Imagine you have to go away for several weeks, months, even a year, but you can’t take your pets with you. You don’t have any friends or family who can care for your animals while you’re gone, and you can’t afford to board them for an extended period of time. What do you do?
For many military service members and people facing hospital stays across the country, it’s an agonizing and all-too common dilemma. It’s also one of the reasons many companion animals are relinquished to animal shelters, where they are either adopted out or euthanized. Certainly those brave individuals facing military deployment or medical crises shouldn’t be forced to surrender their beloved companions due to circumstances beyond their control.
Buzz Miller certainly didn’t think so. As a former attorney who couldn’t stand the thought of people having to give up their fur children for such heart-wrenching reasons, he founded PACT for Animals, a nonprofit organization that provides free long-term foster pet care for people facing medical or military emergencies.
“I was hearing the same story over and over, that these young military people were relinquishing their pets at shelters, lying on the floor crying because they were being deployed and no one would take care of their animals,” Buzz explains. “When I heard enough of those stories, I thought, if that happened to me, I’d rather go to Canada than relinquish my animals. So that’s why I started PACT.”
Since its founding in 2011, PACT — which stands for People + Animals = Companions Together — has helped just under 300 pets in 23 U.S. states, thanks in part to its dedicated army of almost 200 volunteer foster families. While the majority of its foster homes are concentrated in the eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, mid- and south New Jersey areas, PACT’s volunteer network has been rapidly spreading across the country as the demand for its lifesaving services continues to grow.
Unlike online networks that allow military families to connect with foster care volunteers on their own, PACT oversees the entire pet care process from beginning to end, including matching animals with carefully prescreened foster families, assisting fosters with any concerns, making sure fosters send regular updates to let pet parents know how their animals are doing, and, finally, facilitating joyous reunions between pets and their owners. In addition, the organization has established a robust network of top-tier veterinarians, doggie daycares, and trainers to help foster pets in the case of any emergencies.
In order to qualify for PACT’s services, applicants must prove they’ve exhausted every other avenue of care for their animals, Buzz explains.
“We only come in when they convince us that there’s nobody else but the shelter,” Buzz says. “And when you get in that system, it’s simple. There are two doors, one is the euthanasia door and the other is the adoption door, and either way that person will never see their animal again. Psychologically, what is that going to do to a person who’s going through a serious illness or a deployment to have to give up their animals?”
Major Nancy Kellie Harris was facing the unthinkable — surrendering her beloved Pit Bulls to the shelter — when she found PACT. With just three days to go until her nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, she had yet to find anyone willing or able to care for her “babies,” Kato and Karmen. The situation looked bleak, until something amazing happened, just in the nick of time.
“One of the folks from PACT found me through my listing on Dogs On Deployment, and I told them my situation,” Kellie explains. “They talked to their folks, and that’s when the Smith family volunteered to help. My key thing was making sure my dogs had a home where they were welcome, because they’re very loved. I don’t have children, I’ve never been married, and they’re used to a lot of attention, so I needed that maintained.”
She continues, “We set up a meeting with the Smiths and went to their house — it was so nice! They had a big yard for them to run in, we got along really well, my dogs loved them, and I felt really comfortable. When I took my babies for that final drop-off, I felt good about it because I knew they’d be fine. I didn’t have to worry about them, and I also had the peace of mind that if something happened to me that PACT would find forever homes for them.”
Max and Patrice Smith were indeed the ideal, doting foster parents for Kato and Karmen, who thrived under their loving care. As lifetime dog lovers, the couple began fostering for PACT almost four years ago after losing their 13-year-old Lab mix, Sandy, and questioning whether adopting another dog was the best choice for them.
“PACT offered us an opportunity to welcome another dog into our home, knowing that we would be giving the dog back in six months to one year,” says Max. “That seemed like a commitment we could agree to, and we could learn a lot. Not only that, we’d be helping out someone in the military who could leave for a deployment knowing that we’d be caring for his or her beloved pet. It’s such a small thing for us but such a huge thing for the owners. We have fun with each of our fosters, and when one leaves, another isn’t far behind. We are better for having done this.”
As promised, the Smiths kept Kellie in the loop via cute photos and funny email updates, including how many squirrels her pups had chased on a given day. They even Skyped and talked on the phone whenever possible. But when Patrice found a lump on Karmen’s neck, the friendly bond between Kellie and the couple grew much closer. Max and Patrice took Karmen to their vet and had her tested — it was cancer.
“She was nine years old, so I’d had her almost my entire career at the time,” Kellie says. “We had a three-way call with the Smiths, the vet, and me, and they said they’d found it early and could put her on chemo. I said just do whatever it takes to keep her comfortable and alive until I get home.”
Ever the dedicated dog lovers, the Smiths faithfully took Karmen to her weekly chemotherapy treatments, all the while keeping Kellie updated every step of the way. By the time Kellie arrived home at the end of September, 2013, her dog’s lymphoma appeared to be under control.
“I saw my dogs before I saw my grandmother,” Kellie says with a laugh. “When I arrived, they almost had a heart attack — it was pretty awesome. They were still trained, and they had their little habits and little nooks, all this stuff Patrice had been telling me about over the last nine months. I was having issues finding a place to live, but the Smiths were understanding and kept my dogs another month until I found a place and got settled in, which was so great.”
Although Karmen passed away three months later and Kellie moved away the following year, she remains close with the Smiths, whom she considers her second family.
“Patrice and Max are part of my family no matter where I go,” Kellie says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Even though it’s been two years since they fostered Kato and Karmen, we still talk, and even Buzz still checks up on me. With PACT, you feel like you have family and a support system no matter where you go, because in the military you don’t have family, you don’t have a home, and you’re always moving. But with PACT, I know I will always have someone there, no matter what — I’m so grateful for them.”
In the end, PACT doesn’t just save beloved pets from being relinquished to shelters, it keeps families together while championing the incredible human-animal bond. For military personnel fighting in war zones or individuals undergoing medical emergencies, knowing their pets will be safe and loved until they can reunite with them again can be an invaluable component in maintaining their morale and psychological well-being.
But none of that would be possible without Buzz and his wife, Judi Goldstein, who have been working tirelessly to increase awareness about PACT’s life-saving services in an effort to garner more support, grow its volunteer network, and eventually set up satellite offices in other parts of the country. That way, he says, PACT will be able to achieve its ultimate goal — helping more and more hospital patients and military families keep their beloved pets.
“This is a labor of love for me,” says Buzz. “In every single instance, we save the life of an animal (and) enable that family to see them again. We do everything we can to keep those pets in triple-A condition until their owners can pick them up, and the few times people couldn’t take their pets back we found them loving homes. We’re the only group that I know of that is doing this on a nationwide basis. Everybody wins with what we do.”
If you’d like help PACT continue its incredible mission to help more people and their pets, please consider making a donation, becoming a foster volunteer, or becoming a foster-home check volunteer. To learn more, please visit the PACT for Animals website and Facebook page. You can also check out some of its heartwarming videos on YouTube, like this one showing a reunion between U.S. Army reservist Kyle Reighard and his dog Victor, whom the Smiths took care of while he was deployed.
Read about more Dogster Heroes:
About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, Lisa uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter.