Shakela Brown isn’t sure how many doors she’s knocked on over the past five months.

“Oh my goodness,” she says with a laugh. “It’s been a lot of doors.”

Since November, Brown, a Washington Humane Society employee for the past 21 years, has visited hundreds of households as part of the Pets for Life program. Designed by the Humane Society of the United States and implemented by local organizations like WHS, the initiative aims to bring resources and information about pet care to communities that have the most need and the least access. 

In D.C., that’s area code 20020, a section of Southeast D.C. that includes Anacostia, Barry Farm, Skyland, and Hillcrest. WHS selected the area using a community assessment that looked at several factors—number of households living below the poverty level, estimated number of pet-owning households, animal shelter intake numbers, pet food and supply availability, and crime rate, to name a few—to determine which community would be the first to participate in D.C.’s Pets for Life program.

Brown, better known as Shak, was WHS’ humane educator for ten years, visiting schools in areas where children had perpetrated animal cruelty. She later expanded the program to include summer camps, community centers, and local organizations—“anywhere that kids were”—and began hiring youth into WHS positions. Going to a classroom and saying, “Hey! Be nice to Fluffy!” wasn’t enough, she says: “Kids have to get a real feel that you knew their community.”

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In 2014, she took on the day-to-day running of Pets for Life. She’s been traveling through the neighborhoods, block by block, house by house, to reach out to pet owners and offer services like sterilization and items like food and toys gratis. The goal is to make a lasting connection with as many people, or “clients,” as possible, and check in with a visit or phone call each month. But for Shak, the program is just as much about the people as it is the animals. 

“I do care about the community, I do have a connection,” says Shak, who’s been a mentor with Youth Life for the past 11 years. She’s now seeing the kids she’s known from the schools and the streets in their homes. “I have a different perspective because I’m involved in every aspect… I want to see the community grow.”

“There’s a value of being in the community and building those relationships and that trust,” said Amanda Arrington, director of HSUS’ Pets for Life program, as she observed WHS’ inaugural community event in April. HSUS runs direct-care programs in four cities and mentors local organizations in 26, a number it wants to expand. “It’s not that complicated,” Arrington said of the model. “It really boils down to two things: identifying the community that you need to serve… and showing up and being nice.”

On the grounds of Ketcham Elementary School off Good Hope Road SE, about two dozen WHS volunteers gathered to man the event’s stations. Some were tasked with helping pet owners as they filled out the intake forms, which regularly involved holding a leash or cat carrier. Others handed out free bags of food and treats, as well as Kong toys for dogs and wand toys for cats, to every person who attended. Veterinarians were on hand to administer vaccinations, trim nails, and provide vouchers for neutering and spaying. Trainers did basic obedience with more reactive dogs, and everyone wanted to pet an especially cute pair of German shepherd puppies. In all, 185 people showed up, including 20 who signed up their pet to be spayed or neutered. 

“I’m very wound up over this program,” Scott Giacoppo, WHS’ director of external affairs, told the volunteers at a training a week before the event. “I’ve been involved in the humane world for well over 20 plus years now, and I have not seen a program this promising and a program that is guaranteed to change the landscape of what we do since trap-neuter-return.”

Giacoppo stressed that Pets for Life isn’t about “education”; it’s about “providing information.” The difference may not be apparent on paper, but in practice, it influences the dynamic between WHS representatives and members of the community. When Giacoppo and Shak knocked on their first door, he recalls, they met a middle-aged woman and her “ball of energy” pitbull puppy, who was bouncing off the walls. “The dog had never really had a toy before,” he said. They gave the dog a Kong toy, and he went into his crate and laid down with it. They explained to the woman that the toy, a hollow piece of rubber, can be filled with treats to keep the dog occupied. “He was so happy,” Giacoppo said. “It was a beautiful scene to have this family so in love with what was happening.”

Most of the reactions have been similarly positive, says Shak, who worked as a humane law enforcement officer in the same area she’s now canvassing. Before the April event, Shak had more than 100 clients in 20020, and she’s in the process of contacting each person who attended it. She’s signed up a high number of people with cats, many of whom live in low-income or public housing and get a cat to deal with rodents. “They don’t necessarily know about cats,” she says. “They don’t know to get them a scratching post and get them toys so they don’t start scratching the furniture and doing things they don’t want to do.” Clients with cats are more open to spaying and neutering to deal with male spraying and female heat.

Dogs sterilization is a separate issue. Shak doesn’t approach dog owners with concerns about pet overpopulation or Bob Barker-esque absolutisms. “When you have people living in different parts of the city who have different experiences, and somebody from the outside [is] telling them what to do with their animal… sometimes they take it personal,” she says. “They say, ‘What if you start doing this to all women or all men?’”

Instead, she explains why she had her dog sterilized. She shows them photos of all the pitbull-type dogs currently in WHS facilities. She talks about best breeding practices and asks whether the puppies will go to “a good home, an alright home, or a home you don’t care about.”

She takes a similarly friendly and relaxed approach to other tricky subjects. If she sees a person with a skinny dog, she’ll start a casual conversation and ask what he eats or if he’s been de-wormed. She can say, “Oh you have a dog at home? Let me get you some Frontline,” opening the door to a home visit, which can lead to other conversations. “Depending on how the conversation arises will really tell me which way to go,” she says. How is the person talking to their dog? Does she need free training? Does the cat have a name? Would he like a toy?

Shak wants pet owners to see WHS as a resource. She doesn’t want members of the community to be worried they’ll get in trouble if they don’t know the answer to a question. She wants to empower them to do more for animals as a community as opposed to having an “outsider” coming in.

“The Washington Humane Society is here not only for their pet, but for them too,” she says. “When animal people are talking about ‘animals, animals, animals,’ and they’re not talking about human rights, that becomes a problem… If you don’t show that you have compassion and care about them, taking care of their pet will only take you so far.”

Showing that there is diversity in the humane community is also “extremely important” to Shak.

“Someone will say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t think anybody black worked here,’” she says. It’s an easy assumption to make. While 20020’s population is 96 percent black, the vast majority of WHS volunteers at the April event were white women. 

“This is not about being do-gooders,” Giacoppo says. “We’re helping out fellow pet owners. They love their pets, and we want to be able to help them be able to provide for their pets what we can provide for ours.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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