A group of Tulsa volunteers helps the four-legged friends of those in need.
On the last Thursday of July it rained. Hard. For about 15 minutes.
When the last giant cool raindrop fell, the heat rose again, almost instantly, steaming off the pavement at about 100 percent humidity. Most people who could stayed inside.
But next to a bridge near the intersection of West Brady Street and North Maybelle Avenue, nearly 100 people gathered for orientation to serve at Night Light Tulsa, which feeds the homeless and needy.
Along with them were volunteers with Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless, ready to help this population’s animal companions. Feeding the Pets began with Jeff Brown, a Tulsa Animal Welfare Department officer.
Fifteen years ago, Brown began putting donated bags of pet food in his truck as he made his rounds to enforce city ordinance. When he saw a homeless person with a pet, he stopped to talk.
“Turns out,” he says, “a lot of times, their animals eat before they do.”
In 2013, Susan Stoker, field supervisor for Tulsa Animal Welfare, returned from a business trip with a large pet food donation.
“I told my officers, ‘When you meet someone at the end of the freeway with a dog, give them a bag of food,’” Stoker says.
Brown and another animal welfare officer, Pete Theriot, “took a small idea and ran with it. They went out seeking people to give food to,” she says.
Today, Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless provides two 1-gallon bags of dog or cat food to anyone who requests it every Wednesday morning at Iron Gate and every Thursday night at Night Light. The person does not have to be homeless, just in need.
The partnership is “a good fit,” says Night Light organizer and President Sarah Grounds. “They take care of the pets, and we take care of the people.”
Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless benefits from a dedicated, core group of volunteers, including Dawn Battey, Debra Fite and Sherry Thompson. For Thompson, the appeal was personal. “I know how much animals mean to people,” she says. “My dog got me through a bad time in my life.”
Battey, a self-described “animal person” also volunteers for a dog rescue group and at the animal welfare shelter.
“As a rescuer, I think it’s phenomenal that people will stand in line to get food for their pet before themselves,” she says.
A similar sense of respect drew Fite to volunteer. A few years ago, she began to talk to a homeless man she saw occasionally at the gas station where she stopped regularly.
“James never panhandled me,” she says. It was his dog, Hercules, who opened the lines of communication.
“His dog looked just like mine,” Fite says. “They could have been litter mates.”
One morning, after greeting James and Hercules on her way into the store, Fite bought two cups of coffee and two croissants. After sharing half with James, she got in her car and looked in the rearview mirror. She saw James break his croissant down the middle and lay half down for Hercules.
Weeks later, Fite realized that she had not seen James or Hercules for an unusual amount of time. When she learned James had been arrested, she recalls, “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened to Hercules?’ Because that dog is James’ reason for living.”
After first looking at the shelter, Fite learned the police let a friend of James’ take Hercules. But, Tulsa Animal Welfare’s Stoker, Theriot and Brown knew exactly who Fite was looking for and introduced her to Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless. The group had Hercules neutered, vaccinated and reunited him with James. Now, Fite tries to attend as many Night Light events as she can.
Stoker, Brown and Theriot mention two wonderful, even if unintended, results of Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless.
First, the generous involvement of volunteers and supportive organizations like Family Animal Medicine in Owasso, a veterinary clinic that performs rabies vaccinations at Night Light events, as well as Wagology, Dog Dish, Oklahoma Animal Alliance, St. Simeon’s and the Tulsa SPCA.
“One hundred percent of everything that we give away is donated,” Stoker reports, “including the bags that we repackage the food in.”
And second, the program has had a positive impact on the relationship between animal welfare officers and the pet-loving public.
“People have a negative stereotype of animal welfare officers,” Theriot says, “except for when I come (to Night Light). Most of the time, when a homeless person has an interaction with law enforcement, it’s negative.”
Stoker agrees, “We are so much more than dog catchers, but that was the image that was out there.”
Best-case scenario, she says, animal welfare officers were ignored. The worst-case scenarios ranged from verbal aggression to violence.
“Now,” she says, “homeless people wave at our trucks as they go by.”
Stoker sees the positive relationships between the homeless population and animal welfare officers as proof that Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless is serving its purpose to “help people take care of their pets so they can take better care of themselves.”
Theriot says the benefits go both ways. In his job, he says, “You can see the worst of humanity. But when we come out here, it’s nice to make something more positive. This program tends to bring out the best in people.”
From Fite’s perspective, “If everybody took as much care of their pets as these clients do, (Theriot and Brown) wouldn’t have a job. These pets are family. They are protection. They are companionship. They are everything to these people.”
• • •
Although the clouds continue to threaten another outburst of rain this night, a line has formed under the bridge. People are waiting, in orderly and congenial fashion, for the animal welfare truck to open. Within 15 minutes, Theriot and his volunteers will distribute 160 bags of dog food.
Back at the orientation, Theriot senses the time has come. He turns toward the line of people and their pets and says, “Let’s make the magic happen.”
Donations of cat or dog food, flea or tick medication, collapsible water bowls, leashes, collars and dog coats can be made at the Tulsa Animal Welfare Shelter, 3031 N. Erie Ave. Find Feeding the Pets’ Amazon wish list online at www.facebook.com/feedingPTH.
Lacruz + Chewy and Baby Girl
When Lacruz’s mother passed away about five years ago, his grief took him to some dark places. He credits his oldest dog, a terrier named Chewy, with helping him find his way back.
“Chewy kept me from wanting to hurt myself,” he says.
Since then, Lacruz adopted another terrier mix, Baby Girl, and became the proud “grandfather” to two litters of puppies. He has received food, leashes and vaccinations from FPTH and volunteers three days a week at Iron Gate.
Lacruz says he has “unique relationships” with each dog, but one thing remains constant: “I love them, and they love me.”
Ron + Max, Molly and Chico
A white-haired, soft-spoken man named Ron picks up food for his dogs at Night Light nearly every week.
Two brain surgeries and a diagnosis of prostate cancer left Ron with little to smile about. He says his difficulties were made more bearable by the antics of his three Chihuahua mixes.
“One of them,” he chuckles, “she’ll lay down on her belly and spread her back legs out behind. It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
As Ron is talking about the impact that 2 gallons of dog food have made on his quality of life, Pete Theriot of Feeding Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless approaches.
“Mr. Ron!” Theriot says, shaking his hand. “How are you, sir?”
“You know,” Ron says, “it’s not so much the dog food (that makes a difference in my life), but it’s the beautiful individuals who do this.”
Richard + Lady and Dr. Doolittle
“These are my children.”
Richard, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, is describing his two dogs. Lady, a pit bull mix, stares into Richard’s eyes, and Dr. Doolittle, a Chihuahua and Pomeranian mix, is tucked into his shirt. They are his constant companions.
“We walk around the neighborhood so much,” Richard says, “everybody knows them.”
As he feeds Lady and Dr. Doolittle popcorn from a bag given to him, he describes a typical outing for the trio.
“She’ll be running to a corner or something, and I’ll say, ‘Stop and wait right there.’ She’ll stop.”
He demonstrates Lady’s obedience by taking off her leash and asking for kisses. She jumps to lick him on the face, paying zero attention to anyone else in the crowded line.
Richard restrains Lady with her leash (a Feeding the Pets acquisition) and says, “If it wasn’t for them, I’d be hurting.”