More than Puppy Love

18 April 2019 Mel Fulton

More than Puppy Love

Photo by Christina Simons

Mel Fulton and photographer Christina Simons visit an organisation that helps vulnerable pet owners take good care of their furry friends – and they discover why cats and dogs make such a difference. 

“HE’S THE MOST important person in my life, my dog,” jokes Very Impressive of his terrier, Nunga. Sitting with his head in a book, the uniquely named Very has the incognito poise of a celebrity dodging the paparazzi.

Nunga’s his earnest bodyguard, fixed firmly at his side, watching. In matching patched vests (which Very makes himself), badges and lots of fluoro, they even look alike; they each have the same attentiveness, the same wide, intelligent eyes. And they’re both a little cheeky. 

“He is obsessed with me,” declares Very. “If he could, all he’d do all day is sit and stare at me, but now and again he does actually need to sleep.”

Very and Nunga are waiting in line at the monthly clinic session for Pets in the Park: a nationwide charity devoted to providing free, quality vet care to pets of people experiencing homelessness or who are vulnerably housed. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and there’s something of a barbeque atmosphere – plenty of chatting and laughing and sharing of smokes – as people mill about on the street, waiting to see a vet.

Volunteers buzz between groups, getting people to fill in forms and preparing their makeshift stations.

Today the clinic’s held at the North Melbourne Lost Dogs’ Home; the same place, incidentally, where Very adopted Nunga almost five years ago, as a potential cure for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2013, Very was one of the first people at the scene when a brick wall at a construction site on Melbourne’s Swanston Street collapsed, killing three people. He administered first aid to 18-year-old Bridget Jones, who died in hospital two days later. “I can see the entire day, like that,” explains Very, snapping his fingers. “It’s been crazy.”

He credits Nunga with his recovery. “Everything is better and more wonderful when he’s around. He’s a very calming influence and life is just better with him… I would’ve committed suicide a number of times by now, but he’d be terribly upset if I was to go. He’s upset if I’m away for more than 10 minutes.”

Companion animals play an important role in the lives of many, but for the people I meet today, their pet is more like a lifeline. Approximately one in five homeless Australians owns a pet, representing about 20,000 animals across the country.

According to Pets in the Park CEO Eric Bickerton, when times get tough, pet owners often put their fur babies’ needs before their own. By providing vet care for free, the organisation is freeing up funds for other essential provisions for those experiencing homelessness, such as food and shelter.

Established in Sydney in 2012 and now operating nationwide, PITP provide everything from health checks to annual vaccinations, flea treatments, routine worming, desexing, dental work and microchipping, free of charge. To make sure the organisation helps those most in need, it works on a client-referral basis, which means that all pet owners must be referred by a homelessness outreach organisation. All vets volunteer their services.

“The most rewarding thing about volunteering is the gratitude that people have for us being here,” says Nicole Hoskin, a vet with Prahran Veterinary Hospital who started with PITP last year.

“It’s really nice to be able to see what the pets bring to the client, and how much the clients are willing to give. I often see that these animals are eating much better than the people are,” she says. “They sacrifice so much to have their pets, but they get so much out of having them.”

Back in line, I meet an example of such sacrifice in a queenly staffy. She swans in once things are up and running, sniffing bums, wagging her meaty tail and making friends. She’s flanked by her two adoring owners, mother-daughter combo June and Zoe, and dressed in a fabulous outfit: an aquamarine onesie, the same colour as Zoe’s spiked fingernails, with a unicorn horn and a strip of hot pink fur. In cursive across her nuggetty back are the words, unicorn trainer. When I ask the dog’s name, June and Zoe are quick to spell it out for me, “That’s C-H-Y-Y-L-O,” says June, leaning in to check I’ve got it scribbled down right.

Chyylo – pronounced Shiloh – is here for her annual shot and to pick up some medication. She has terrible allergies and lives on porterhouse steaks. Her favourite thing to do at the park is ride the slippery dip. She always sleeps with June, spooning her under the covers. June and Zoe got her for Christmas in 2016 and have been besotted ever since. “She means the world to me,” June says, wiping her eyes. “I love her to bits... Wherever I go, she’s with me.”

The mental and physical health benefits of having a companion animal are well documented. According to the RSPCA, people who own pets have better cardiovascular health, and a tendency to exercise more and visit the doctor less. Pet ownership enhances social connectedness and reduces feelings of depression. Pets are also wonderful caregivers, and offer comfort and companionship. Their love is unconditional.

“Having to care about something else helps you take your mind off your own problems,” says Nicole. “It’s something to focus on, it’s a reason to get up every day, it’s a reason to go out for a walk every day. It’s a reason to keep going, and I think that’s really important when you’re in a tough situation.”

Everywhere I look this afternoon, the benefits of the human-animal bond are on show. I meet a woman who moved here from Egypt 10 years ago, whose husband left and who now has no family here at all but for her cat who escaped one night, got pregnant and gave birth to five kittens – the kittens are curled up tightly in her backpack.

I meet an elderly woman who lives alone with her dog, whom she clutches in her arms like a newborn babe. I meet a woman struggling with an ice addiction, whose caramel-coloured puppy she named Shadow because, before she got the puppy, she felt like she didn’t have one. I meet a woman grieving the deaths of both her parents, whose dogs’ names are tattooed on her back. When I ask her what her dogs mean to her, she looks me in the eye and says, “Without the dogs I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

There are people here fleeing domestic violence, people who are sick or in poor mental health, people with disabilities, with substance abuse issues, battling long-term unemployment, people who are fresh out of jail.

But the delightful thing about having a pet is that, for these people, their challenges needn’t be the dominant narrative of their lives anymore. Instead, they can talk about the tender, warm and furry creature who loves them, and whom they love.

“Yeah I’ve got a girlfriend – she’s got four legs and a lotta hair!” jokes Chris of his Kelpie dog, Holly. We’re playing stick outside the clinic and her silky chocolate coat catches the light as she leaps and jumps. She’s as gracious as a ballet dancer, albeit a little frothy-mouthed from all the chewing.

Chris, tall and stately in a Driza-Bone and with swimming dark eyes, runs me through Holly’s commands, including a little chomping motion of the hand that gets Holly to bring the stick closer. He boasts that she’s never more than 15 metres away from him, and that he’s had her off her leash since she was 13 weeks old. “She’s an incredibly intelligent dog,” he says as people fuss and coo over her. “She just wants to learn and, as you can tell, she’s very unsociable,” he winks and smiles. “She hasn’t worked out she’s a dog a yet.”

He’s always trained his animals well. Years ago, Chris became homeless and had to rehome his previous dog. Chris gave him to a family out near Bendigo, and stayed on with them for a few days so he could show them his commands and make sure he settled in okay. These days, he and Holly have their own commission flat in inner-city Melbourne, where Chris keeps a little garden.

I follow Chris and Holly through to the vet’s station, where Holly is complimented for her glossy coat, her excellent teeth and her lean muscular build. When Holly lies down on her back and seems to take salon-like pleasure in having her nails trimmed – a notoriously wriggly and uncomfortable procedure – Chris pulls his shoulders back and gains about two inches. As he and Holly leave the clinic, it strikes me that I’ve never seen a prouder parent.

There’s an old Donny Osmond tune I’m pretty fond of. It’s big and sweeping and warm and desperate, about a love, pure and true, that no-one understands but him. “Yeah they called it puppy love,” he sings, “Oh, I guess they’ll never know/ how a young heart really feels/ and why I love her so.”

I blast it on my way home from the clinic.

» Mel Fulton is a writer, primary school teacher and the Big Issue intern.

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