Caring for the Pets of Marginalised Youth

On the premises of the organisation Dans la rue, at the corner of Ontario and Papineau Streets, Nicolas and Angie are waiting for the veterinarian who will examine their rabbit, Batman. The rabbit was given this name due to a birthmark on its back that looks like a cape, vaguely recalling that of the superhero. This is the only place in Montreal where they can get him treated free of charge.

 

It was only last December that Nicolas and Angie adopted Batman. “This is our little one!” smiles Angie, putting a hand on her round belly. The two young adults, aged 22 and 20 years old respectively, will soon be parents – a new phase of life that they will begin together, along with Batman.

 

“He gives you attention and love,” Angie says, watching Batman’s every move. “He doesn’t really have the personality of a rabbit, more like that of a dog!”

 

“Look, he doesn’t want to go out because he’s used to the cage being closed! Oh, he’s coming out anyway!” marvels Nicholas, holding Batman back with his foot so he won’t escape.

 

The couple can take advantage of the clinic’s services for pets on the first Wednesday of the month at the organisation Dans la rue. This is thanks to a collaboration established between Father Emmett Johns, known as “Pops”, and the late Dr Diane Blais, of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Montreal, located in Saint-Hyacinthe.

 

Although the clinic’s actions are limited, animals can be vaccinated and dewormed. It’s also an opportunity for young owners to ask for advice about both sterilisation and general hygiene for their pet. Thanks to the clinic’s partnerships, owners can also collect food bags and certain medications.

 

Next to Nicolas and Angie, David is patiently waiting with his two kittens. “I found myself on the street in 2013 and I came here to eat dinner and make use of other services. These two are the kittens of my second female.”

 

David works in prevention for young people who are substance abusers. He doesn’t talk much about his past, but says that “when you work in this area, it’s because, for sure, you have certain experience that helps you understand the young people you’re dealing with.”

 

For him, remembering his roommates who didn’t finish up well, his cats are a way to ease loneliness, avoid depression and have company in his apartment.

 

Not just altruism

 

As they do on every first Wednesday evening of the month, the fixed date when “vet night” takes place, Yaffa Elling and Étienne Lalonde, youth workers at Dans la rue, are getting organised.

 

When the first students arrive, a human chain is formed to put 40-50 bags of food into storage in the basement of the building.

 

“These bags are gifts from Saint-Hyacinthe. But I always advise the youth to go to their local Mondou to pick up damaged bags. That allows them to be less dependent on our resources and create another network for themselves,” explains Etienne Lalonde.

 

“We have many young people whose pet is their only friend, which means their pet may come before them. It’s also safer when you sleep in a park with your dog,” she continues.

 

In general, young people adopt their pet when they are living on the streets. This can cause problems because in Montreal only one shelter for minors, which depends on Dans la rue, accepts residents with animals.

 

“It isn’t easy to manage pets in a shelter. It’s often necessary to remind the youth to look after their pet. It’s a small facility. If everyone came with a dog, it could become unmanageable. Also, it’s all fine and well for those who have a cat, but there are more people who are allergic to cats than to dogs,” says Mr Lalonde.

 

If they aren’t taken in to the only shelter that accepts pets, these youth need to rethink their strategy to find another safe place to spend the night.

 

As soon as he arrives on the premises, veterinarian Jean Gauvin consults the list of appointments. 12 cats, 2 rats, 2 rabbits and 23 dogs will be seen to in the space that will act as a treatment room for the evening.

Some students are there because it’s an experience that’s part of their curriculum, while others are there as volunteers. All of them are training to be small animal vets in the Montreal region. As for the professional vets, they’re all volunteers.

 

“For the students, this is their first clinical experience. It’s a real ‘eye opener’ because they’ll meet people who might not be as lucky as them in life, and they’re going to realise that. It’s a two-way relationship,” explains Jean Gauvin.

 

A valuable presence

 

Homelessness and insecurity are often associated with a range of prejudices. What if having a pet at your side made daily life more bearable?

 

A study published in March 2016 by the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph demonstrated that homeless youth with pets are three times less likely to be depressed or to adopt potentially dangerous behaviour, such as using hard drugs or engaging in other criminal acts. Moreover, these youth would confide more easily in veterinarians about what they were going through in daily life. Of the 198 street youth interviewed in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton, 98 had pets. At the time of the interviews, all of them were in shelters or stopping places.

 

For the lead researcher, Michelle Lem, “these results [should have] sounded the alarm to social service providers that don’t allow homeless people to stay in shelters with their pets, because they refuse to abandon them just to have access to a bed.” In addition, she argues that Canadians often don’t understand why a teenager might live on the streets.

 

“It’s usually due to a toxic atmosphere at home, trauma, abuse or harsh judgment from their family because they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” she explains. Pets allow them to avoid judgment and, in many cases, save their lives.

 

In addition to carrying out this study during her doctorate, Ms Lem was interested in the effects that having a pet might have on young adults in Ontario.

 

“Pets have beneficial effects on several psychosocial areas, including improved social relations and self-esteem (…) Research to date supports that having a pet for a homeless person can have two main advantages: [it] improve[s] social, emotional and physical health and also improve[s] the sense of responsibility of the individual who has to take care of the animal,” she states in her thesis, which was published in 2012.

 

Lem relies, in particular, on research from 2011 that examined the role of pets in the lives of homeless women in six major urban centres. The “[n]eed for companionship, unconditional acceptance, comfort, responsibility, health, therapeutic value and sense of security,” are the main benefits that are outlined therein.

 

Courtesy of L’Itinéraire / INSP.ngo

 

Translated by Melissina / Translators Without Borders

Top