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Charleston Animal Society program helps needy pet owners care for their animals

January 22, 2017 GMT

Arveda Fetters answers the door to her North Charleston home and calls out an excited “Howdy! Howdy!” as she steps onto the porch.

She looks around for “her babies,” five feral cats that stop by daily. The roaming felines are nowhere to be seen — they bolt at the sign of visitors — but they have gobbled up the food 90-year-old Fetters left out for them.

“I got them spoiled,” she said with laugh. “When I lost my husband, that was the best thing that happened to me for them cats to come here.”

Fetters provides for the cats with the help of the Charleston Animal Society’s Pets for Life program, which is modeled off of a national program operated by the Humane Society of the United States. Pets for Life assists low-income pet owners who have limited access to animal wellness services. Spay and neuter surgeries are a top priority.

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The Animal Society provides pet owners in the 29405 ZIP code in North Charleston with free services, such as a regular supply of cat and dog food, flea prevention and basic veterinary care. An assessment that evaluated factors, such as income and accessibility of veterinary clinics identified 29405 as the area of greatest need when the program was launched in 2014. Aldwin Roman, anti-cruelty and outreach director for the Animal Society, said over 70 percent of pets there have not been spayed or neutered and over 60 percent have never seen a veterinarian.

“We know it’s kind of a forgotten part of the community almost,” Roman said.

Outreach mainly focuses on the Chicora-Cherokee and Dorchester-Waylyn neighborhoods, but the Animal Society is hoping to expand into the Hollywood and Ravenel area.

On a recent morning, Fetters was delighted to receive cat treats from Kristin Kifer, an outreach specialist with the Animal Society.

Animal control officers trap many feral cats. In this case, it makes sense to help Fetters care for the cats, which have been spayed and neutered. It helps prevent them from bothering other residents who don’t want them around.

And while the felines don’t belong to Fetters, they are close to her heart. The free food is a big help financially, she said.

“I love you,” Fetters told Kifer while hugging her tightly.

Kifer and one other outreach specialist go door-to-door, forging bonds with many of their clients. They transport pets to and from the Animal Society for services if a pet owner doesn’t have a car. They educate and provide people with heartworm prevention.

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Specialists make it clear they want to keep pets in their homes and out of the shelter. One goal is helping people before a situation turns toward the extreme and spirals into a case of neglect or abuse.

Last month, three dogs were seized from a Johns Island home after they were found “severely underweight” in the yard, according to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. The dogs have since been adopted.

While the outreach aspect and the full extent of free services under Pets for Life are targeted at North Charleston, Roman said the Animal Society won’t turn away other pet owners in need. There are options, like a free food bank.

Pets for Life is funded through general funds and some grant money. Roman said the program’s success is measured by the spay and neuter completion rate, which is 85 percent. It’s hard to tell whether the effort reduces shelter intake.

“Anecdotally, we’ve helped people not surrender their pets by providing them with other solutions,” Roman said.

He’s heard some people criticize the program as “pet welfare.” A lot of clients found their pets as strays or received them from relatives.

“There’s a tremendous amount of unwanted pets and an overpopulation problem, and if there’s somebody who wants a pet, why not give them the extra help? They’re providing love and a roof, and we’re providing everything else,” Roman said.

Outreach specialists have served 1,096 clients since the program started. Some people receive help on a weekly basis, while others only require one-time assistance.

Valerie Myers is a regular client. Her pit bull, Pee Dee, was stolen from her yard last spring. Pee Dee was abandoned in Asheville, N.C., and was reunited with Myers thanks to a microchip.

The Animal Society recently built Pee Dee a 20-by-30-foot fenced-in area. It’s eased Myers’ worries of her dog being taken again.

Myers, who is diabetic, can’t drive but knows she can count on the Animal Society to help with providing dog food, bathing Pee Dee and transporting her to veterinary care — all things Myers worried about when her son gave her Pee Dee last year.

“Not only have they made it possible for me to be a dog owner, but they gave me a companion,” she said.