fe, Toledo and D.C. are among the most recent—Pets for Life seeks to help pets and their owners by, first and foremost, reaching out and building relationships.

When she was younger, Brown had a bad stutter, so she’d practice reading aloud to her grandfather’s German shepherds, sparking a love of animals that’s propelled her through more than two decades in the field. “I love this program. Absolutely love it,” she says. “I’ve been talking about outreach forever … because I think it’s important for any organization to be in the community—[instead of] assuming that they’re going to come to you.”

On a frigid Thursday in January, there’s no hesitation in her voice, just an outgoing, focused confidence: “It’s Ms. Brown from Washington Humane Society,” she says, from front porches and through front doors. “Do you have any pets that need services?”

It’s a quiet day. Not many people are home as a bundled-up Brown covers three more streets over four hours. She’s always on the lookout for signs of animals—a bowl on the back porch, a bark from behind the door—and she scribbles addresses and notes onto a pad for follow-up visits.

She steps into the warmth of a front hallway and meets a woman whose 3-year-old Chihuahua needs vaccinations, a tag and a Frontline flea treatment. In a basement apartment two streets over, Brown has a long discussion about the benefits of spay/neuter.

She knocks on another door and introduces herself. “Cynthia,” the woman yells back into the apartment, “they’re here to see you.” Cynthia, it turns out, is a good-looking calico, who promptly comes running around the corner. Brown pulls a few cat toys out of her bag.

In the days that follow, Brown will catch up with the homeless woman she’s been playing phone tag with, meeting her outside a train station. The woman has a Jack Russell terrier, and Brown brings dog food, cans of soup, toiletries, blankets and towels. When the woman is leery of carrying too much, Brown makes it easier for her, pouring dog food into a plastic sleeve that once carried a newspaper.

On Sunday, she’ll return to retrace her steps in southeast D.C.—learning names, figuring out who all has pets, spreading the word, establishing a helpful new presence in the city.

To learn more about the Pets for Life model, go to animalsheltering.org/petsforlife.

About the Author

Michael Sharp is a former Senior Content Editor at The Humane Society of the United States.