Serving Pets in Poverty: A New Frontier for the Animal Welfare Movement

Author:Amanda Arrington and Michael Markarian
Position:Amanda Arrington is the Director of the Pets for Life Program at The Humane Society of the United States and Michael Markarian is the Chief Operating Officer at The Humane Society of the United States (
40 Sustainable Development Law & Policy
Serving petS in poverty: a new frontier for
the animal welfare movement
By Amanda Arrington and Michael Markarian*
This article is dedicated to JC Ramos who meant so much to the Pets for Life (PFL) program. He not only inspired PFL to do more in
the ght against injustice and discrimination, but he served his community with extreme dedication and compassion. There will never be
another person like JC, and the PFL team was lucky to call him family.
Most people are aware of how poverty and structural
inequality create challenges and barriers to accessing
healthy food, education, jobs, health care, and hous-
ing. There is less awareness of how limited affordable veterinary
and pet wellness services create similar obstacles and how that
lack of access disadvantages millions of people and their pets
across the United States.1 Currently there are at least 19 million
pets living with U.S. families whose income level is below the
poverty line, which is triple the number of dogs and cats who
enter animal shelters each year, and there are millions more in
working poor and middle-class families struggling with the cost
of caring for their pets.2
With 78 million dogs and 86 million cats in 80 million
American households, pet ownership transcends geographical,
racial, religious, and socio-economic boundaries demonstrating
that love for pets is a consistent societal value.3 However, lack
of access to information, advice, and direct animal care services
produces hardships and heartaches for many pet owners in under-
served communities.4 This denial of access to knowledge, coun-
sel, and support generates a social justice issue in its own right.
Perpetuated by a lack of access to fundamental resources,
race and income-based segregation is a centuries old problem.5
For example, food deserts are impoverished parts of the country
with little or no access to fresh produce or full-edged grocery
stores.6 While they lack fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole foods,
they are overrun with fast food chains and processed foods
heavy in fat and sugar that contribute to the nation’s obesity and
disease epidemic—causing people in underserved communities
to suffer at disproportionate rates.7
Similarly, there are animal resource deserts—entire neigh-
borhoods with no veterinarians, no pet supply stores, no groom-
ers, and no animal welfare infrastructure.8 When there are no
veterinarians in a community, standard wellness care is not the
norm—and familiarity, experience, and knowledge concerning
common pet health concerns do not exist. When there are no
pet supply stores or big box retailers, simple items like pet food
or a collar and leash are out of reach. Pet owners end up spend-
ing more, thus experiencing disproportionate nancial burdens
because prices are higher and selections fewer at small corner
stores, and many must wait until situations are dire to address a
pet’s medical needs.9
Additionally, the majority of people who live in poverty
have to work extremely hard to provide even the most basic pet
care, yet are frequently accused of being irresponsible with their
pets or even punished with nes and criminal charges because of
access issues that are largely out of their control.10 Many people
in low-income neighborhoods rely on public transportation, and
they cannot take their pets across town on the bus or subway.11
An animal may be unaltered because there are too many barriers
to having the surgery done.12 A dog may live outside because a
landlord does not allow indoor pets, and affordable housing with
pet-friendly options is hard to come by.13
In some cases, animal welfare professionals have formed
negative opinions about people based on the location of their
residence or perceived economic status with misperceptions
and stereotypes of being cruel toward animals.14 Too often,
these opinions exist without much understanding of the impact
of poverty and systematic bias, which frequently isolate certain
demographic populations and diminish or completely remove
options and choices when it comes to pet care.
This physical divide creates negative assumptions and little
to no positive engagement on the part of animal care agencies
and service providers. Stereotyping entire communities of
pet owners is not uncommon, both within and outside of the
animal welfare movement, and it creates an “us versus them”
mindset that furthers the trust gap between service providers
and the community.15 Fear and judgment lead to continued lack
of engagement, which creates further segregation and inacces-
sibility to resources. This in turn spreads more misconceptions
among people outside of the affected groups.
