Grayson White knows a lot of Portlanders think she's crazy.
But in her mind, she doesn't have a choice.
"I know it might sound insane, but I think this is the right path," she says. The "path" she's talking about is a yearlong saga of surgery, physical therapy, acupuncture and medical bills.
Not for her, mind you. For Raga, her beloved 9-year-old hound-retriever mix.
White, 28, was living in Nashville and working odd jobs last February when Raga (pronounced "RAH-zha") developed a slight tremor. That led to a $4,000 back surgery, a spinal embolism, stroke and paralysis. Raga has lost the use of his back legs and is incontinent.
"He got sick. And then he got paralyzed," White explained during her daily walk through the Foster-Powell
neighborhood—the dog wearing diapers emblazoned with a pirate patch, his back legs suspended by a $500 wheelie cart. "But he's still a normal dog."
White moved to Portland with her band in June and recently took a second job to make ends meet. (She keeps a stack of the vet bills, an inch thick, in a manila folder.) The care and cost of Raga has taken its toll—she says she doesn't have time to work on songs. And forget dating. She's living with her bandmates to save money rather than getting her own place.
"People say, 'Just put the dog down,'" she says, her voice twangy and raw. "But just because he's paralyzed doesn't mean he doesn't have the right to keep going."
Portland is a pet-crazy town. In 2007, Forbes ranked us the second-most pet-friendly city in the nation, right after Colorado Springs. Our city is packed with pet-centric businesses, from raw-cat-food entrepreneurs to dog social clubs and a booming holistic veterinary scene. And, in a telling example of art imitating life, there's Wendy and Lucy, a new movie about a woman who's thrown in jail and nearly undone by her desire to care for and protect her dog. Local writer Jon Raymond penned the screenplay. The film, which stars Michelle Williams, was made here in Portland.
In the past few months, the failing economy has challenged Portlanders in various ways. Unemployment, anxiety about 401(k)s, the strain on public services. But now, deepening economic pressures are forcing people to make tough choices when it comes to how they provide for their families—both two- and four-legged.
Some are dismayed, even offended, by the idea of putting the needs of animals on the same level as those of people. They think it's crazy to shell out more than $2,500 on physical therapy to care for a dog, as White has (she also spends up to $40 a month on continence pads, baby wipes and raw meat—and she's a vegan), while growing numbers of Portlanders wait for emergency food boxes from the Oregon Food Bank.
"I'm from Amarillo, Texas. Dogs live outside. If you pamper your pet, you're really weird," muses Laura Wilson, a vet tech at Back on Track, Raga's physical therapy clinic.
Kay Pedisich, who runs a local dog rescue nonprofit, says sometimes it's easier to help pets than people. "People are afraid to make a human connection, but they're willing to make the connection with an animal," she explains. "It always feels like they are so grateful. Sometimes when you're dealing with people the emotions get in the way. Animals are just what they are."
In some cases, Portlanders are putting their pets first. But for many others, the financial strain is tearing pets and people apart.
"We've cut other things out of our budget so he can still go to daycare twice a week," says Renee Boak, a community health specialist from Southeast Portland. She's talking about Max, her 15-month-old French bulldog, who is gnawing the head off a stuffed animal at LexiDog Social Club's $2 Sunday Playgroup for small dogs. Boak spends $180 a month on doggie daycare at the chichi Pearl District dog shop; she also shells out for all-natural dog food as well as toys and cable-knit sweaters from Salty's Dog Shop on North Mississippi Avenue. Because of the shaky economy, Boak and her husband have tightened their own belts a bit, but they're committed to making sure Max can continue his lifestyle. "We've changed our eating habits, my husband takes the bus to work—we're being more responsible," Boak says.
Heidi Liedeker, who owns the East Burnside Street raw-animal-food shop Meat, sees a lot of people like the Boaks, owners who "are taking the pinch on themselves—not their animals," she says. "I mean, I eat beans and rice for dinner every night, but my dogs eat 2 pounds of meat each morning." The self-described "pet dork" says some of her customers, who often switch to a grain-free, raw-meat diet after discovering their pets have severe allergies, are downgrading from organic to human-grade, hormone- and antibiotic-free food. It's still expensive—she spends about $40 a week on chow for Chevy and Blockhead, her own Rottweiler and pit bull mix.
But food isn't nearly as big an expense as vet bills.
Joei Hill was at her wits' end. Hill is a stay-at-home mom of four kids and a 7-month-old yellow Lab puppy named Molly; her husband lost his job in October. With no new jobs to be found, the family was down to the last of its savings and living on food stamps. "Thank goodness I bought enough diapers and dog food last month to last us three months," she says. But in early November, Molly got sick. The puppy was coughing and her throat was swelling up. She could barely eat or drink. And the Hills couldn't afford to go to a vet. Hill's sister mentioned that the dog might need antibiotics—penicillin or amoxicillin.
So Hill, embarrassed but desperate, took her case to Craigslist. "I was wondering if anyone out there has either of those antibiotics that they are no longer needing and if they would consider giving them up for my dog," she wrote Tuesday, Nov. 25, on the Portland Craigslist pets board. "We HAD the income, we HAD the savings, but now we don't...we never thought this would happen in a million years. We don't want to give her up, by NO MEANS do we want to give her up."
By the next day, an anonymous emailer had offered to pay for a vet visit and the dog's prescriptions. The swelling in Molly's throat, filled with fluid and pus, burst, leaving a small hole in her neck, but according to the vet, she's healing wonderfully. The donor footed the $200 bill.
"Things are tough all over, I know," says Hill, who recently found a seasonal job at a Dollar Tree outlet. "I don't know if I'm being a loving or a selfish owner, but she is our family member and she depends on us just like one of our kids.... She would eat our leftovers if we had no money to buy dog food, you know?"
For every story of a pet owner sacrificing to provide, there are an equal number of tales of families who just can't make it work with their animals.
"I don't have enough room on my plate for this," says Sarah Manlupig. She and her husband, Leo, are giving up Noah, the family's year-old Shih Tzu. Like Hill, Manlupig's a stay-at-home mom—she's got two kids under the age of 5 and another due in June. But the Manlupigs' situation has become untenable: When the bank foreclosed on the family's Gresham home in June, they were forced to downsize to a smaller property they owned in Milwaukie. Then, Leo was laid off from Hanson Pipe & Precast in Northeast Portland in September. Noah, a hypoallergenic white fluffball, became too much for the busy mom, who also attends Warner Pacific College. "We felt like we weren't giving him the home he deserves," explains Manlupig, who says the stress of being pregnant and living out of packing boxes the past few months contributed to her decision. "We can't even afford to groom him." In the background, 4-year-old McKenzie wails, "I want to keep him!" Noah was her birthday present last year.
Last week a retired couple who travels around the country by RV adopted Noah. The experience for Manlupig was "horrible." "[McKenzie] cries, and then I start bawling," she says. "We made a commitment to the dog, and we should follow through. But I just don't think it's fair to Noah."
Kay Pedisich runs Pacific Pug Rescue. A fiscal analyst at the Washington School for the Deaf, the frank, garnet-haired woman spends several hours a week finding homes for Portland-area pugs, a breed of runty, snorting, Darth Vader-like dogs prone to high-priced vet problems like eye injuries and yeast infections in their nose wrinkles.
Pacific Pug Rescue took in 69 dogs in 2007 though its network of foster homes. This year Pedisich, 45, and co-founder Maria Menolasino are already at almost double that number, 120 dogs. "It's insane," she says. And the economy is one big reason for the change.
"Before, it was older dogs—Grandma died and nobody wants the dog," she explains. But these days she's receiving frantic calls from the "parents" of highly adoptable, younger animals. "People can't take care of them. Higher-maintenance dogs [like pugs] are more of a financial burden. You can't feed them garbage; you have to give them dental treatments." Her pug adoptions are also down.
"The economy has hit us," Pedisich says. "If you have a choice between feeding your kids and feeding your dogs, what do you do?"
