You Want to Help Keep People and Pets Together. But How to Get Started?

People kept approaching Corena Huffman about giving up their pets. They couldn’t afford to feed them. They weren’t able to get them to the vet. 

People thought turning over the cats and dogs they loved to the Highland County Humane Society—the nonprofit, foster-based organization in rural Virginia, for which Corena volunteers as executive director (the organization has no paid staff)—was their only choice, if the pets were to stay healthy and well.

Corena thought there might be a better way: giving out pet food, providing access to vet care, and more. “It just seemed like most people wanted to keep their pets. They just needed some help,” she says. 

More and more organizations are supporting families with services and programs aimed at keeping pets and people together. This is what HASS is all about: the critical shift from the old model of animal sheltering—based on separating people from animals—toward practices that honor the human-animal bond, are humane and cost effective, and help keep pets out of shelters and with their families.

That all sounds good. No, great! But how can an organization get started offering these types of services, known as pet safety net programs? How do you pay for the programs? Who do you help? How do you even get word out?

These are questions with answers! So we spoke with six organizations—two large municipal shelters with government contracts (BARCS in Baltimore, and KC Pet Project in Kansas City, Missouri), two nonprofit shelters (Atlanta Humane Society in Georgia, and Marin Humane in Northern California), a sanctuary for elderly dogs that also has fosters and does adoptions (Vintage Pet Rescue in Rhode Island), and foster-based Highland County Humane Society—about the ins and outs of their experiences, with tips for how other groups can do it, too.

What services and programs do you provide?

These run the gamut! Each organization we spoke with told us about working to meet the needs of their community, with the resources they have available (or can secure, with grants, donations, or other funding), in line with their organization’s mission and values.

BARCS in Baltimore, for example, started offering pet safety net programs before the pandemic. Since 2020 the need has grown—and so has the shelter’s comprehensive focus on keeping people and pets together.

Bailey Deacon, BARCS’s director of community engagement, emailed us a list of just some of the programs and support services in operation today:

  • Low-cost and free community vaccine days
  • Intake prevention with low-cost or free resources (food bank, pet supplies, professional training)
  • Home repairs (for example, BARCS helped a pet owner repair their fence so that the owner could continue to safely let their dog out to go potty)
  • Emergency and crisis boarding in our shelter
  • Access to care for medical emergencies

“In addition to these services, BARCS has long-standing programs that give our community access to free trap, neuter, release services for outdoor cats, and free training and behavior advice,” Bailey says. “These lifesaving programs are working to help pet owners in need receive the care and attention their animals need, making it much less likely for them to give up their animals.”

Vintage Pet Rescue, a much smaller operation with a focus on senior pets, steps in to pay for veterinary care when senior owners of senior pets would otherwise be faced with giving up their animals. They’ve been doing this since January 2020.

“It’s always heartbreaking to see seniors lose their only companion. We started asking owners if we could help them keep their pets if we helped financially,” says VPR’s founder Kristen Peralta. “We now work with a few local veterinarians and shelters who will reach out to us if there’s a dog who needs treatment that the owners cannot afford.”

It’s an ongoing process, developing, expanding, and refining safety net programs, as needs become apparent or change.

To this end, KC Pet Project asks community members to fill out a questionnaire when seeking assistance from the massive safety net program launched at the beginning of the pandemic, Keep ‘Em Together KC

This helps the organization find out about needs that aren’t currently being met, and “allows us to sort of figure out what kind of programs we need to put in place or what kind of programs or services we need to expand on, so that we can meet the needs of our community,” says Tori Fugate, KC Pet Project’s chief communications officer. 

A recent addition: after hearing from a lot of people about the difficulty in finding affordable, pet-friendly housing, KC Pet Project is now bringing this issue to city leaders and lawmakers.

“It’s a huge issue in Kansas City, and this is something that needs to be addressed, especially as we see a growing need in the houseless community that have animals and there’s not enough places for them to go to in the winter months,” Tori says.

How do you pay for pet safety net programs?

Individual donations, grants, business partners, a generous benefactor—there are as many ways to pay for pet safety net services as there are ways to help.

KC Pet Project does a lot of fundraising for Keep ‘Em Together by telling individual stories of families and pets who need help. 

It’s critical to get consent to share the pictures and stories—which can then be shared on social media and in fundraising appeals, and then often get picked up by local media as well. 

“What we’re finding is every single story that we share of how we’re trying to keep people in pests together, the community is overwhelmingly in favor of these stories. And they have been donating above and beyond what we need. And then all of that goes just into the whole program to be able to keep families together.”

Tori Fugate, Chief Communications Officer for KC Pet Project

Marin Humane’s pet safety net program is paid for out of the general fund. The biggest fundraiser for that is a yearly gala. 

The organization also hosts a yearly pet food drive, from Thanksgiving through December. Members of the community pick up, say, an extra bag of cat food while shopping for themselves.

“And we get so much food that way,” says Darlene Blackman, Marin Humane’s director of community engagement. “Normally that gets us through half the year, all of that food.” Other food comes in through donations from pet food manufacturers and a local pet supply store.

Corena urges organizations to search out local grants, on top of any national grants. One place to look is your area’s community foundations. Be prepared that your grant application may need to focus specifically on how your programs are helping people, not just animals. Reach out for a meeting, or a lunch, with the foundation directors to talk about the possibility of supporting pet safety net programs, if they’re not already doing so.

How do you decide which families and pets you will support?

