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For the Love of Dog

Puppy love may be free, but puppy maintenance is not. Thanks to the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, the homeless and low income residents of Seattle can afford to care for their most important possessions, their pets.
Written and Photographed by J. Nichole Smith | Click on images to enlarge
Mesha is a seven-year-old miniature wire-haired terrier. When I approached, she eagerly greeted me with a lick and a smile. Mesha sits patiently in a line that has already been relocated twice today to avoid the 90 degree heat outside the walls of the Union Gospel Mission. Mesha’s mom Dede receives a total of $429 a month from Social Security. The line they wait in is Mesha’s lifeline to food, supplies and medical care that Dede otherwise could not afford. The cost? Free to those who qualify.

Housed in the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle, the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, created by Dr. Bud Doney in 1985, is a rare jewel in the midst of a “no dogs allowed in the shelter” world. Offering free veterinary care as well as food, supplies and advice, the Doney clinic is a monumental effort driven by the generosity of dedicated volunteers and donors.

Critics argue that those who are homeless or living on food stamps have no right to own a pet. However, several studies show that dogs can become necessary not only for physical protection, but also to prevent loneliness. Pets provide a companionship that might otherwise be out of reach to the homeless and isolated members of our community.

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In their interviews of 105 homeless adult men and women, Robert M. Kidd and Aline H. Kidd found that homeless pet owners were the most dedicated pet owners they had ever encountered. During their interviews, the Kidds repeatedly heard the same comments, “He’s the only thing that loves me.” “I always feed her first.” One homeless woman candidly stated, “She doesn’t mind that I’m dirty or smell—she loves me anyway.”

If you ask one of the many longtime Doney clinic volunteers, they will tell you that most of these people take better care of their animals than they do themselves. Dr. Aimee Smith, DVM, compliments the Doney clinic patrons, “I am involved [at the clinic] because the pet owners are so immensely grateful for the work that we do. It’s rewarding to see people who care so much about their animals.”

The Clinic is open from 3 to 5 p.m on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, and most animals wait with their people for hours beforehand, rain or shine.

Anastasia Bryant is only seventeen, but you’d never know it by how responsible she is. She’s been bussing from West Seattle to the Doney clinic, twice a month, for years with her grandmother. The bimonthly visits are on behalf of their three dogs and six cats, including Eddie, a Great Pyrenees who requires a special wheat-free diet.

Today, Anastasia arrived at the clinic alone, at 11 a.m. to wait in line with her two kittens, Socks and Oreo. Her grandmother recently passed away, and now Anastasia is left to care for all nine animals on her own. She is so grateful for the services that she continues to receive at the Doney clinic, that she plans to attend Yakima Valley Community College to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine.

Anastasia’s is just one of the many stories that move through the halls of the Union Gospel Mission. Longtime Doney volunteer Carol Dougherty got involved because of a newspaper article. “In  2002 there was an article about the Doney clinic in the Seattle Times. At that time, my dog was suffering with a tumor and had just endured an unsuccessful surgery. He died shortly thereafter, and all my daughter and I could think to do with his toys, bed, collar and leash was to donate them to the clinic. From there I started to get involved with fundraising and I just stayed,” she says.

Although generously spread throughout five rooms at the Union Gospel Mission (318 2nd Avenue South, in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood), the clinic is bursting at the seams. Often, it is standing room only, and cats in their kennels sit next to dogs on their leashes. But, patrons wait patiently (they are encouraged to line up at noon), keeping an eye on their animals and an ear cocked for their number to be called. The consensus from the veterinarians that volunteer at the clinic is that the window of time they are given to help is very short and very chaotic.

Dr. Clare Morris, DVM, says, “There is always a lot of confusion and it’s always a bit of a scramble. The clinic could use either more vets, or more time, but in spite of the chaos, it does seem to be working. Most of the volunteers have been working together for quite a while, and I think without that, the limited time we do have would not be nearly as productive.”

Dr. Aimee Smith of Elliot Bay Animal Hospital adds, “Honestly, it’s always very hectic. People stand in line for hours to make sure they get a number and are seen. We do stick around if there are still people waiting. People go through a lot to get here.”

Doney Memorial Pet Clinic serves 40 to 60 pets per Saturday, which adds up to between 960 and 1,440 pets per year. Relying on donations from other local vet clinics, programs like the Pet Food Bank provided by The Humane Society for Seattle/King County and generous community members, the Clinic is barely getting by, but getting by nonetheless.

When a patient needs more than the clinic can provide, Dr. Morris accommodates them at her clinic, Urban Vet. Typically the types of procedures Urban Vet takes on are dentistry, setting fractures, minor surgeries and mid-week exams that can’t wait until a Saturday clinic.

Dr. Morris summarizes the clinic’s services, “Doney clinic covers the basics: routine health care like de-worming, dispensing flea medication, drawing blood, treating ear infections and so on. It’s nothing fancy, but we meet the most urgent needs of these pets and there is no question that their quality of life is improved.”

To qualify, pet owners must be Seattle residents and show they are financially in need. As far as the pets go, in addition to dogs and cats, the veterinarians at the Doney clinic have treated snakes, roosters, possums, rats, rabbits and ferrets (to name a few). There are no restrictions on breed or species, but all animals have to be spayed or neutered to receive care. If the animal has not yet been altered, owners can request vouchers for the surgery to be redeemed at the Seattle Animal Clinic.

The Doney clinic is the only clinic of its kind in Seattle, and as far as volunteers know, it's the only clinic of its kind in the country. Judy Rivers, a regular Saturday volunteer says, “My son is a vet in New York and is trying to start a clinic like this. He uses Doney as an example that it can work, and despite all odds, has been working for years.”

The unique combination of caring volunteers, local veterinary clinics willing to help gather food and supplies plus monetary donations, keeps the doors open. However, Doney is always seeking new ways to spread the word about the needs of Seattle’s poor, but richly loved pets.

How You Can Help
The Doney Memorial Pet Clinic welcomes monetary donations as well as donations of new and gently-used pet supplies including: collars (especially for cats), leashes, beds, bowls, toys, harnesses (especially for large dogs), litter boxes, cat carriers, dog kennels and various other necessities. Also, dog food, cat food, treats and chew toys are encouraged.

For more information about the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic including how to donate, visit doneyclinic.org.
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