What is Family?

What is family? Everyone has a different definition of what constitutes a family. For Dawn, her family consists of her husband and her dogs Stasha and Oklahoma. During the polar vortex in the winter of 2014, *Dawn and her husband *Gary were living in an abandoned home. They were offered shelter, but refused to leave their dogs. Dawn looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked me if I would suggest a mother separate from her children. She was serious and she was determined.

Dawn was in and out of shelter while Gary was serving some time in jail. She agreed to go to the shelter due to some health concerns and wanting better for her dogs. A representative from the Street Outreach Animal Response Initiative (SOAR) responded to my request to foster Stasha and Oklahoma. She offered to get them updated on their shots and provide them with a safe place to stay. For a while, Stasha and Oklahoma stayed with the SOAR representative. She would send Dawn pictures of the dogs snuggling with her daughter and playing in the backyard. Dawn was happy the dogs were safe but started getting anxious she wouldn’t see them again. She left shelter and asked the representative meet her at the park to give her the dogs. About a week later, I visited her in the park in the blistering heat and asked if she wanted to try doing a foster home again. At first she said no and said she just wanted to be with them. After visiting them again, this time outside of a gas station, Dawn told me she wanted the dogs safe again. When I arranged a new foster, this time with help from a representative at the Alliance for Responsible Pet Ownership (ARPO). Dawn was relieved to see them get in my car. The dogs were both experiencing heat stroke and clearly not feeling well.

When housing finally came through for Gary and Dawn, I was beyond happy to call the foster to arrange a pick up. Dawn and Gary moved all their belongings into their new apartment (one where there were supports in place) and anxiously awaited my visit with the dogs. They wanted everything to be ready when they arrived. Sasha and Oklahoma recognized me and greeted me with kisses. Although they had both lost some weight and looked exhausted, it was clear they had been well cared for. They were definitely ready to see their parents. They hopped into my car without hesitation. They were anxious to see where we were going and cried in the backseat. I brought them to their parents and it was a beautiful reunion.

Without the help and understanding from the representatives at SOAR and ARPO, and the countless resources provided by donors, I am not sure how this story would have ended. All of our lives are complicated. One’s love for their family does not change when their circumstances do. In my experience, people without homes who have pets might even have a stronger bond to them than housed people do. The love and loyalty is there. And it runs deep.

Some people have judgement when they see people on the streets with pets. I’m asking that you understand that life is complicated and choose to have love and compassion instead.

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Post by Lillian Herbers-Kelly, MSW, LSW

*Names have been changed

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