In a lasting insight gained in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) saw
that the poorest communities of Louisiana and Mississippi were
places where people loved their pets but simply did not have
access to basic services.16 Nationwide, about 86% of dogs and
90% of cats are spayed and neutered.17 The HSUS vowed to
rebuild and strengthen the animal welfare capacity of the Gulf
Coast and brought these critical spay and neuter and wellness
care services to underserved pet owners.18
Using these same insights, The HSUS launched its Pets
for Life (PFL) program in 2011.19 PFL embraces the human in
humane, extends compassion and respect to all audiences of pet
* Amanda Arrington is the Director of the Pets for Life Program at The Humane
Society of the United States and Michael Markarian is the Chief Operating Of-
cer at The Humane Society of the United States (
Fall 2017
owners, and promotes the understanding within the larger ani-
mal protection movement that a lack of nancial means does not
equate to lack of love for a pet.20 The program not only deliv-
ers direct care to thousands of pets in underserved communi-
ties each year, but it also works to promote greater recognition
within the animal welfare movement of how institutions produce
and perpetuate unjust systems and policies.21 Today, The HSUS
operates PFL programs in underserved areas of Los Angeles and
Philadelphia, and partners with and trains local animal welfare
groups, shelters, and animal control agencies in thirty-two other
communities—from major metropolitan cities to extremely rural
regions—to share these ideas around the country.22 Nationwide,
the Pets for Life program has served more than 130,000 pets in
underserved areas, and of those, 88% were unaltered—showing
the much lower prevalence of spaying and neutering in under-
served communities compared to the national rate of only about
10% of owned pets being unaltered.23
The program has also helped to overcome a long-held mis-
conception that people in low-income communities or commu-
nities of color are opposed to spaying and neutering—thus the
reason for low sterilization rates.24 Free spaying and neutering
services combined with transportation to and from veterinary
appointments and positive engagement has resulted in almost
90% of these pets sterilized through the program.25 This proves
that high percentages of unaltered pets is due to lack of access
and not because of differing belief systems or how much people
care for their pets. Race and ethnicity are not primary determi-
nants in utilizing veterinary services.26 In fact, decision-making
by pet owners who are Latino and African-American is consis-
tent with that of the behavior of non-Hispanic white pet owners
around spay and neuter. 27
A large majority of people in underserved areas do not know
animal welfare agencies exist as a potential resource because
information is simply not being shared by service providers in
an effective way or with the community’s perspective in mind.28
Also, some people are apprehensive to reach out to service pro-
viders for fear of unfavorable outcomes, such as having their
pets taken away from them or being punished for not having the
resources to provide medical care.29
Additionally, 84% of pet owners served by PFL had never
reached out to the local shelter or animal control agency.30
However, 89% of pets came from sources within the pet owner’s
immediate area.31 There are many reasons for this connection
deciency. For instance, many in the animal welfare eld have
discussed and treated the issue of companion animal cruelty
and neglect the same way for decades, resulting all too often
in underserved neighborhoods being stigmatized as places
where cruelty is prevalent.32 Therefore, the experience that
many of these pet owners have is negative either because they
are insulted and belittled by service providers, or at times even
punished with nes or criminal charges for neglect or cruelty.33
There is an immense need to repair distrust and show that animal
welfare extends compassion beyond animals, to include treating
people with dignity, respect, and understanding.
The story of Kevin and Boss Lady illustrates how people
and pets suffer the injurious consequences of complex societal
issues and then see their difculties compounded by the animal
welfare system.34 Kevin was walking his dog, Boss Lady, down
the street one day when a police ofcer, in a case of mistaken
identity, shocked him with a stun gun.35 Kevin was taken to a
hospital and Boss Lady was taken to the local animal control
agency.36 When authorities realized their error and released
Kevin, he went to retrieve Boss Lady only to nd there were
expensive fees that he had to pay to get her back.37 The police
department and shelter denied Kevin’s requests for help even in
light of the police department’s error.38
On his own, Kevin would not have been able to pay the fees
to take his dog home, and the two would have been unfairly sep-
arated.39 Kevin would have lost his companion and Boss Lady
would have entered the shelter system with her fate unknown.40
The sad circumstances involving Kevin and Boss Lady are not
rare or extraordinary, but rather are representative of discrimi-
nating processes and policies that some people must face on a
regular basis, and that ultimately tear families apart.
Keeping people and pets together is a much better out-
come than adding to the intake of overburdened shelters that
are already working hard to increase adoptions and reduce
euthanasia rates. Strengthening the options for animals can also
be a pathway to connect people with other social benets and
services. In one example, caseworkers with a needle exchange
program had been trying to provide services to a group of drug
users squatting in an abandoned building, but the inhabitants
rebuffed them at every turn.41 The drug users were taking care
of a colony of cats nearby, and PFL staff members were able to
gain their trust by providing services to the cats.42 This relation-
ship in turn made the clients more open to being introduced to
the needle exchange program.
