Animal Friends for Life, helps pet owners keep companions healthy
By: Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Sometimes no matter how much pet owners love their animals, they lack the resources to give pets what they need. That was the case for Kris Wilkes. She adored her pets and took care of them as best she could, but sometimes timing and finances got in the way – at least until a friend recommended Animal Friends for Life to her.
“I didn’t have an income and there were a lot of [feral] cats outside and they helped,” Wilkes said. “With my dog, I couldn’t take her to a vet so Kaley brought the veterinarian here and she got her shots, gave her a check-up, and fed her meals. I really appreciated it.”
Coordinated by the aforementioned Kaley Kaczynski, Animal Friends for Life is a community outreach program with one goal: helping pet owners care for the animals they love. The 26-year-old’s journey to the program began after college while working as the manager of Petsmart. Despite having studied ceramics art as a student, the idea of in working animal welfare appealed to her. She began her career at what was once Pets for Life, scheduling spay and neuter appointments for low-income families and worked her way up from there.
Since 2014, the nonprofit’s approach is simple. Kaczynski will literally meet pet owners where they live and find out their needs on an individual level. Sometimes that means helping pet owners get their animals spayed and neutered. Other times, that can mean providing transportation to pet owners like Wilkes where they would otherwise be unable to find it.
“We know that having a pet is very expensive,” Kaczynski said. “The love of your pet is not shown through your financial income. So if we can extend those services and resources to pet owners then they have a better chance of being able to keep their pet.”
In its infancy, the program started by serving Homewood and Wilkinsburg, before shifting their focus on the Northside, specifically within Perry Hilltop and Observatory Hill neighborhoods, two years ago. The program’s services include spaying and neutering, vaccinations, and veterinary services. Dr. Theo Nelson serves as the primary vet for Northside clients with additional assistance from Dr. Emily deCardenas at Animal Friends’ main office in the North Hills.
According to Kaczynski, Animal Friends for Life works to eliminate the existing barriers between pet owners and the care they may need.
“A lot of our clients might have a disability where they’re not able to drive or they just don’t have a car, which is understandable,” Kaczynski said. “So we offer transportation. We’ll pick up the animal early in the morning, bring them in for their spay [or]neuter and vaccination package and then we’ll bring them home to them later that day.”
“Seeing somebody care about their pet and not have the ability to get them what they want is hard, but being able to help people give them what they can’t afford or physically get … it makes you feel great.”
— Kaley Kaczynski
While most Northside residents have welcomed Animal Friends for Life, Kaczynski understands some residents might be wary. Establishing trust between clients is a major focus of their outreach.
“If I myself had someone knock on my door and say we offer free services for pets, I probably wouldn’t trust them at first because that’s my baby,” said Kaczynski. “Everybody thinks there’s a catch, but there is no catch. We just wanna help people and their pets get what they deserve.”
Many of Animal Friends for Life’s clients come to them through recommendations from friends. For Northside resident Kim Marrow, the program was brought to her doorstep when one of her cats walked in the car Kaczynski and her staff was using that day during a neighborhood outreach session.
“We set up an appointment and they took my other cat and neutered him. They kept him in recovery and then they physically brought him back,” Marrow said.
After a heart attack left her on disability, the 53-year-old found herself using their services for her cat as well as other pets. It turned out to be exactly what she, and the other animals she would unexpectedly take in, needed.
“At first I felt bad for using it as many times as I did, but she [Kaley] told me that, that was what the program was for,” said Marrow. “They’ve been wonderful to my pets.”
With roughly 1,500 pets served, the program has earned the gratitude of many a Northside pet owner and Kaczynski and her staff plans to continue their work for the foreseeable future.
“Helping animals can be hard,” Kaczynski admitted. “Seeing somebody care about their pet and not have the ability to get them what they want is hard, but being able to help people give them what they can’t afford or physically get … it makes you feel great.”
For more information on Animal Friends for Life, visit their website.