Each organization we spoke with has some parameters or guidelines for who may receive support, but they are somewhat flexible and depend largely on individuals’ and a community’s needs, and available resources.

Marin Humane, for example, has a list of requirements on its website: Those qualifying for pet safety net assistance must be at least 18 years old, live in Marin County, with proof that the household income is below a certain level. Pets can only be helped once every two calendar years, according to the website. Pets must have been owned for one year.

Darlene says these restrictions are there in order to set a manageable framework but they would not, in practice, disqualify someone from receiving help. 

“If we have it in our budget, we’d help them,” she says. “We have those parameters, just a way to kind of help us if we need it.”

BARCS lays out its qualifications by program, says Bailey, with the aim of supporting the public and keeping pets out of the shelter: Free clinics and low-cost clinics are open to the public, as is the food pantry. More extensive medical assistance is for owners at the point of surrender, and is evaluated based on each individual case. 

Training is free for all adopters, and for owners who are at the point of surrender. Emergency boarding, too, dependent on the space that is available at the shelter or availability of a foster home.

“There are parameters. But every single owner, pet and situation is unique, so everything is driven by in-depth conversations and need.”

Bailey Deacon, Director of Community Engagement for BARCS

KC Pet Project, for its part, has two social workers on staff who act as Keep ‘Em Together case managers. They receive and assess applications for help, and are given tremendous leeway as to what form that help will take—be that with paying for all or part of vet bills, finding an emergency foster home for an owned pet needing a temporary place to stay, waiving reclaim fees for impounded pets, providing food and supplies, and more.

Kristen says Vintage Pet Rescue’s pet safety net support is mostly by referral at this stage. 

“We work with a few vets and shelters who know that we have this program,” she says—then shares the story of a family who could stay together, thanks to VPR’s assistance.

An 84-year-old woman brought her 14-year-old dog to an area shelter, because she couldn’t afford the dog’s needed dental treatment. The woman thought the dog would have to be euthanized. The shelter reached out to Kristen to see if VPR could take in the dog, instead.

“I just told them that we would pay for the dog to get the dental and the owner could keep her companion,” Kristen says. “I think it’s easy for us because we’re a very small group—there’s no red tape. We see someone who needs help and we’re in the position to say yes.”

How are you getting word out about these services?

In the past, says Amanda Harris, marketing programs manager at Atlanta Humane Society at the time of this interview (she has since left to finish a degree), the shelter mostly told one-off stories about pets looking for homes, and those who were rescued from cruelty or neglect. 

That’s turned into a focus to ensure the shelter is telling the stories about the community partners that Atlanta Humane is helping and working with, in their effort to support families.

“Now we’re sharing these stories of how we’re helping owned pets stay in their homes,” Amanda says.

She describes these stories as “sharing space” with the others, in all communications materials: social media, newsletters, the website, and more. This helps get word out to those who need the services and to those who can help support them—and ensures messaging that aligns with the organization’s goal of “doing as much for animals outside the facility walls as we are inside the facility walls.”

Corena says in addition to those methods of communication, she also looks for ways to reach people who don’t use social media—and may not even have an internet connection or computer. 

These include flyers, newspaper ads, radio ads, and networking through Meals on Wheels and other human services agencies. In some cases, Highland County Humane Society doesn’t even wait for a request. Corena says the volunteers who deliver meals for Meals on Wheels will keep an eye out for pets, and just include donated pet food along with their human food donations, where appropriate.

“We just start sending food along. They don’t have to ask,” she says.

Do you have some other tips for those who are just starting pet safety net programs?

We heard one piece of advice, over and over, for those launching pet safety net programs: Talk to your community. Ask people in your community what they need. 

Reach out to—and build relationships with—organizations that provide services to people, since they will have connections with the families you’ll be helping and will have ideas for how to help. 

These community partnerships will help guide your organization toward the services and programs that are most needed, and also to the families who need support. See the HASS toolkit on building community partnerships for more.

“You have to work with the human support organizations. They’re the ones that are going to help you identify who is in need,” Darlene says.

But that’s not all: Amanda advises using your shelter’s data to help determine where there is the greatest need. 

“It is so impactful as far as informing not only what you need to do, but also that’s how you get funding too,” she says. “That solid data driven plan. Being able to say, I know this is what the community needs, what community pet owners need.”

Bailey’s tip is not to hold back, based on worry about possible negative reactions to a safety net program, or “other assumptions or unknowns.”

“We didn’t wait to get grants or a large pool of funding to move on the majority of this initiative,” she says. “We knew what we needed to do and that in ‘doing,’ we would show our community, donors, and grantors why they should help us and support this lifesaving and family-preserving initiative.”

Corena recalls that in 2012, when Highland County Humane Society was founded, she was aware that some people surrendered pets for want of food, or vet care.

“But we did not know that was such a need for support. That people most truly did not want to give the animal up,” she says.

Even today, with all the programs, and all the resources, and all the marketing, it may still be difficult for some of those people to ask for help. They may be embarrassed, or worry about being judged. 

So Corena’s final piece of advice  is to make sure anyone who needs help feels comfortable coming forward to ask for and receive it. 

“We want to break down the barriers where people don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask,” Corena says. “So be open and well welcoming and as positive as you can.”

Human Animal Support Services’ primary goal is to keep people and pets together. We are bringing animal welfare organizations and community members together to engage in partnerships that support the bond of people and animals. Come join us!

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