Rachel paused a moment to stop her voice from wavering and keep the tears from falling.“Lola is a huge part of my path, of my journey right now, and I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for her…”
In line at the Unsheltered People and Pets monthly Pet Wellness Clinic, I did not ask Rachel where her journey began; it did not matter. Whether it started with fleeing domestic violence, or losing her job and then her home, or a sudden medical emergency that left her penniless, the path she was on now was the same: one to recovery, stability, and normalcy.
I looked over at the young yellow dog, Lola, wiggling at the end of the leash, happy to meet anyone who would give her a pet, and overjoyed by the excitement of the day. In my mind’s eye, and in Rachel’s heart, Lola was not just an exuberant young pup. Dogs like Lola have peppered stories and legends across the globe and throughout time.
Tales of animal guides have existed since the dawn of man. It seems we, as the whole of humanity, haven’t been able to get very far without an animal by our side. Many Native American tribes have spirit animals, or totems, that guide their communities. Individuals go through a rite of passage to find their own spirit animals. Christianity and Islam have tales of animals who have led their people, taught them lessons, and brought them closer to the divine. Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales include animals who teach us something profound about how to be better people.
The stories and myths starred wild animals such as bears and crows, foxes and turtles, or were about livestock like donkeys and cows because those were the animals people came in contact with. Today, few people can relate to meeting a bear in the woods as a spiritual experience. Instead we have the dog who loyally stands by us in all our endeavors and the cat who comforts us by keeping the loneliness at bay.
The domestic animals we share our lives with are the animal guides we once only knew of in legends and theology. It’s easy to forget the power these creatures have when they are curled up on the couch beside us, snuggled under a blanket, or romping around a dog park. But for people living on the streets, the power of these animals are more apparent: they are their partners and their guides. They protect them and keep them safe. They give them someone to care about other than themselves, and a reason to keep striving, keep working, keep steadily moving along the path to a better life.
Animal guides teach all of us by simply being themselves. Perhaps one of their personality traits is one we need to emulate—like loyalty or curiosity or confidence. Or the way they forgive shows us how to forgive. Or the way they seem to overcome their past pains may inspire us to carry on, releasing the burdens of our own past.
When asked how Lola entered Rachel’s life, Rachel responded, “She was a gift.”
Lola is still a gift to Rachel—just as every pet is to their person in line at the Pet Wellness Clinic, whether they were an actual gift, found on the street, or adopted from the shelter. Unlike a gift of a talisman or trinket that can be kept safe in a coat pocket, these gifts are living, breathing beings who need certain things to sustain life.
The Unsheltered People and Pets program provides those earthly necessities for these spiritual guides. Lola will be scheduled to be spayed, get flea and tick prevention, and given an exam to make sure she stays healthy. She’ll get a new collar as her old one is tattered; she’ll get a proper leash, and she’ll go home with a few weeks’ worth of food to sustain her on this journey.
Rachel continued sincerely, “This means everything to know she’s going to get the care and support and just the basic items that she needs to be able to get through this season with me.”
While government subsidies can help people with food, shelter, and medical needs, there is no such government program for their companion, their animal guide. Whether or not these pets are divine can never be proven; but one thing is certain: these pets are family. They are, in some cases, a person’s only family.
Bark Avenue Foundation began the Unsheltered Pets and People a year ago. With a $27,360 grant from PetSmart Charities and teaming up with LA Family Housing, the monthly Pet Wellness Clinic was born. While bags of dog food and cat litter given out can be tallied as proof of success, the real success is seeing the relief in Rachel’s eyes knowing Lola will be fed; it is the grateful smile on Melissa’s face, as she shows Oreo her new toy; it is the tears of thankfulness from Vincent when we tell him UPP will pay for the surgery Leia needs to have a cancerous tumor removed—something that was caught early due to the monthly clinic.
The work done here has an immediate effect. Pets get what they need to live healthy lives, and people get the burden and guilt of not being able to provide for them lifted. Their needs are met and they continue on their journey of recovery knowing their family is taken care of.
But all of that will come to an end in December. Bark Avenue Foundation receives donated food from various sources to give out to those in need, but the funding for the medical care, the vet exams, and the monthly clinic have been exhausted. This clinic will be no more if we do not secure funding for next year. Like the people we help, the UPP program is surviving day by day and we need your support to continue our program another year.
The Pet Wellness Clinic’s life-saving exams and basic treatments along with various medical follow-ups and referrals for dental work, spay & neuter, tumors, or other urgent specialty needs h cost a minimum of $2500 each month. Being resourceful with in-kind donations and partnering with other animal welfare organizations when we can, UPP provides anywhere from $5000-$8,000 worth of services every month to the pets of the homeless in Los Angeles.
You have a lot of choices of who to donate to this giving season. We hope you consider us, and consider Rachel and Lola, and Melissa and Oreo, and Vincent and Leia, and so many of the people we’ve come to know over this year. Lola may be an ancient spirit guide sent from the heavens, or not… either way, she is Rachel’s family. Lola will always be there for Rachel on her journey and because of that, we are here for Lola.
Please help us keep supporting homeless families. Your donation stays local, here in Los Angeles, helping your neighbors. Any amount will be put to good use. You can donate here or on facebook. A dedicated monthly contribution is also welcome, and if you’d like to sponsor the clinic or offer supplies or services, please contact Christy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We hope to continue providing services to pets like Lola. Our animal guides have helped humanity evolve throughout the centuries; now it’s our turn to give something back, to thank them for their service, and to help them continue to make us a better species.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.