When a pet’s love is all you have left

From CNN.com, May 10, 2011

James, a homeless man, lives on the streets of Portland, Oregon, with his pet dog, Bigera.

James has an unlikely reaction when he watches his gangly black puppy Bigera chow down on a can of dog food: His stomach rumbles.

“Sometimes there’s not enough for the both of us that day,” he said. “But I make sure she always eats. She has to. She’s what keeps me sane out here.”

“Out here” are the streets where James — who asked that his last name not be used — lives with Bigera.

They have been together for a little more than four months. At night they sleep on a doorstep.

As each day ends, James said Bigera runs back to the stoop and lies down as if she knows she’s returning home.

“I wish we didn’t have a doorway,” he said. “I wish we had a house to go into, but it’s what we call home for now.”

More and more, people who until only recently had somewhere to live are out on the streets of Portland with their pets, said Amy Sacks, who runs The Pixie Project, a nonprofit pet store and shelter for animals.

She tracks down homeless people in alleys and under bridges and makes her pitch as to why they should make sure their pets get proper care.

“It’s the economy. I am taking so many animals that are family pets,” said Sacks. “I just took in a 9-year-old dog, and these people were besides themselves. They had the dog since it was 7 weeks old, and they lost their home.”

Sacks said she knows that no matter how much she helps, the animals will still live on the streets since Portland — like many cities — does not usually allow homeless people to bring pets into shelters.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” she said, describing her work.

“I go at it from the standpoint that all I can do is get them fixed, get them vaccinated, make sure they are not hungry or cold and make sure they are not reproducing and that’s the best we can do,” Sacks said.

For those reasons, Amy Sacks stops to speak with James, using a script she has developed over time: She gives his dog a few treats, compliments James on how he cares for her and then asks if Bigera has been fixed.

James responds “no” and suggests he might want to breed her some day.

Sacks raises her eyebrows at the idea but pushes forward on how having Bigera fixed at a free clinic would protect her from infections and cancers.

At the same time, she argues, vets at the clinic could make sure the dog is up to date on all her shots.

Sacks leaves James with her card but without any commitment that she will ever hear from him.

Surviving on the streets is difficult enough, she said, without having a pet that depends on you.