FORT COLLINS (AP) – It’s 11 a.m. on a frigid Colorado morning. Several inches of snow fell overnight and the slushy sidewalks at the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope are getting a healthy dose of salt.
Inside, Tera and her 50-pound American bullmastiff, Odin, wait, bundled in layers for the weather.
Odin is one of two patients expecting to see veterinarian Dr. Jon Geller. It’s the 11-month-old puppy’s first checkup in several months. Odin greets Geller and vet assistant Heidi Cortum with sniffs and kisses.
A large back room at the Murphy Center serves as Geller’s office for an hour today. There are no stainless steel exam tables, counters filled with swabs or models of a dog’s intestinal tract. Just a cafeteria table, small Igloo-type cooler filled with medicine, syringes and paperwork.
Geller is at the Murphy Center every Tuesday as part of the Street Dog Coalition, a 3-year-old nonprofit that provides free veterinary care to dogs and cats – yes, cats – living on the streets with their humans.
He checks Odin’s ears, listens to his heart, curls back his lips to get a look at his teeth and examines his belly. Odin receives shots for rabies, parvovirus and distemper, and a deworming pill. Odin mostly complies but wriggles with the second shot. Tera and Cortum hold him still while Geller sticks Odin’s rear flank.
Odin gets a clean bill of health. Geller gives Tera a voucher for a free neutering clinic, Odin’s rabies tag and information about future clinics.
Tera is a homeless woman who went to the Murphy Center seeking its services. She, her husband, two kids and Odin moved to Fort Collins from Texas and have stayed in a homeless shelter since they arrived a week ago. But the shelter recently kicked out Odin, saying he was aggressive.
Tera disputes the allegation and Geller sees no sign of aggression. Nevertheless, Odin was banished to their car on a night when temperatures hovered around zero. Tera is trying to get the shelter to change its mind while she and her family wait for an apartment.
Odin is family to Tera, a companion and protector. She suffers from severe back pain and Odin helps her walk. He wakes her up at night when she sometimes forgets to breathe.
“Without him, I’d be too paranoid to live,” she said. “I’d close myself up and never leave the house.”
Geller estimates about 10 percent of the city’s roughly 330-plus homeless individuals have four-legged companions. That would be 33 dogs and cats living on the streets of Fort Collins – not a huge number, especially considering there are between 50,000 and 100,000 animals living on the streets with their companions nationwide.
Although people have mixed feelings about helping the homeless, “almost everyone wants to help their pets, who have had little choice in their life on the streets,” Geller said. Helping homeless pets can help save their owners’ lives.
“Pets give them a reason to live; they become their priorities,” Geller said. “For every homeless person who has no incentive to get up in the morning because no one cares, they get up to take care of the dog. It gives them a purpose in life.”
Their animals provide emotional support, unconditional love and acceptance – something they rarely feel elsewhere. And they can provide protection while their owners sleep.
Geller hears the criticism from those who wonder how people who struggle to support themselves can take care of an animal. “People don’t realize how much the homeless give up to have an animal,” he said. Most people will feed their dogs before they feed themselves, he said.
“They’re giving up access to shelters, to transportation. Those are barriers to getting a job or keeping a job. It’s not like they can do doggy day care,” he said.
The most common dog breeds living with their humans on the street are pit bulls and Chihuahuas, Geller said. “Pits are considered outcasts, and these people are outcast,” he said. “And Chihuahuas are very protective.”
Geller initially self-funded the coalition to help homeless animals with help from area veterinarians who donated time and supplies such as vaccines. Street Dog has since achieved nonprofit status and Geller can now qualify for grants and accept monetary donations. Group Publishing, United Way and others help out.
Help centers such as the Murphy Center keep small bags of pet food on hand. Wagz, has donated doggy coats.
Many of his volunteers come from Colorado State University’s veterinary school. “We’re really lucky to have CSU. It’s an unlimited group of volunteers. Vet students are really fired up about it and get involved.”
Geller calls the type of care he provides “street medicine” – it involves a lot of preventive care, like rabies and distemper vaccinations, heartworm prevention and minor medical attention for problems such as parasites or gastrointestinal issues.
The dogs that live outside with their owners are healthy. Dogs that aren’t well socialized or healthy are not going to make it on the street.”
Street Dog has spread to six states with pending plans for seven more, including cities with the most pressing homelessness problems: Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Baltimore.
The coalition provides medical tents, startup supplies and money for additional care.
Geller estimates it costs between $10 and $50 per visit to care for an animal, depending on its needs. Cats and dogs needing more critical care are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The coalition provides vouchers for spaying and neutering street pets. Pets that are near the end of their lives are referred elsewhere for euthanasia and cremation.