‘Best Mates’ provides free veterinary care and a great deal of love to the furry friends of people doing it tough in the community, writes Faye Michelson.
An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language,” said Austrian-born philosopher Martin Buber. Indeed, if the pets who have received care through the Best Mates charity could talk, what stories of kindness they would tell.
Best Mates was set up two years ago to provide food and veterinary care for animals owned by people who are going through hard times. Dr Jason Rapke, a partner at the Glen Iris Vet Hospital in Melbourne, says the idea for the charity was developed during a staff meeting.
“We wanted to give something back to the community,” he explains. “Around the same time, a staff member and I had noted a large number of people with pets living rough on the streets. So we made some inquiries and saw there was a clear need for a program to provide veterinary care for these animals.”
He notes there are around 22,000 homeless people in Victoria. “An unknown but substantial number of animals accompany these people, and those who are struggling often find it hard to afford the basics—including feeding and veterinary care—for their animals,” Jason says.
“We believe that all animals should live happy and healthy lives and that the human/animal bond is an important source of happiness for people doing it tough in life.”
He contacted The Salvation Army Crisis Services Network and presented the idea of supplying free and low-cost veterinary care to the pets owned by people who access the Salvos’ services. The result was the launch in 2015 of a monthly Sunday clinic at the Salvos’ crisis centre in St Kilda.
Around 30 pets are seen at each clinic, with two vets and up to five assistants who each volunteer their skills and time. Most of the pets they attend to are dogs and cats, although there is the occasional rabbit, ferret and snake.
“We focus on preventative health care and alleviating problems that actively affect the health and wellbeing of the animals we see,” Jason says.
‘It’s quite variable work. We do a lot of vaccinations, worming, and desexing and pain management. We have many repeat customers, though. Some are brought in for a monthly flea or worming treatment, others have chronic conditions that we are managing and need reassessment, while some have specific concerns such as suspected arthritis, dental issues, skin lumps and so on.”
In addition to the clinics, the vet hospital offers emergency cat boarding on the back of findings by the Royal Commission into Domestic Violence that women often won’t leave a violent relationship because they fear for their pets.
“There is no doubt this is a massive issue. Finding short-term accommodation with pets is very difficult and this is an obstacle for some people leaving these relationships,” Jason says.
“We know that some women—and probably men—stay in abusive relationships because of fear of retribution towards their animals.
“We provide cat boarding at short notice and a number of women have used this service through the Salvos. I hope it’s made a difference to them.”
St Kilda Crisis Centre Salvation Army chaplain, Captain Michelle Davies-Kildea, coordinates appointments for the monthly vet clinic and organises transport for animals and owners.
“Jason and his team are amazing; they provide such a wonderful service for people who are unable to afford care for their pets,” she says.
“You can’t underestimate how important pets are when people are going through a hard time. We know owners who have spent their rent on vet bills or gone without food themselves to feed their pets because they mean so much to them.
“Pets don’t judge us; they always love us, always sit on our knee or want a pat. Their physical presence is all that some people have.”
She sees many heart-warming instances of pet/owner relationships and the joy animals bring.
“We have one kitten which was brought in to be desexed. Its owner says the little stray found her one day, coming to the window in her boarding house. She fed it and it kept coming back, so she thought, ‘It seems to love me, so I’ll keep it’. It’s always there with her when I visit—she loves her cat.”
Some people who have brought their pets in for care have found assistance for themselves. Michelle often has an opportunity to chat with owners while their furry friends are being treated and is able to link them to Salvation Army services.
“We’ve been able to provide support to some people who have been very unwell,” she says. “And because they bring their pets back for regular treatment, we keep in touch. It’s great to see how well they are now going.”
Both Jason and Michelle find the clinics rewarding, knowing the long-lasting benefits to both animals and humans. Jason says research frequently shows the therapeutic effect that animals can have on people in tough situations.
“All of the people we see are doing it tough. Some may have little in the way of family and for this reason they are even more dependent on their pets than the average person,” he says.
“Their pets are their family and provide a strong incentive to get their lives back on track. In almost every session I hear stories about how one of our [human] clients has gone without in order to feed or provide for their pet, so knowing that we are helping animals who would not otherwise receive veterinary care is very satisfying.”
Michelle agrees, noting that the clinics have a warm, friendly feel about them, with owners very appreciative of the care their beloved pets are receiving.
“People are always at their best when they are with their animals,” Michelle smiles.
Ongoing help for owners going through difficult times is constantly needed. Michelle says the crisis centre welcomes donations of dog and cat food—“As soon as we get it, it goes out the door”—as well as items such as flea and worming treatments.
All donations made to Best Mates go towards providing medication, diagnostic tests and surgery/procedures for the pets. To donate, go to www.givenow.com.au/bestmatesinc or phone (03) 9822 4952.