PAW Team

Providing help for animals, hope for humans

PAW team cat.jpg

A line of people flows from the entrance of the building around the corner to the end of the block on Division Street in Portland. People are standing, sitting, chatting about where work is, or what brings their furry companion to the clinic today.

Some faces are drawn with anxiety. Is this really the clinic they’ve heard about? Is this where they can get vaccinations, flea treatments, an expert’s opinion, nails trimmed? For free?

It is. The space, formerly home of Nature’s grocery, is currently the site of Portland Animal Welfare (PAW) Team’s monthly clinic, where around 80 volunteers help people in financial need with their animal companions. To get the full experience of what Wendy Kohn, PAW Team’s Executive Director, describes as “controlled chaos,” this writer was on the scene as an embedded journalist on a recent unseasonably warm Sunday.

Veteran volunteer Melissa Sillitoe introduced herself to Brenda Vigue and her black Pug, Piddles, as they emerged from the line to enter after their was number called. Sillitoe would move with Vigue through the stations, illustrating the temporary but essential partnership between volunteer and client that keeps PAW Team’s chaos so organized.

Volunteers like Sillitoe are the advocates and extra hands at the examining table. While helping complete forms they chat about the bond that unites everyone here — the welfare of our animals companions.

Vigue and Piddles have been together since the pug was born eight years ago. This past year, while struggling to get back on her feet, Vigue has been treating Piddle’s skin condition herself. Judging from the crusty, hairless skin on Piddles’ chest and sides, Vigue hadn’t yet found a cure in available over-the-counter products. She did however, catch a break along the way when she found Jean’s Place, an all-women’s shelter that allowed Piddles.

DrEmilioExamPiddlesPugPawTeam .jpg

At Jean’s Place Vigue heard about PAW Team for the first time. Awaiting her turn with the vet that Sunday, Vigue looked up from the form she and Sillitoe were filling out and said, in a voice filled with emotion, “If it wasn’t for this program she’d probably die.”

Though it might sound like hyperbole to someone with access to a vet, Vigue believes this. And it’s true: small, easily treated maladies left untreated can become life-threatening. For someone who can’t afford vet care, that’s a very real threat to the life of their cherished — and sometimes only — companion.

As she sat holding Piddles and chatting with Sillitoe, it was apparent Vigue felt the desperate situation was over: hope was written on her face. Piddles, on the other hand, didn’t look so hopeful. Fidgeting and squirming, Vigue translated, “She knows she’s at the vet.”

The forms were completed just as Vigue was told a vet was ready. Positioned at each of nine tables forming a loose horseshoe around the room were a veterinarian and two vet techs. Sillitoe escorted Vigue to a table where a diminutive man in a Yankees ballcap greeted her with a charismatic smile. This was Dr. Emilio DeBess, and he immediately began examining Piddles while asking her mom about the dog’s medical history.

Dr. DeBess, who is Oregon’s State Public Health Veterinarian, found that Piddles was suffering from an extensive fungal skin infection as well as Dry Eye Syndrome, caused by Piddle’s inability to produce tears.

DeBess’ team — all volunteers — used every resource, from thick manuals to personal smartphones, to ensure Piddles received the best possible care.

By the time Piddles left the table her inoculations were current and Vigue had the run-down on all medications and treatments she would need. Piddles was of course ready to leave the premises, but there remained one last stop: to find a new collar from a selection of donated pet supplies.

PAW Team PupOverShoulder.JPG

The organization that means hope for Vigue, Piddles and so many like them, began as a loose network of compassionate veterinarians and vet techs working independently amidst the region’s homeless community. Uniting their efforts under one organization, they received nonprofit status in 2004 and PAW Team was born.

Free clinics held in parking lots under temporary canopies served 20 to 40 pets at quarterly intervals. This number steadily grew to an average of 70 pets as more people learned about the clinics, especially after the economy collapsed in 2008. After breaking records for pets seen in 2009, the PAW Team board of directors decided to conduct clinics monthly, in an effort to reduce the strain on volunteers and staff.

2010 was a year of surprises. The number of pets the clinic helped each month surged past 100. In May the venue hosting the clinics closed. PAW Team was without a site for its clinics at a time when the pets counting on them was at peak levels.

That’s when the owners of the former Nature’s grocery building on SE Division offered PAW Team temporary use of the space. The building’s spacious first floor is perfect for the monthly clinics.

Kohn explains that the fit goes beyond the building. “This is such a pet friendly, dog friendly neighborhood,” she says. “Nearby businesses have helped out with donations. Neighbors have come in and volunteered.”

Because PAW Team relies heavily on volunteers, from escorts to vet techs and groomers, they are always seeking folks willing to give a few hours one Sunday each month to help provide pets with critical medical attention. Also, if anyone in the pet community has pet supplies looking for a home, PAW Team will make sure they find their way to people who need them.

The most needed donation, Kohn says, is money. “We buy all our vaccinations and flea medications,” which, as it happens, top the list of preventative treatments for good pet health.

PAW team-little dog.jpg

The dramatic rise in pets attending the clinics has further tightened an already strained budget; PAW Team spends about 90% of its budget on running the clinics. “We have quadrupled the number of people we’re seeing [this year],” says Kohn. “We have had to stop our emergency referral,” which allowed pets to receive further veterinary care from partner clinics.

PAW Team treated 180 pets at the clinic that warm October Sunday. That day, between his 12th and 13th client, Dr. DeBess pointed out that more donations might mean better diagnostic tools. Even something as simple as a microscope or “snap” tests for parvo and the Feline Leukemia Virus would mean better care for those pets seen each month.

While DeBess hopes for simple tools, Kohn’s focus is the future. “We need help with funding to stay open for longer than two months,” she says, adding, “Even more critical, we need to find a permanent home for our clinics.

There is much reason to hope. And boosting that hope is PAW Team’s selection for Willamette Week’s 2010 Give!Guide . Coming out November 10, the guide has become a Portland tradition and boon to nonprofits. According to WW’s website, last year the campaign raised over $900,000 that reached 79 organizations.

Kohn doesn’t know what the future holds for PAW Team, but one Sunday a month the immediate impact of the volunteers and veterinary professionals is clear: healthy pets and hope on human faces.


Jake Faris is a freelance writer who's worn many different hats, including a hardhat and the 8-point hat of a police officer. Jake and his wife Charity live with their three cats and four dogs in Beaverton. The whole pack moved to Portland from Wenatchee, Washington, years ago. Now a dedicated Oregonian, Jake finds new reasons to love his adopted state very day. Contact him here