Recognizing the barriers to services that exist for many pet
owners and taking a deeper look at the system’s imbalances is
not only the right thing for animal welfare but also the way to
achieve long-term, sustainable change in countless communi-
ties. The driving force behind the PFL program is to provide
services that people want and need for their pets and to be a
catalyst for widespread availability to veterinary care, supplies,
and information. There is a cumulative effect from long-standing
practices and prejudices that requires patient, consistent, proac-
tive outreach, and careful listening to all perspectives. However,
no short cut will instill faith in the system and build bridges to
underserved communities. Nothing will replace face-to-face,
positive connection, and empathy in the effort to create sus-
tainable, long-term access to resources, and to guarantee their
effective use. The social, psychological, and medical benets of
having a pet should not be available or viable only for select
groups or classes of households.
Even when backgrounds and current circumstances are
diverse, there is an ease in building relationships and nding
commonalities around pets. Animals provide a very natural
way for people of different backgrounds to connect and they
serve as a critical reminder that all people are more alike than
42 Sustainable Development Law & Policy
different. Because of this, animal welfare outreach presents a
special opportunity in underserved communities and can provide
a bridge to other social issues. A fundamental shift in industry
philosophy and policy will position animal welfare as a thought
leader and actor in social justice and will distinguish it as a more
just and inclusive movement.
For decades, the animal welfare movement as a whole has
been making progress on companion animal issues, specically
the reduction in euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals.43 In
the 1970’s, about 15 million healthy and treatable dogs and cats
were euthanized in shelters each year, but today that number has
declined to 2.4 million.44 Popularizing pet adoption, aggressive
spay and neuter programs, community partnerships with rescue
and foster groups, retention programs to keep pets and families
together, and other innovative efforts have driven down eutha-
nasia rates.45
With an average of 6.5 million dogs and cats entering ani-
mal shelters every year, our movement still needs to provide vital
services for the homeless and stray populations, but the time has
come to shift resources to focus more attention on pets living in
poverty outside the shelter.46 There is more work to be done, and
we need to open up new fronts of activity to help companion
animals, including the 19 million pets currently living in pov-
erty.47 Celebrating the human-animal bond and eliminating the
barriers that hamper the broadest possible promotion of compan-
ion animal welfare can ensure a future that takes into account all
pets in a community, not just those who end up at a shelter.
The Pets for Life program has demonstrated that a deep care
and respect for animals transcends social and economic bound-
aries and is a tie that binds us all. Everyone who wants to pro-
vide a loving home to animals deserves access to the resources
that make pet keeping possible. The animal welfare movement’s
efforts to address lack of access to animal services in under-
served communities should be strengthened as a critical priority
nationwide. As this happens, entrenched social prejudices will
diminish, with tangible benets for humans, animals, and the
larger society. Pets enhance the lives of humans and everyone
who so chooses should have the opportunity to experience the
unconditional love and meaningful relationship a pet brings.48
The bond people have with their pets should not depend on
income, which ZIP code someone lives in, or the language they
See Malinda Larkin, Back to Basics: Veterinarians look to fundamentals
to help underserved afford care, javma newS (Nov. 16, 2016), https://www.; Elia Isquith, How the rav-
ages of inequality fall on the pets of the poor:“We’re putting people in a Catch-
22,” Salon (Apr. 17, 2015, 8:00 AM),
See u.S. cenSuS bureau, income anD poverty in the uniteD StateS 12
demo/P60-259.pdf [hereinafter income anD poverty] (pointing out that in
2016 there were 40.6 million people in poverty); u.S. cenSuS bureau, houSe-
holDS anD familieS 5 (2010),
c2010br-14.pdf [hereinafter houSeholDS anD familieS] (estimating that there
is an average of 2.58 people per household which means that there are 15.7
million households in poverty); am. pet proDuctS aSSn, 2017-2018 appa
national pet ownerS Survey 6 (2017) [hereinafter pet ownerS Survey]
(demonstrating that each household own on average 1.8 pets (1.49 dogs and 2.0
cats) which is approximately 19 million pets living in poverty); Shelter Intake
and Surrender, am. Socy for the prevention of cruelty to animalS, https://
(last visited Dec. 20, 2017) [hereinafter ASPCA] (noting that approximately 6.5
million companion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year).
3 See U.S. Pet Ownership Statistics, am. veterinary meD. aSSn (2012),
See Michael Sharp, Kind Streets, meDium (2015),
HumaneSociety/kind-streets-e12c000e1432 (documenting instances of where
pet owners can’t access basic services for their pets because of geographic and
nancial reasons).
