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Helpers Step In As Pet Owners Become Too Ill
Volunteers Assist With Care So Animals Aren't Surrendered

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005

Johanna Boyer did not actually meet Christine McCann or Eileen Krill until this month, but they have a close, mutual friend: Ruff.

The three women and others -- all volunteers with PETS-DC -- were part of a faithful group that for 12 years took turns walking the black-and-white, part-Pekingese mutt whose owner was often too sick to care for him.

PETS-DC is a nonprofit, regionwide organization that helps people with HIV/AIDS keep and care for their pets. Founded in 1990, the group's volunteers walk dogs; change cat litter boxes; clean fish tanks; and obtain discounted veterinary care, food, supplies and grooming for the pets. Without this kind of help, the owners might have to give up the pets.

The group has 129 clients. Many are from the District, but PETS-DC helps residents across the area, including Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.

"I love animals, and I had a close friend who died of AIDS," said Boyer, 43, an arts management consultant who lives in Silver Spring. "PETS-DC combines my love of animals and my desire to help people with AIDS."

Ruff, now 13, was the beloved pet of a man who lived in the Dupont Circle area. PETS-DC does not give out the names of its clients, but Boyer said he was in his fifties and helped manage apartment buildings in Northwest Washington. Before his death in December, he signed papers transferring ownership of Ruff to her.

The group that used to take turns walking Ruff recently gathered for potluck brunch in Boyer's home. They had not seen the dog since September, when his owner was hospitalized and Boyer took over full-time care. The dog walkers, some meeting for the first time, compared notes about their experiences.

Ruff's walkers, each of whom took him out about twice a week, said they grew quite attached to the feisty dog with the "little vampire teeth."

"I wanted a dog to walk because I have three cats and couldn't have a dog of my own," said Lois Garmon, 50, a longtime volunteer who works for a think tank and lives in Adams Morgan. She recruited her husband, Ed Rorie, 53, who works for a public health consulting firm.

The duration of the walks depended on whether it was a weekday or a weekend, the weather and Ruff's mood. He likes people but not other dogs. He didn't like to be out in the rain but loved hanging out in the sunshine.

"I took Ruff to Trio's," said Rorie, referring to a popular neighborhood restaurant at 17th and Q streets NW. "He liked sitting at an outdoor table with me."

Christine McCann, 36, also an Adams Morgan resident, works with Rorie and heard about the program through him.

She described herself as "a pet person" with friends who are sick or have died because of AIDS.

"In the early days of the epidemic, people had their pets taken away from them," she said. Now, people recognize the benefits of having pets for companionship, and "PETS-DC is a wonderful resource."

McCann discovered, however, that "Ruff is a very leisurely walker. If you're looking for your own exercise, you have to go to the gym."

Eileen Krill, 37, a market researcher, said that volunteering with PETS-DC was a way to help out in her community and be near dogs.

"I love dogs, but I don't feel like taking on the responsibility of having my own," she said.

Boyer, who works downtown and used to walk Ruff on her way to work, said his owner bought him as a puppy. The dog "could fit in the palm of his hand," she said. "He told me he thought that such a tiny puppy needed a 'tough' name, so he named him Ruff."

She said she had taken Ruff into her home several times in the past six years, whenever his owner needed to go out of town or was hospitalized. It "had crossed my mind" that she might be the ideal person to adopt him.

The secretary for the PETS-DC board of directors, Boyer delivers pet food to six people with HIV/AIDS. She said the group gets a discount from Petsmart and also has friends in the veterinary community who offer their services.

PETS-DC's co-founder and executive director, Chip Wells, a veterinarian, said there are emotional, psychological and physical benefits for ailing HIV/AIDS clients who are able to keep their pets.

"They tell us their pets are keeping them alive and making living worthwhile," said Wells, 47.

Wells has a full-time job in Riverdale Park with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. PETS-DC is getting ready to expand by hiring a part-time administrator. It would like to have more people sign up; it now has about 80 volunteers.

"We used to have buddy teams that served different neighborhoods, but now we don't have enough volunteers," Boyer said.

The volunteers are proud of the organization's pet adoption services. Although most of the animals are "pretty old" by the time their owners die, they say no pet has ever had to go to a shelter.

PETS-DC is "a nice outlet to meet people and help animals -- we're animal people," he said. "The fact that we can also help people is just gravy, I guess."

Volunteers for PETS-DC or those who have HIV/AIDS and need help caring for pets can call 202-234-PETS.

Eileen Krill, left, Johanna Boyer and Christine McCann play with Ruff during a recent brunch meeting. The three were part of a faithful group of the dog's volunteer walkers and caretakers.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company