On a chilly winter’s afternoon, the sky spit snow in fitful bursts.
A woman wrapped in scarves walked two dogs behind the Union Gospel Mission. She followed the gravel road to the hulking quonset hut that serves as the mission’s maintenance shop.
She and the dogs skirted a gap in the chain-link fence and opened the narrow shop door. The smell of dirt, grease and oil filled the dark, cavernous room.
At the end of the hall she found what she was looking for, a gathering of people and pets.
Welcome to the waiting room of the Free Pet Clinic run by Dr. Cathy Tucker.
Dogs, cats, adults and children huddled against the chill and waited patiently for their turn.
Tucker recalled, “I would see homeless people sitting by the side of the road with their dogs, and I’d wonder about how they cared for their pets.”
The retired veterinarian heard about a free veterinary clinic in Seattle years ago.
“I always wanted to do this,” she said. In 1998 she received permission from the mission to set up shop – literally in the shop.
Local veterinary clinics donated vaccines and other supplies.
She posted fliers at various shelters around town and began treating patients every Wednesday afternoon from 12:30 to 2 p.m. She treats only the pets of the homeless and those with very low income who otherwise could not afford veterinary care.
“I only see the first 15,” Tucker said. She administers shots, performs checkups and treats minor injuries.
She also neuters cats, but only three per day. Tucker said neutering dogs is more complicated, and she doesn’t have the time or space.
Volunteer Ruby LaFleur has been helping Tucker for five years. She hands out orange slips of paper for people to fill out to explain what services their pet needs.
She encourages the crowd to donate whatever they can to help buy supplies for the clinic and enforces the 15 patients-only rule.
“I give them the preamble,” she said with a grin.
On a recent afternoon Elissa Hawkinson, a veterinary assistant, worked alongside Tucker. Hawkinson had seen a news story about the clinic on television four years ago and called to offer help.
Ten-year-old Kevin Burdick, a home-school student who hopes to be a veterinarian someday, also assisted them.
The shop door opened, and Dave Wall, the Union Gospel Mission’s development director, peeked in. He said the clinic has made a difference in the lives of those who need its services.
“Sometimes the people we serve at the mission,” he said, “their pets are the only things in their lives that love them unconditionally – that love them back.”
He continued, “Who would ever think that a vet would volunteer their time to do this? It’s so inspiring to me.”
By 12:30 p.m. two cats were already sound asleep on a small countertop and prepped for neutering.
Doris Clevenger and her 7-year-old daughter, Kendra, brought in the third, a docile butterscotch tabby named Rusty. Rusty climbed out of Clevenger’s backpack and looked around.
Tucker administered a sedative, which didn’t sit so well with Rusty.
“It happens,” she said as Rusty quietly vomited on the concrete floor. Soon he too was fast asleep.
“When we moved here we were homeless,” Clevenger said. “We heard about the clinic at the food bank.”
They moved into an apartment in June.
Desiree Rounds took the bus from downtown with her gray kitty, Nermal. Nermal was neutered and got his booster shots.
As Rounds lovingly placed him in his carrier, Tucker offered her a gospel tract.
“We’re here because we’re Christians,” she said.
After the cats were taken care of, a steady stream of dogs and their owners poured through the door. Burdick wiped down the counter and took care of donations.
Hawkinson handled the paperwork and assisted Tucker.
“I really like working with Cathy,” she said.
Tiny Chihuahuas, schnauzers and dogs of uncertain pedigree waited their turns with varying degrees of patience. When 2 p.m. arrived Tucker was still working.
“My main motivation in doing this is being a Christian,” she said. “I run into people here I’d never otherwise come in contact with.”
In the waiting area, the woman with her two dogs paced, stamping her feet against the cold. For her, quality care and attention for her dogs was worth the wait.
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