How did you come up with the idea to create Community Veterinary Outreach?
It all started in 2003, when I offered my veterinary services at a homeless shelter in Ottawa, in the Southeast of Canada. During my years of volunteering, I saw that homeless people care more for the health of their animal companion than their own. But since pets are banned from most institutions, shelters or hospitals, these services remain out of reach for many homeless people. Moreover, this population has often given up on social and health services. However, once you have taken care of their companion, they are more likely to accept being taken care of themselves. Community Veterinary Outreach was launched in 2009 to use veterinary clinics as a point of contact with marginalized people. In 2012, we were granted the charitable organization status. The pets we attend to reveal the invisible forms of exclusion their owners suffer from.
Inside the clinics, how does the transition between the animal and the person take place?
The beneficiaries are sent by social services and health professionals. When they show up at one of our clinics, they sit down in the waiting room, and we take this opportunity to talk to them, establish a connection and try to understand their situation. Then, during the veterinary consultation animals are examined, vaccinated, microchipped and de-wormed. Surgery can also be planned if needed. Then, in a second stage, we provide care to the human. Depending on the clinic: dental care, smoking cessation help or distribution of overdose prevention kits. After this step, masters and pets take a walk in what I call the “shop”. They can pick up products that were donated such as leashes, collars, toys or pet food.
Where are your clinics located and who works there?
In fact, we don’t seek to establish ourselves anywhere in particular, we support activists who want to set up a “clinic”. Our dispensaries are therefore set up temporarily, in partnership with local associations and social organizations. In each city, several “clinics” are set up every year. A team of volunteer veterinarians get involved in each of these communities. Community Veterinary Outreach is currently predominantly located in major Ontario cities. New “clinics” have popped up this year in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Halifax.
And yet, some people might think that taking care of animals is not a priority?
I remember that at first many people did not understand why I started this project. Many believe that those with no financial means should not own pets. But when someone says to me: “Don’t you think homeless people shouldn’t have pets?” I always say, “don’t you think there should be no homeless people?”
In Canada, 63 % of the homeless youth have experienced childhood maltreatment or trauma. 28 % come from the foster care system and did not grow up with a family. For them, owning a cat or dog is the first opportunity to experience unconditional love and be accepted. Their companions show empathy for them while they often have a very low self-esteem of their own. They might learn to take care of themselves primarily because they feel obligated to take care of their companion. Some even reduce their alcohol or drug use to this end. Similarly, in some cases individuals start looking for a place to live in, so as to protect their animals. Pets undeniably have a positive impact.
Since clinic attendants do not have the means to pay, how does Community Veterinary Outreach function economically?
The most difficult thing for us is to find long-term financing. We raise funds for one-off projects, so we have to start again every year. If we are able to continue, it is mainly because all veterinary clinics are run by volunteers. And we are lucky to be helped by companies that supply most of the medical equipment we need.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to duplicate our model of care. Right now we are working with homeless people in cities, but I would like to do the same thing in rural areas with isolated farmers and try it in developing countries. In summary, I would say that wherever humans have relationships with animals, not only as pet but also farm animals, it is possible to improve the health of humans by caring for their animals.