(From The Way-Back Files: A&U, September 2017)
This is doubly true for people with HIV/AIDS. Despite all the research that has been done, there’s still a stigma attached to the disease in some quarters. “Animal love is so special because it’s so non-judgmental,” observes Kaushik Roy, executive director of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) in San Francisco. “And for some of the people who have lost a lot of their friends, their networks, their chosen families, they’re facing deep isolation.”
PAWS came into being as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Back in 1986, volunteers at the city’s AIDS Foundation Food Bank quickly noticed that their clients were turning around and feeding the donated food to their pets. So, the volunteers reasoned, there was a need for a different kind of food bank -- one that would offer these devoted cat and dog owners a way to obtain pet food and supplies without skimping on the necessities of life for themselves.
The result was PAWS, which emerged in October of 1987 as an independent non-profit organization. It was, Roy explains, probably one of the first non-profit groups in the world that was designed to specifically “keep companion animals together with their owners, who might be sick, disabled, or home-bound.” It was certainly the first organization of its type in the U.S. and “a catalyst for many other organizations.” Much later, in 2015, PAWS became part of The Shanti Project. “We were really excited to have PAWS join forces with us,” Roy recalls, “because it was the best way to keep PAWS going strong. It was also a good mission fit.”
Strangely enough, “[t]he roles that companion animals play in supporting people living with HIV have been historically overlooked,” according to a 2015 article by Allison Kabel, Nidhi Khosla, and Michelle Teti. The studies they looked at showed “that pets provide PLH/A [People Living with HIV/AIDS] with an avenue for love, support, physical activity, and perhaps even social interactions with others, all of which are beneficial to the owners.” In their own study, which involved HIV+ women from two cities in the Midwest, Kabel, Khosla, and Teti discovered that the subjects’ pets were often regarded as spiritual guardians “looking out for or watching over someone from beyond the tangible realm.” They were also seen as an “unconditional source of support,” giving “devotion and absolute loyalty that is not subject to the influences, prejudices, or stigma of the outside community.” Last, but not least, companion animals provided these women with “a sense of purpose and feeling [of being] meaningful or significant.”
Roy seconds these observations, remarking that “animals are often the biggest source of support and compassion. Our pets are part of our families. For PAWS clients, they’re often their only family – often the only reason they have to get out of bed.”
Isolation is, he adds, “a considerable factor in terms of health. One of the things we’re delving into more is the long-term survivor community, which has some special challenges.” And one of those challenges is the “accelerated aging process from being on the meds. So a lot of the people who have been on the meds 20-plus years might be in their 50s but have a 70-year-old body.” Many of them are also on fixed incomes, a fact that puts them at higher risk for eviction.
All of these factors make their pet companions doubly precious. So, over time, PAWS has expanded its services. The two major services are, of course, free pet food and vouchers for veterinary care. But now there’s a critical illness fund for more serious issues, such as cancer and surgery. Another program, “Ask the Vet,” allows clients to do just that regarding routine health issues so that they “can save money. A lot of volunteer vets are contributing their services.”
The organization also provides free cat litter, “cat stuff,” and dog washes as well as free prescriptions and flea medications when possible. And there are more than 500 volunteers in the San Francisco area who do emergency foster care and dog-walking.
Some of the clients have been coming in for so long, there’s a real bond between them and the volunteers. So the latter go out of their way to help. Case in point: one client was on the East Coast when it became necessary to put his dog down before he could fly back home. PAWS arranged for the client to have face time on the computer so that he could say good-bye to his old friend.
The organization also makes a point of supporting clients in the days following their bereavement. “When somebody loses a pet, there’s obviously a grieving process,” Roy muses. “We try to be there for them. But when they’re ready to look for a new pet, they can get re-enrolled.”
But all too frequently, it’s the human who is “terminal, and we bring the cat in to say good-bye. And if the human doesn’t have arrangements or anyone to give their pet to, we make arrangements so that the human can pass away knowing that that’s been taken care of.”
In the end, we’re talking about an emotional lifeline. Yes, there are health precautions that must be taken but not as many as you might think. And they’re pretty obvious ones. Steve Weinstein, a journalist who has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early 1980s, goes through some of these. Stick to cats and dogs and forgo “reptiles or exotic animals such as ferrets.” Make sure those cats and dogs are healthy. (“There are already plenty of people willing to take on the responsibility of helping a sick animal.”) Don’t let your pet lick your face or any cuts you may have. Make sure that somebody else changes your cat’s litterbox.
The benefits outweigh the possible risks, however. Having a pet is “grounding,” Weinstein maintains, adding, “If you’re laid up in the hospital, knowing that there’s a pet waiting at home to be taken care of – and to take care of you – provides as much a spur to getting well as a bookshelf of self-help guides.”
A vet friend of mine worked with the A.I.D. a Pet program -- a smaller version of PAWS -- at The Living Center in Hartford, Connecticut back in the 1990s. “It’s obvious that there’s no shortage of love on the part of the owner for these dogs and cats,” he told me in an interview we did back then. “In a lot of cases, the cat or dog keeps the person going. You know, put yourself in the place of someone who’s been diagnosed with this illness, and you’ve got to be depressed. And they’ve proven that having a cat or dog goes a long way toward combating the depression that goes with being diagnosed with H.I. V. They [the animals] love you unconditionally.”
Non-judgmental…unconditional…unconditionally…These words keep coming up in the dialogue about people with HIV/AIDS and their animal companions. And that’s why there are now so many variations on PAWS nationwide. Some provide low-cost spay/neuter surgery and veterinary care, while others offer pet-food banks and other services. But they all have one common goal: keeping that lifeline going.