The line of dogs and their owners stretches down the parking lot to the open fence leading to the traffic of the Outer Mission. They fall in to line with practiced rhythm. This is quite possibly not the first line of the day for some having just stepped off the local bus and for many the promise of free vaccinations for their pets has rousted them from their beds.
The dogs, mostly Chihuahuas and assorted small breeds with the occasional terrier, rest comfortably in their owners’ arms or sit quietly on the pavement, showcasing their best behavior. The resemblance is surreal, as if the canines share their owners’ thanks that this group from the San Francisco SPCA will help them remain healthy, free of charge, in exchange only for the promise to be accountable. The responsibility is instinctual to each entity, regardless of which end of the leash they are on, to care for the other and demonstrate that affection each day.
I join the volunteers, interviewing each owner to complete the profile on my clipboard. The information flows freely as a history takes shape, breathing life into the caregivers and their charges, birthdays, names, and habits filling the blank boxes. Feet and paws shuffle towards the inspection tables, staffed by volunteer veterinarians and assistants. The syringes rest next to the boxes of sterile gloves that will slowly empty with each new patient.
Owners, sussing out the free service, call their friends to assure them that there is no catch. More dogs appear through the chain link fence, quick to become the last patient of the day.
The clinic is a success serving nearly 100 dogs over four hours. The owners will return for follow up vaccines and the volunteers and veterinary staff will meet them, unfolding tables and pulling up chairs every two weeks.
Piling into minivans, we share our thoughts on the day, congratulating our good efforts. This is the feeling of having done something good, reaching out, informing, making a difference. You hope it will never leave you.
The kitten slumps casually across the back of his shoulders, nestling between the young man’s collar and the ratty hiking pack as the bus rocks down Van Ness. The small tether fits loosely around the furry neck, a precaution in case the young feline experiences a surge of ancestral instinct at the site of a bird or squirrel.
“Who’s your friend?,” I ask, more to start the conversation than out of interest.
The kid couldn’t be more than twenty, baseball cap pulled down low behind his ears. His general appearance might suggest hiking the Appalachian Trail back in Massachusetts however here in San Francisco his layers of torn shirts, sidewalk stained pants, unkempt beard, and grainy skin more accurately portray his life on the street.
“This little guy?,” he says with a wry smile, bringing a bit of light to his dim eyes. “I trapped him on the street. He’s a wild fella.”
“What’s his name?”
“Pirate. He likes it here. Sometimes he grabs my neck,” he says, clenching his fingers, miming the small claws that dig into his weathered neck. “But I like it.”
He slides the pack from his shoulders, taking an empty seat near a window. Pirate crawls to the nearest shoulder, slumping down comfortably before curling his paws under his head.
“Do you know the SPCA?”
“It’s down on 16th. There’s a free feral clinic tomorrow. They could give him some vaccinations and a bit of oil to straighten out that ear.” I motion to his shrunken ear, deformed by busy mites. “You should check it out, tomorrow, on 16th, no charge.”
I make it towards the doors as the bus pulls to the curb.
“Thanks for the advice, man.”
I know he won’t go and the conversation has only made my guts knot as my mind continues to unsettle. The satisfaction from the clinic is long gone and I carry the uncertainty of the kitten’s future to my front door where I will sleep with it tonight.
Learn more about the San Francisco SPCA’s “Community Cares” Initiative.