The Oregon Humane Society is seeing a rise in the number of people who give up their pets and claim a shortage of finances or a change of housing as the reason—although the total number of animals relinquished to most local shelters is nearly the same as last year.
"We have 25 reason codes for animals coming to us [printed on OHS's Pet Relinquishment Form]: 'Allergic,' 'New Baby,' 'Cannot Afford'…," explains Barbara Baugnon, Oregon Humane Society communications director. In 2007, 139 people marked "Cannot Afford." In 2008, the number has rocketed to 207 so far. That's about a 49 percent increase. "[It's] happening toward the end of the year," she says. "Not a great sign of the times."
Lisa Feder, director of Shelter Operations for the Southwest Washington Humane Society in Vancouver, says that although there's a slight decrease in animal surrender so far this year, she too has seen a spike in pet owners who are giving up their animals for reasons related to a failing economy.
"In shelter world, 'moving' has always been code for 'I can't handle my dog,'" she says, miming exaggerated quote marks in the air. "Now it really seems to be the reason. Now we're starting to believe it. It's the first time in the 10 years I've been doing this that [the explanations] 'moving' or 'I can't afford my dog' are a reality."
Feder says people are downsizing from houses to apartments because they can't afford high mortgage or rent payments. Many Oregon and Washington apartment complexes have weight restrictions on dogs—often 25 pounds or less. "People in the Northwest tend to have large, happy-go-lucky outdoors dogs—retrievers, Labs," muses SWHS canine coordinator Faye Smith. "When they have to downsize, they can't bring them." Like Pug Rescue's Pedisich, the women see vet bills and food as the other two big hurdles for Washington and Oregon families.
Southwest Washington Humane, an "open-door" shelter that will take in any stray or unwanted pet without an appointment, is housed in a crumbling 50-year-old facility on the edge of Vancouver's industrial port. It currently houses 350 dogs and cats. It was designed for 100. In one of the shelter's viewing rooms, barks ricochet off the concrete walls like gunshots. Each of the 28 dogs housed in the wing, waiting to be adopted, has a typed biography slid into a plastic sleeve on the chain-link front of its kennel. The explanations of why these dogs have been given up read like an RSS feed of local economic headlines: lost job, moving, couldn't afford special food. A card next to a 100-pound Irish wolfhound named Ozzie says his family moved and couldn't take him. Chopper, a bouncy boxer-bull mastiff puppy with floppy ears and a sweet, russet-colored muzzle, gets sick if he isn't fed a grain-free diet. His family couldn't afford it.
Grayson White hefts Raga's legs into two padded loops in his Eddie's Wheels dog cart. She slides him backward and snaps a metal strap under his chest.
"You ready to go for a walk? WALK?" she asks. Raga's body shimmies and shakes as he rolls forward—he can't wag his tail. Working legs or no, he's a great dog. "I couldn't do it. I'd have given him up," admits White's brother, Kris, who lives with her and tries to help out when he can. "It's her decision," he sighs, watching Raga head happily to the door, ready to chase squirrels and play fetch. "If you devote your life to a handicapped animal, there's not room for much else."
Finances are on White's mind right now. She's offsetting costs by working as a canine dental assistant and picking up extra shifts at a self-serve dog wash. When she gets five minutes away from work, she tries to get home and relieve the dog's bladder and bowels, something he can't do on his own. Although Back on Track recently found a donor to offset the cost of many of Raga's physical therapy treatments, making ends meet is still a challenge for White. "I can stay at this pace, physically and financially, for maybe another year," she admits. "Then I'll have to find somebody to take him. Somewhere I can visit."
Right now, she's more concerned about finding a pet sitter. She wants to fly home to Louisiana for a weeklong Christmas break—from work, from Portland, from Raga. So far, nobody will take him.
"I've always had a big heart for animals," White sighs, pulling her scarf up tighter around her face. "But if somebody told me, 'A year from now you're going to be working to the point where you have no time for yourself, caring for a paralyzed dog, and it's gonna be hard and lonely,' I'd have said, 'No. I don't want this.'" Then, she looks at the hound and she smiles. "But it's different now."
