Streetwise help for people and their pets

A person cradling a dog while another person checks out his feet at a Ruff Haven Crisis Sheltering clinic
Ruff Haven Crisis Sheltering, formed in the midst of the pandemic, is blazing trails in Utah with new, innovative community sheltering services.
By John Polis

A veteran of more than 20 years in social work, Kristina Pulsipher has a thousand stories of people she’s met along the way: stories of career professionals and people looking for work, homeowners and people looking for housing, rich and poor, young and old. The contrasts are stark, but there’s also a common thread: The separation between one person’s accomplishments and another’s struggles is often the narrowest of margins.

Add in, then, that 70% of U.S. households (or about 90.5 million families) have pets and another stark dynamic emerges: When things go off the rails with people, regardless of their position in society, beloved pets are often caught in the aftermath.

In early 2020, Kristina and a group of friends — noticing the rather large gap between social services for people and similar services for pets — came up with an idea for an organization that focused on pet retention. They would offer services that would make it easier for people and pets to stay together, especially when times are tough.

[Where animal welfare and social services meet]

“When I started working in criminal justice, I noticed that people couldn’t take their pets when they had to go to court and had no one to care for them,” says Kristina, who began her career as a case worker with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. The new organization would, right from the start, provide people with a place to board their pets for short periods of time.

Once the brainstorming began, the group came up with all kinds of other ways to connect people and pets with needed services: vaccination clinics, a food bank, spay/neuter — hopefully all of it free. They also discussed hospitalization, domestic violence, job loss and other difficult topics that affected pets’ relationships with their people. Little did the group know, with the COVID-19 pandemic just around the corner, that they would soon have plenty of opportunities to put their ideas into practice.

Slow growth, thoughtful planning

By June of 2020, the group founded Ruff Haven Crisis Sheltering in Salt Lake City. For so many reasons it was a difficult time to start a new organization. But with the pandemic raging around them, the founding group took it slow, allowing time for careful, thoughtful planning. They needed to determine what services could they offer and how soon they could begin.

“When we started, the first thing was to do a pet shelter and get that under our feet first,” Kristina says. “We were successful in avoiding something that affects all new nonprofits — trying to do everything at once. We started with short-term fostering. Then we added grooming. And then we did the first free drive-up vaccination clinic in Utah when all the other clinics were shut down due to the pandemic.”

Two years later, Ruff Haven’s philosophy of careful, controlled growth has paid off. It still offers short-term fostering for various groups of people, but also hosts free clinics, a free food pantry and an assortment of other services. A volunteer vet comes in once a month. Walk-ins are encouraged. There are no minimum income requirements and questions are limited to a few on a person’s background.

Winning the Spirit of Service Award

Ruff Haven’s groundbreaking work, which is attracting attention around the state, was recognized by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who in June presented the organization with one of his Spirit of Service awards. In its brief history, Ruff Haven has also established relational partnerships with businesses and organizations all around the United States.

Filling a variety of needs

Tracy Kelley, strategist for Best Friends in Salt Lake City who is part of the Mountain West region staff working to move shelters toward no-kill status (achieving a save rate of at least 90%), says: “Our focus is providing support to shelters and helping them build their capacity to save more lives so they can become no-kill and remain no-kill. By providing foster care to pets whose families otherwise can't afford boarding, Ruff Haven has filled a long-needed niche that keeps pets out of the shelters, which, in turn, reduces the burdens placed on the shelters, and, of course, keeps these pets with their families.”

[Animal Welfare Should Tear Down Walls to Pet Ownership]

Temma Martin, Utah public relations manager for Best Friends who has worked in animal welfare in Salt Lake City since 1993, says requests from the public for temporary care are something she’s heard for years: “It was heartbreaking for so many years that I had to tell people that a temporary foster program would be amazing; however, such a thing did not exist. I was so grateful when I first heard about Ruff Haven. I knew what an incredible impact it would have on people and pets needing short-term help. Plus, Ruff Haven and other organizations like it are needed now more than ever because so many shelters across the country are at (or over) capacity.”

Treating everyone with compassion

What has enabled a fledgling organization to make such an immediate impact in Utah community animal sheltering? It starts with Ruff Haven’s passionate group of unpaid volunteers who work long hours to keep the wheels turning. “All of us have connection with our own pets, which has helped us all think about things differently,” Kristina says.

“Being in social work for so long and seeing people who have a stigma because of their individual situations, I noticed that for the most part their pets (of people needing services) were all well taken care of,” she adds. “It’s just that some pet owners don’t have a roof over their heads all the time. We try to go out and help everyone and treat everyone we meet with compassion.”

Out among the unsheltered

Ruff Haven staff members go directly into encampments in Salt Lake City to see how they can provide help to unsheltered people who have pets. “We’ve noticed that 99.9% of the people we interact with are so friendly,” Kristina says. “They are great pet parents. We want to be anywhere we can figure out how to keep pets and their people together. One thing we wondered about was how do sheltered people get pet licenses. So, we went out and got special permission from the county to issue pet licenses directly.”

For Kristina, who works in the criminal justice field with adults, helping people deal with life’s challenges hits pretty close to home. “For a time, my brother dealt with substance abuse,” she says. “That has helped me better understand the families, children and adults I’ve worked with in social services, as well as here at Ruff Haven.”

Helping to spearhead domestic abuse legislation

Ruff Haven was instrumental in getting a bill passed through both houses of the Utah State Legislature and signed into law in April of this year by Gov. Cox. The new law enables victims of domestic violence to include their pets in domestic violence protective orders, working alongside the Humane Society of Utah and Utah State Rep. Angela Romero, the sponsor of HB 175.

According to the Humane Society of Utah, nearly 50% of domestic violence victims have delayed leaving their abusers out of fear of harm to their pets. Abusers often use threats of violence against a victim’s pet as a psychological tool to manipulate and further control the victim.

Kristina says, “Survivors of domestic violence now have a path to leave their abuser, ensure their pets are protected and take comfort in knowing there are now options in place to secure their safety. This statute will literally save lives.”

[New Report Shows How Social Vulnerability Affects Lifesaving]

Ruff Haven has barely gotten started, but already has quite a stack of accomplishments. There will be increasing responsibilities and added services, but Kristina emphasizes that plans are to remain true to Ruff Haven’s original founding idea: being ready to help people in crisis in any way possible so that they can remain with their pets.

Says Kristina: “We’ve talked to a lot of people and heard their stories. Someone lives a nice lifestyle, gets COVID, loses a job, gets fired, loses a house, gets a divorce, loses a loved one. We need to be ready to help pets and people in these situations. Everyone is someone’s child, brother or spouse. It can happen to any of us at any moment.”