See Camila Domonoske, Interactive Redlining Map Zooms in On America’s
History of Discrimination, npr (Oct. 19, 2016, 3:22 PM),
in-on-americas-history-of-discrimination; Terry Gross, A ‘Forgotten History’
Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America, NPR (May 3, 2017, 12:47
See Nutrition Digest, am. nutrition aSSn, http://americannutritionasso-nes-food-deserts [hereinafter Nutrition Digest].
See id.
See Lifeline Animal Project Takes Over HSUS’ Pets for Life Program in
Atlanta, lifeline animal project (Aug. 2, 2017),
atlanta (discussing the critical lack of accessible and affordable animal welfare
services, resources, and information for people and pets in underserved com-
munities); Keith Seinfeld, The real reason no one buys produce in low-income
areas, KNKX (Jan. 30, 2013),
produce-low-income-areas (analogizing food deserts to areas that also lack
basic animal-care services).
See Nutrition Digest, supra note 6; Phillip Kaufman et al., Do the Poor
Pay More for Food? Item Selection and Price Differences Affect Low-Income
Household Food Costs, u.S. Dept of agric. econ. reSearch Serv. (Dec.
1, 1997),;
DeNeen L. Brown, The High Cost of Poverty: Why the Poor Pay More, waSh.
poSt (May 18, 2009),
See Jon Silman, Pasco woman who couldn’t afford vet is convicted of ani-
mal cruelty, tampa bay timeS (Apr. 25, 2013, 2:43 PM), http://www.tampabay.
cruelty/2117238; Tommie Clark, Woman charged after performing surgery on
her dog, killing it, kcci DeS moineS (June 24, 2017, 3:22 PM), http://www.
See Gillian B. White, Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Trans-
portation Increases Inequality, the atlantic (May 16, 2015), https://www.
lic-transportation-increases-inequality/393419/; Jenny Hyde, Transportation:
The Overlooked Poverty Problem, ShareD juStice (Mar. 10, 2016), http://www.
poverty-problem (drawing on fact that that people from low-income neighbor-
hoods rely on public transportation, and if they have pets, they are unable to
travel with them).
See id. (pointing out that having to rely on public transportation is a barrier
to access health services for your pet because you cannot take your pet with you
on public transportation).
See Josh Leopold et al., The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely
Low-Income Renters in 2013, urban inSt. (June 15, 2015), https://www.urban.
Fall 2017
renters-2013/view/full_report; The State of the Nation’s Housing 2014 Execu-
tive Summary, joint ctr. for houS. StuDieS of harv. u. 6 (2014), http://www.les/sonhr14-color-ch1.pdf; America’s
Housing Affordability Challenges, equitable houS. inSt. (Nov. 2016), https://; Increasing
Pet Friendly Housing, animal Sheltering,
programs/pets-are-welcome (last visited Dec. 20, 2017).
See David Vognar, Animal Welfare, Human Welfare Linked, huffington
poSt (June 1, 2012, 11:22 AM), http://www.huf
animal-welfare-poverty-_b_1560440.html; Poor People Should Be Able to
Have Dogs Too, out the front Door (Nov. 22, 2016, 1:09 PM), http://out-
See Vognar, supra note 14.
See M. Carrie Allan, 10 Years After Katrina, the Storm That Changed Us,
meDium (Aug. 17, 2015),ections-
10-years-after-katrina-c970882366d6; Julia Kamysz Lane, Treading Water
(Nov. 2008),
See Pets by the Numbers, the humane Socy of the u. S., http://www. _overpopulation/facts/pet_ownership_statistics.
See Wayne Pacelle, Pets for Life: Keeping Animals in Loving Homes and
Out of Shelters, a humane nation (Nov. 24, 2014), https://blog.humanesociety.
See id.
See Kate Hodgson, Pets’ Impact on Your Patients’ Health: Leveraging
Benets and Mitigating Risk, 28 j. of the am. boarD of fam. meD. 526 (2015),
See Pets for Life: 2017 Program Report, the humane Socy of
the u.S. 4-10 (2017),
les/content/2017%20Data%20Report_0.pdf [hereinafter PFL 2017
Program Report]; Adia Harvey Wingeld, The Failure of Race-Blind
Economic Policy, the atlantic (Feb. 16, 2017), https://www.the-;
Adrian Florido, Black, Latino Two-Parent Families Have Half The
Wealth of White Single Parents, NPR (Feb. 8, 2017, 1:06 PM),
See PFL 2017 Program Report, supra note 21, at 2-4.
See id. at 2, 12.