This nonprofit boasts the only combination veterinary school and animal hospital attached to a shelter in the nation. Its maze of spacious dog kennels feature views of the trees and blue sky outside; cats play en masse in a glass-fronted room that looks like the Peach Pit in Beverly Hills, 90210. Owners may relinquish their pets by appointment only, while potential adopters can visit from 10 am to 9 pm Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 7 pm Sunday. Check out oregonhumane.org to learn how to donate funds or pet supplies, or to volunteer at the shelter. 1067 NE Columbia Blvd., 285-7722.
PPR currently boasts a network of 20 foster homes for Portland- and Vancouver-area pugs—dogs stay with their fosters until a home can be found for them, no matter how long it takes. The nonprofit works with local vets to get its dogs medical treatment at a discount and shows off the little canines at places like the high-end Bone Jour Dog Bakery in West Linn, hoping to find the dogs new parents. Visit pacificpugrescue.org or call 704-3587 to learn more.
Run by a dedicated group of staffers and volunteers, this cramped Vancouver shelter functions as both a place for people to surrender their pets without an appointment and a depot for abandoned animals. Good news, the shelter recently broke ground on a much larger, updated facility. Although the shelter welcomes donations of food and pet beds, it also instituted a "Lend a Paw" program this year that gives free pet food to families in need. Call or check southwesthumane.org to find out when the next distribution day will take place. 2121 St. Francis Lane, Vancouver, Wash., 360-693-4746.
This is where Portland's abandoned, lost and stray dogs and cats end up. An outdated facility is warmed up by a friendly staff and plenty of excited dogs and cats. 1700 W Columbia River Highway, Troutdale, 988-7387, co.multnomah.or.us/dbcs/pets.
Clackamas' lost and abandoned pups get a new home this month when the county's Dog Services moves to a larger facility on Highway 212. Adoption viewing hours are 12:30 to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday. Check clackamas.us/dogs for updated info and volunteer opportunities. 13141 SE Highway 212, Clackamas, 655-8628.
The Northwest's largest no-kill cat shelter calls Sherwood home. Find your perfect pussy from 11 am to 7 pm Monday through Friday, 10 am to 6 pm Saturday through Sunday. Check out catadoptionteam.org for CAT's donation wish list, which ranges from wet kitten food to cat toys and liquid hand soap. 14175 SW Galbreath Drive, Sherwood, 925-8903.
Visit nwdogrescue.com or muttcats.com/shelters/oregon.htm for an exhaustive list of local shelters and even breed-specific rescue programs for everything from poms and St. Bernards to ragdoll cats.
We're all for animal love, but we're not for unwanted animal pregnancies. Think of the kids! Oregon's Spay/Neuter Assistance Plan provides financial help to pay for cat spay or neuter surgery. To apply, call the Oregon Humane Society at 285-7722, ext. 224. The Oregon Spay/Neuter Fund hands out discount coupons for surgeries (call 286-2411 for more info). Contact Animal Aid at 292-6628 or animalaidpdx.org for more options.
Grayson White plays violin and sings in the vaudevillian band Juan Prophet Organization. The group plays Miz Kitty's Parlour Novelty Show and Revusical this Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Mission Theatre & Pub.
Though still lower than the national average, home foreclosures in the Portland metro area doubled to 0.8 percent in September. Unemployment is up to 7.3 percent, the highest since 2004.
Raga underwent treatments including hydrotherapy and massage three times a week this past summer to the tune of $80 to $100 a session at Back on Track, the Northwest's first veterinary rehabilitation center.
Grayson White is brainstorming a plan for her own family-style boarding home for disabled dogs, something that doesn't yet exist in Portland. "I know I could do it," she laughs. "But I need rich dog owners."
Last year 9,118 pets were adopted from the Oregon Humane Society—3,304 dogs, 4,981 cats and 833 small animals. That's one of the highest adoption rates in the nation. The nonprofit raised $6.6 million in donations last year.
Other Oregon Humane Society Relinquishment Reason Codes include: "Kids Are Not Taking Care of Animal," "Landlord Says No," "Not Housebroken/Using Litterbox" and "Sheds Too Much."