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A Conversation with Billijean Hobson

Since 1999, Billijean Hobson has run PAWS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the elderly and disabled "keep the love and companionship of their pets, preserving the human-animal bond vital to health and well-being."

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Tell me about PAWS.
Pets are Wonderful Support was started 25 years ago in San Francisco with the AIDS population and recognizing the wonderful healing powers of animal companionship. Just giving yourself something to wake up for, other than having everything focused in on yourself and getting you out of that severe depression. Your family leaves you; you've lost everything. An animal doesn't know any of this; an animal could care less.

 

How do you connect with people who need your services?

We have referring resources, from social service organizations, the animal shelters. Western Psychiatric is a huge referral source for us, emergency rooms. The ambulance companies call us: "She's not gonna go to the hospital until you get over here and take care of Baby." And we'll help them.

 

What happens then?

Our clients must be registered with us, and we do offer mostly free services. We have no income restrictions. Most of the people who have sufficient income support themselves, but may need transportation, say to the vet. But, say you have an elderly woman with a $270 a month pension from her husband, and no Social Security of her own, and she has a choice -- do I feed my animal or do I feed me? You know who she's going to feed -- her animal. We can supply her with donated pet food.

 

And Allegheny County has a large elderly population.

A lot of them don't have any family close by. But their children are concerned and they'll call me and make arrangements to make sure the relative and the pet are taken care of. Also, if you have no family to help you, you can get a PAWS buddy assigned, and the buddy will call once a week and offer a little bit of companionship, and go over and help walk the animal or clean the cat box.

 

If a client is terminally ill, how can PAWS help when the client dies?

If there is no family to take care of the animal, we'll take the animal for replacement; the animals are already accustomed to such situations. So, they're "recycled." We have no kennels, but the shelters usually help us with the dogs, and the cats we prefer to place into homes. So, there's peace of mind for the client.

 

Do you do much placing of the older pet with the older person?

We do that with nursing homes or senior centers. We will put notices on the bulletin board there saying that we have an elderly cat that would be perfect for an elderly home -- and they've already been shot, spayed. And we get calls for that all the time.

Some of our wheelchair-bound clients who have to go into assisted-living facilities are allowed to have cats, and we can help that person keep up with the cat, or fish or birds.

 

What other sorts of situations with people and pets do you get?

I might get a call from the Board of Health, and they're going to take a woman's animals away because she won't let them in to inspect. She's a recluse, and she'd not going to let anyone in there but us. We make sure the pets' papers are up to date, we supply her food -- we leave it at the back door. We'll go up and clean the sidewalks so the county doesn't close her down, or cut the weeds so the neighbors don't yell.

 

So you can wear many hats?

Yes, it's not just caring for the animals. Allowing these people to stay in their own homes or on their own without being assisted, sometimes we have to go the extra step.

 

When you get that call at 3 in the morning and someone says, "I'm in the hospital and the dog's been in the cage since 4 o'clock," you have to get over there -- you're cleaning up after the animal, appliances may have been left on, the dishes are out so the cats are climbing in the sink. We have been known to clean the refrigerator.

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