By: Inga Fricke, Director of Community Initiatives of Humane Pennsylvania
At the beginning of this year, Humane Pennsylvania’s (HPA) Healthy Pets Initiative was truly hitting its stride. We were holding mass vaccination/microchip clinics for dogs every week and for cats every other week, creating a consistency of service that pet owners in our community could rely on. Spike’s Pet Pantry was serving a steady flow of clients, establishing personal connections with people who love their pets but just needed a little extra support. Our subsidized spay/neuter surgeries were booked out months in advance as people took advantage of our low-cost pricing. And we were just days away from launching our brand new initiative, a targeted wellness program aimed at bringing veterinary care directly to those who needed it most: the homeless, at-risk veterans and victims of domestic violence. We were proud of the help we had already been able to provide and were looking forward to doing even more.
Then our world went sideways, just as it did for the rest of you, and it felt like all of our planning and momentum went right along with it. In the blink of an eye we could no longer invite people into our pantry and chat with them about their pets’ needs. We couldn’t perform spay/neuter surgeries anymore, low-cost or otherwise, even though to most animal welfare professionals they are absolutely essential for healthy communities. And we certainly couldn’t invite hundreds of people into a community center to perform mass pet vaccinations. It would have been completely understandable for us to feel helpless and defeated. But at HPA we look for opportunities to serve no matter the challenge before us, so instead of simply waiting for “normal” to return, we looked for new ways to help, and boy did we find them!
Our first challenge was to completely revamp our in-house Spike’s Pet Pantry to ensure we could continue providing pet food to residents without compromising safety. That meant figuring out a system for communicating with clients without actually coming face-to-face with them. We purchased a video doorbell to facilitate conversations, and figured out a system whereby we hold up signs at our door to ask questions like “How many dogs do you have?” and “Do you need more cat food or dog food today?” While it sounds very impersonal, I can honestly say a highlight of my day is hearing my colleague laughing with Spike’s patrons about the challenges of through-the-glass-door communication, making the very best of a completely unnatural situation. And our numbers tell the story of how critical our service has become – since March 15, more than 13,000 lbs of pet food have passed out the doors of Spike’s Pet Pantry, a more than 200% increase over the same period last year. Perhaps more telling is the fact that over 55% percent of those receiving that food had never had to use our services before this pandemic hit.
Next, we saw an opportunity to leverage the unique relationships we have cultivated with national organizations like Greater Good to allow us to serve as the Pennsylvania State Animal Response Team’s official pet food distribution hub for Eastern Pennsylvania. Within a week we had secured donated warehouse space (our thanks to NAI Keystone) and begun accepting, inventorying and tracking truckloads of donated pet food. To date, we have fielded more than a dozen deliveries to that warehouse and have distributed over 75,000 lbs. of pet food to dozens of groups from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, including schools, community organizations and food pantries.
While that effort alone would have been enough for most organizations, HPA continued looking for opportunities to serve. We began providing pet food delivery to individuals who found themselves unable to reach our pantry, and we arranged multiple drive-thru pet food giveaways in communities across our region. Almost 13,000 lbs. of pet food has been distributed through these efforts, enough to keep more than 1,300 pets fed for a full month, and more of food giveaway events are planned.
Most recently we asked ourselves “How can we restart our mass pet vaccine clinics safely?” We’ve found a way, holding our first ever drive-in pet vaccination clinic at the end of last month. By adapting our service delivery in this creative manner, we are able to ensure that we can continue providing critical, lifesaving, preventative vaccinations and microchips to pet owners in our community without compromising safety, and we are in the process of adding more drive-in clinics to our calendar.
Are we 100% back to normal? Certainly not. Spay/neuter services are still largely on hold due to state and national veterinary restrictions, and despite our best efforts, our drive-in vaccine clinics will likely not serve every pet owner the way our prior walk-in clinics did. But HPA will continue stretching, adapting and innovating to keep meeting the challenge of helping as many pet owners in need as possible. It’s what we do, and it’s all part of our commitment to make this the best community anywhere to be an animal.