In 2009, veterinarian Dr Mark Westman started visiting a soup kitchen in Parramatta, Sydney with a fold-out table and an esky of vaccines. The soup kitchen had a range of services available to help people experiencing homelessness, but there were no providers who could look after the health of their animal companions.
More than 100,000 people experience homelessness every night in Australia. These people are exposed to fear, insecurity, and judgement on a daily basis – not to mention the very real threat of physical harm. However, the impact of homelessness isn’t limited to humans alone. Pets of the homeless are also placed into a precarious situation, often living in cars or temporary housing with their owners. With no Medicare system for animals, there is no safety net for those owners who cannot afford basic veterinary care.
Dr Westman’s aim on that cold night in Parramatta was to provide basic veterinary care to these animals, with the dual purpose of improving animal health and strengthening the human-animal bond. In 2012, Dr Westman teamed up with another veterinarian, Dr Leah Skelsey, and two veterinary nurses, to expand the service into a formal charity, Pets in the Park.
With a grassroots approach to helping the pets of people experiencing homelessness, the need for their services quickly outstripped the capacity of the Parramatta-based clinic. Soon new clinics and branches of the charity were springing up around the country.
There are now seven ‘pop-up’ clinics held at least monthly around Australia. There are two clinics in Sydney (Darlinghurst and Parramatta), two in Melbourne (Central and Frankston) and one clinic each in Queensland (Fortitude Valley), ACT (Canberra) and Tasmania (Hobart).
With the official launch of the national charity held in Canberra in 2017, there are two more clinics on the cards. It is anticipated that in the next 12 months the Adelaide and Perth branches of the charity will commence operations.
A national board of veterinarians and veterinary nurses oversees the running of Pets in the Park, and with the exception of a part-time National Executive Officer, the entire organisation is run by volunteers. Each state has a local executive committee who oversee the running of the local clinics. These executive committees also contribute with fundraising activities to help purchase equipment and consumables. Support from companies, including Virbac Animal Health, Microchips Australia and Applaws Natural Pet Food ensures the clinics are adequately stocked at all times.
Clients of Pets in the Park are encouraged to visit monthly, where pets will receive flea, tick and worm preventatives, a full physical examination and investigation of any issues. Initially all pets get vaccinated and microchipped, with desexing booked within the first six months of receiving assistance. Although many of the pets receiving support from Pets in the Park are dogs, a growing number of cats visit the monthly clinics as well as the occasional budgie, ferret, rabbit and rat.
Access to the services provided by Pets in the Park can only be obtained if the client gets a referral letter from a human services provider, such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
This is to ensure there is both a legitimate need for the free veterinary care provided by the charity, but more importantly, to ensure the person seeking assistance for their pet also get help for themselves. In that sense it is very much a ‘One Welfare’ charity, seeking to improve the lives of both humans and animals.
The aim of the organisation is “to support, build relationships with and improve the wellbeing of homeless people in society living with animal companions”. Protecting the unconditional love, comfort, companionship and security provided by pets is acknowledged as an important aspect of the charity.
This effort isn’t unnoticed by clients of Pets in the Park. John, who used to visit Pets in the Park Canberra with his dog Champers, said at the national launch “the veterinarians [have] been very, very good. They supply medication free and they’ve had teeth done for the dogs. Wouldn’t be without them.”
Unfortunately, Champers passed away in late 2017 at 18 years of age. Support from Pets in the Park in the final few months of Champers' life meant he was free from painful dental disease. For his owner John, this support meant he no longer had to worry about Champers pain, or the quality of life of his best mate.
The benefit to veterinarians
Veterinarians who are involved in the charity speak highly of the merits of volunteering their time at a clinic. Dr Dilly Abeyawardane from Pets in the Park Canberra says, “As a vet, I have always enjoyed donating my time and skills when possible. I helped start Pets in the Park Canberra so the less fortunate could care for their much-loved pets without worrying about the financial burden”.
Dr Jackie Campbell from Pets in the Park Brisbane agrees “Pets in the Park allows us to provide care to some of the most wonderful, yet challenged, people in our communities and I love that we do this through the care of their pets. It’s about so much more than just treating a patient. Often the conversations and bonds we form with the clients who visit us can be pretty life-changing.”
However, volunteering as a veterinarian at the monthly clinic is not the only way to get involved. Veterinary nurses and administration volunteers are also needed at the clinics, as well as clinics happy to assist with surgeries, and people willing to fundraise. Donations are always appreciated and help to purchase bigger items like otoscopes.
Find out more information on how to volunteer by visiting Pets in the Park.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal (AVJ).