Pets In The Park


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Pets in the Park
Veterinary care for pets can be expensive these days. So what do you do if you have a low income? Or no income at all? Or if you are homeless? Should owning pets be reserved for the rich? Or should everyone be able to share the joy that comes from the company of animals?
Pets in the Park (PITP) is a wonderful initiative that harnesses the energy of volunteer vets and animals lovers to help care for pets of those who are less fortunate. Providing free vaccinations, worming and other veterinary advice, PITP is a charity that reaches out to homeless people to ensure they can continue to experience the positive benefits pet ownership brings. The service includes new collars and winter coats for pets, and at the Canberra clinic, a lovely lady called Angel now offers basic grooming for pets too. Free desexing clinics are run quarterly, and in July several pets were desexed and also received dental treatment.
PITP all began with one Sydney vet, Dr Mark Westman, who went out to his local Parramatta park with a folding table and an esky of vaccines, and offered free veterinary checks for homeless people attending a food outreach program. His “pop-up” clinic was so appreciated it became a regular monthly fixture. A need in the community had been identified. From there, other veterinarians and volunteers became involved, and more “pop-up” clinics were set up in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. Soon there will be one in Hobart too.
What’s wonderful about PITP is the rewarding three-way exchange between volunteers, pet owners and pets: the positive energy and goodwill. Owners come with their pets, and the welcome is warm. Heather, a Canberra volunteer, enjoys the wonderful spirit of camaraderie amongst the volunteers. Pat loves to see the joy on a pet owner’s face when they see their pets being cared for, as if a huge worry has been removed. Michelle has volunteered with veterinary charities around the world, but she found that helping vulnerable animals in her own community was uniquely rewarding.
The first time I helped out at PITP was on a cold Sunday afternoon. Our clinic was set up between airy buildings in the middle of Canberra civic. Cheery volunteers erected tables and ferried out eskies of vaccines and boxes of collars and doggy coats. There were no fixed appointments, and anyone could turn up during the designated two hours, so we didn’t know who might come. In beanies and coats, we waited, wondering if anyone would arrive. Then, quietly, owners and their pets began to show up.
My first patient was a little white Maltese dog owned by an old man called “Mike”. We sat on a wooden bench seat as “Mike” shyly explained “Molly’s” issues with bad teeth and sore ears. He told me how “Molly” was too old to live with him on the street anymore, so she mostly stayed with his friends. He visited her often, but he was worried she wasn’t receiving the right care – she hadn’t been vaccinated for years and also had a nasty ear infection. With the help of another kindly volunteer, we cleaned “Molly” up, treated her ear infection, vaccinated and wormed her, and supplied her with a new winter coat. “Mike” was profoundly grateful, and I was deeply moved to assist someone who really needed my help.  
Those of us who own animals know the value of human-animal bonds. Research has shown the social, emotional and physical health benefits of owning pets. This is especially important for homeless people who don’t receive unconditional love, companionship, emotional support or security from elsewhere. Each night in Australia, 100,000 people sleep on the streets, and many of these people own pets. Sometimes pets are the only thing that keeps homeless people going. Pets can offer a reason for being, a life buoy in otherwise tragic and difficult circumstances. 
In a society that is preoccupied with achievement and wealth, taking time to care for others is essential. It’s part of what makes us human. Pets are part of our families, and helping homeless people look after their pets recognises the vital support pets can provide. This is why PITP is so important. A national website providing more information about PITP should be up and running by September. The current link is, and any donations should be marked for Canberra PITP.