Protecting pets in Sacramento’s unhoused community

Joseph Rival poses with his dog, Daggs, on his lap at the Safe Stay Homeless Community Shelter, Feb. 8 2024. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

By Keyshawn Davis

Seven months ago, Joseph Rival drove to California from Oregon with his mother, who’d recently had a stroke, because she wanted to see the Pacific Ocean at stops along the West Coast. In a series of unfortunate events, their car broke down at a truckstop and shortly after they became homeless after exhausting all of their expenses. 

Desperate for help, Rival said he started calling social services everywhere he could. At one point, they were dropped off at an emergency room, and then eventually taken to a homeless shelter in Sacramento. Rival said he and his mom had never seen a shelter before. Also unhoused with them was Rival’s dog Daggs, short for Daggers. 

Daggs is a 2-year-old mut — part pit bull, labrador and husky — who lives with Rival at the Safe Stay Homeless Community shelter on Florin Road.

Rival, who had exhausted all of his expenses, hadn’t been able to properly care for Daggs until he got to the Safe Stay shelter, which offers a mobile vet clinic, called PAWS Clinic, that travels to different homeless areas to provide free pet care. 

“I thought [I] was going to pay something to get in this situation,” Rival said. “I had no way to pay for anything at the time, and it’s just a blessing that they made it possible to be able to care for him right.”

There were over 9,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Sacramento in 2022. Many unsheltered individuals have pets of their own, sharing their unhoused experience. 

The Bradshaw Animal Shelter started the PAWS mobile clinic about seven months ago, according to Dr. Cynthia Metcalf, a veterinarian who was brought on board since its inception. Metcalf said the clinic goes out in the field to provide basic needs like spay and neuter services, medical check-ups and wellness to pets of those who are unhoused. 

“We go out in the community to encampments, safe shelters like this, and other homeless shelters and basically provide services to the residents’ pets to make sure that they stay healthy,” Metcalf said. “We provide vaccinations and microchips … we provide parasite prevention, because a lot of the issues that we see are related to whether it be fleas or allergies, or other parasites like tick borne diseases. We also will provide medical services for pets that are ill.”

If there’s anything that the clinic can’t provide, they refer to partner hospitals or other organizations that provide specialty services, according to Metcalf.

Rival said the PAWS Mobile Clinic provided Daggs with antibiotics after the dog was bit under the neck several times by a rat. He said Daggs got neutered and has had regular check-ups through the PAWS Clinic.

Metcalf said the mobile clinic is important because it is able to travel to different encampments and help the unhoused pet population where they are located. “It’s really vital to be able to get out into the community where people are at,” she said. “Transportation is a huge barrier to access to care for the unhoused communities. And if we can actually go to where they’re at, we can help to remove that barrier.”

Dr. Cynthia Metcalf during a visit from the mobile clinic to the Safe Stay Homeless Community Shelter on Jan. 24, 2024. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

The mobile clinic also receives donations for its clinic and Metcalf said she is appreciative of all of the community support.

“We’ve been getting donations and things like durable leashes, large dog harnesses that we can utilize,” she said. “We need those. Folks have been sending in cash donations, earmarked for the PAWS program and that’s really helping us to provide some of the additional services that we’ve been able to provide. So we’d very much appreciate the community’s support in that way.”

The Animal Network Welfare Alliance is a local rescue group active on Facebook that helps rescue animals. Invisible Paws Rescue finds resources needed for the homeless animals in camps. Claudia Cardorza, the vice president of Invisible Paws and resource coordinator for the Animal Network Welfare Alliance, said after seeing the gaps that exist within the unhoused pet community, the group felt they needed to be more organized so they could better help this population. They started by just giving out dog food locally.

“We come together with the community and their needs,” Cardoza said. “Meaning vaccination clinics, spay and neuter appointments, transportation, things of that sort that [are] missing for these animals to have a healthy life.” 

Cardoza said she started the Animal Network Welfare Alliance a few years ago and everyone on the team works together to find solutions to what animals may need. The rescue group has about 45 active volunteers, including those that assist with Invincible Paws.

“It’s not a one-man show,” Cardoza said. “Basically, it’s a team of people, animal lovers, that we work in trying to find what’s needed for each animal. It could be that one of us can have transportation and one of us can have a foster. One of us may be able to reach out to our rescue that can give us rescue backing … one of us may have a vet.”

In late December, there were reports on the group’s Facebook page about a wandering dog named Jake, who was loose without its owner. Jake and his human lived in a park close to where Cardoza lives.

Cardoza said she knew Jake and his human because Invisible Paws Rescue provided them blankets, sweaters, dog food, bowls and leashes in the past. Jake being on the loose was considered normal because his human would let him roam around for exercise, according to Cardoza. But this time the situation felt off.

“We started getting notifications also from a trapper,” Cardoza said. “So once we got that from the trapper, not the general public, and we knew that it was something not normal. And that’s how we became involved.”

Jake was eventually caught by the trapper, leading to the discovery of his owner’s dead body.. The Sacramento Coalition to End Homelessness death report found that there were over 200 unhoused deaths in Sacramento in 2022. Cardoza said the police removed the body, but left the tent with all of the belongings and Jake behind.

“I was a little bit upset about that,” Cardoza said. “My thinking was if you come all the way out here and there’s a dead body and the dog has an owner and you’re removing the security blanket for the dog that’s fine, but wouldn’t you take the dog? Why leave the dog behind? Why Jake was left behind, I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened.”

Veterinarian Kaz Grundy, left, works inside of the vet mobile clinic on Jan. 23, 2024. The mobile clinic provides vaccinations, microchips and other basic wellness needs. (Photo by Keyshawn Davis)

One of the coordinating efforts that Cardoza has done saved the life of a dog in a shelter who was set to be euthanized from a femoral head fracture. Cardoza put out a plea one hour before his date.

She said with that kind of fracture, a lot of times it’s hard to find either enough pledges for medical attention or rescue that will actually take interest. She said 40 minutes after the plea they had three rescues that were asking how they could help. 

“He was officially saved,” she said. “That’s how intense it is. Down to the wire. But we never give up. We have to be strong mentally, physically and emotionally. And that’s something that is not taught. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Cardoza said you have to have nerves of steel to do this work because you deal with a lot of the stress and the pressure and personalities, but you have to keep pushing. The dog was able to live and Cardoza already had a medical foster in place. 

“His life was saved because we didn’t give up and we pushed until the end,” Cardoza said. “This baby is going to have a full recovery and a long life ahead of him. Because people like us and rescue that don’t give up in any life if possible.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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