See Jessica L. Decker Sparks et al., Race and ethnicity are not primary
determinants in utilizing veterinary services in underserved communities in the
United States, j. of applieD animal Science, 1-2 (2017),
See PFL 2017 Program Report, supra note 21, at 13.
See Decker Sparks et al., supra note 24, at 1.
See id. at 2.
See Julia Thiel, Welcome to the Cook County animal maze,
chi. reaDer (Mar. 25, 2015),
See PFL 2017 Program Report, supra note 21, at 12, 16.
See id.
See id. at 16.
See id. at 12.
See id. at 8-9.
See Daniel Burke, Return-to-Owner: How will you re-evaluate your shel-
ter’s RTO policy to tell a different story?, the humane Socy of the u.S (Mar.
28, 2017),
See id.
See id.
See id.
See id.
See id.
See id. (noting that the Pets for Life team stepped in and paid the fees, giv-
ing Kevin and Boss Lady a happier ending to this situation).
Telephone Interview with Amanda Arrington, Director, Pets for Life at The
Humane Society of the United States (Sept. 12, 2017).
See id.
See Statement on Euthanasia, the humane Socy of the u.S, http://www.
See id.
See id.
See ASPCA, supra note 2 (noting that approximately 6.5 million compan-
ion animals enter U.S. animal shelters nationwide every year).
See income anD poverty, supra note 2, at 12 (pointing out that in 2016
there were 40.6 million people in poverty); houSeholDS anD familieS, supra
note 2, at 5 (estimating that there is an average of 2.58 people per household
which means that there are 15.7 million households in poverty); pet ownerS
Survey, supra note 2, at 6 (demonstrating that each household own on average
1.8 pets (1.49 dogs and 2.0 cats) which is approximately 19 million pets living
in poverty).
See generally Leslie Burke, Animals as Lifechangers and Lifesavers: Pets
in the Redemption Narratives of Homeless People, the humane Socy inSt. for
Sci. & policy animal StuDieS repoSitory (2013), http://animalstudiesreposi- (discussing
instances of how pets transformed people’s lives).
See USDA Agricultural Projections to 2026, uSDa 39 (Feb. 2017), https://
(reporting that in 2014, Americans consumed 199 pounds per person of beef,
pork, and chicken and projecting that this number will rise to 214 pounds per
person by 2026).
See Simon, supra note 10, at xxii (“This development is driven partly by
subsidies, partly by efcient methods of factory farming, and partly by the
industry’s practice of ofoading its costs onto others”).
While the suffering of the animals who are exploited and tortured by the
billions in CAFOs and slaughterhouses is not the primary focus of this Article,
it would be unconscionable to proceed without acknowledging their reality.
See, e.g., Farm Animal Welfare: A Closer Look At Animals on Factory Farms,
factory-farms (last visited Dec. 20, 2017) (describing how female breeding
pigs spend their lives in gestation crates barely larger than their bodies, how
their piglets are taken from them at two to three weeks of age and conned to
enormous (but overcrowded) sheds with no access to fresh air, sunlight, earth,
or even windows, and how they are nally slaughtered after several years of
constant pregnancy and birth); The Editorial Board, No More Exposés in North
Carolina, n.y. timeS (Feb. 1, 2016),
opinion/no-more-exposes-in-north-carolina.html (describing how pigs have
been stabbed, beaten with sledgehammers, and boiled alive at slaughterhouses).
See Simon, supra note 10, at xxi (“[M]om-and-pop farms are mostly
gone—either acquired by large corporate operations or plowed under for new
housing subdivisions. For instance, between 1954 and 2007, even as demand
for dairy increased by 40 percent, the number of US dairy farms plummeted
from 2.9 million to 65,000.”); see also Aaron M. McKown, Note, Hog Farms
and Nuisance Law in Parker v. Barefoot: Has North Carolina Become a Hog
Heaven and Waste Lagoon?, 77 n.c. l. rev. 2355, 2355 (1999) (stating that
in North Carolina, “corporate-run hog facilities have forced many independent
hog farms out of business”).
See Factory Farm Workers, fooD empowerment project, http://www. (last visited Dec. 20, 2017) (explaining
that CAFO workers are subjected to many health and safety hazards, including
but not limited to exposure to inhalable particulate matter and harmful gases
such as ammonia and hydrogen sulde); id. (explaining that many workers are
undocumented individuals, who CAFO owners seek out “because they are less
likely to complain about low wages and hazardous working conditions.”); see
also Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,
human rightS watch 5253 (2004),
enDnoteS: cafoS: plaguing north carolina communitieS of color
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