“Their pets are the only reason they get out of bed some days."”
Angelika Lingl grabbed her supplies from her truck and started down the wooded path behind the hotel. The sun beat hot, but her boonie hat and layers of sunscreen covered her. As she walked the well-worn path, signs of habitation increased. Wood pallets. A rusted shopping cart. She was getting close.
Eventually she arrived at a makeshift campsite, and there in the middle was her quarry -- Rufus, a black and brown Chow mix, bounding happily along the length of a tethered chain in front of an unoccupied blue tent surrounded by shabby possessions.
Every month, the retired veterinarian visits known homeless camps like this one off Browns Ferry Road in Tiftonia, conducting health checks and administering free veterinary care to homeless people's pets.
Jimmy Turner appears and tells Lingl that Rufus' wheelchair-bound owner isn't home. Turner is executive director of Relevant Hope, a nonprofit that establishes relationships with "unsheltered" homeless people -- those who live in tents and under bridges -- and connects them with the services they need.
Turner found that many of the people he was serving had pets, and though he said most homeless people take better care of their pets than themselves, many of the animals need veterinary services.
"Their pets are the only reason they get out of bed some days," Turner said. "If that's what's keeping them moving every day, then we need to do this."
Turner approached the McKamey Animal Center about a partnership. Since October, he and Lingl have gone out the first Friday of every month, conducting pet health checks at roughly eight camps all over the city. Along with basic medication and food, they provide vaccinations and spay/neuter services if owners approve.
Lingl sat down next to Rufus, petting him and cooing to him despite his strong stench. She pulled out a Swiss Army knife and cut mats out of his thick, puffy coat. Brandi Belk, Lingl's assistant, opened a tacklebox and set to work putting flea medicine and Strongid, a medicine to combat gastrointestinal worms, into separate syringes.
Lingl dripped the flea medicine close to the skin at Rufus' shoulder blades, squirted the Strongid into his mouth and fed him a heartworm pill. Though Rufus had already been fixed, Lingl told Brandi he needed to be added to the pick-up list to be taken in for a shave. Jimmy called the owner for approval. No answer.
"We need the owner's permission to take them in," Lingl explained. "Next week they'll have someone pick him up."
Lingl stood, shielding her eyes from the sunlight blasting through the canopy.
"I'd like to see more shade for him," she said.
Lingl said she was conflicted about having Rufus shaved with all of the sunlight and mosquitoes he's exposed to while he's tethered outside.
"The Hippocratic Oath says to first do no harm, but secondly we want to alleviate animal suffering," she said. "We have to find the balance."
Gesturing to the large bucket of water and the piles of dry dog food around his doghouse, Lingl concluded that Rufus probably gets left on his own for long periods of time. In the eight times she's visited, she's seen the owner just once. It wouldn't be difficult legally to remove Rufus, she said, but she also worried that if she did remove him, he could end up in a worse situation.
"We are going to have to think about what to do with that dog," she said.
Until then, Lingl had more stops to make. There was Simba and her five newborn kittens under a bridge in St. Elmo, Golden, the red Bloodhound/Golden Retriever mix in the woods across I-75 from the Wal-Mart in Brainerd, and many others. Whether they knew it or not, they were counting on her.
Contact Will Healey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.