It’s a perfect, blue-sky Sunday afternoon in Sydney’s inner-city Darlinghurst and the yard beside St John’s church is a lively scene: part carnival, part picnic, part vet clinic. There’s a set of gambolling puppies, an inquisitive older Staffie with a nose for trouble, a tortoiseshell cat perched haughtily on her owner’s knee, a twitchy rabbit peeking out from under the lid of a cardboard box and dozens more animals on blankets, in boxes and on leads. Their human companions—only slightly more dishevelled than your average Darlinghurst crowd—make the most of the sunshine and the opportunity to exchange yarns.
Dr Mark Westman kneels on the grass and tousles the head of a black-and-tan ‘bitser’. Then he joins the team of volunteer vets and nurses who have already set up their tables and begun the afternoon’s round of health checks. Westman founded Pets in the Park to provide free healthcare to animals whose owners are experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty.
“As you can see,” says Westman, “many people who are homeless own pets that play a significant role in their lives. These animals offer unconditional love, companionship, emotional support and security. Sometimes they provide the motivation to get their owners out of homelessness, away from drugs or alcohol and into a better place in their lives. All the pets we see are much loved and cared for—I’ve known people to go without food so their pets could eat—but caring for an animal comes at a significant financial cost. There are vaccinations, de-sexing and microchipping, regular flea treatments and worming. Pets in the Park can help out with all of that.”
Pets in the Park began, on a similarly balmy Sunday five years ago, when Westman turned up at a Parramatta soup kitchen, carrying a fold-out table and an esky stocked with vaccines and treatments that he’d bought himself.
He’d been inspired by a friend who worked at the soup kitchen and had told him that many of their human clients brought animals along. Westman had recently returned from a couple of stints volunteering with animal charities abroad—Vets Beyond Borders in India and PhaNgan Animal Care in Thailand—and was looking for an opportunity to continue his work with animals (and by extension humans) in need at home.
In its early months, the clinic at Parramatta was a one-vet show. From time to time, he roped in friends and colleagues but, for the most part, it was just Westman and his esky, which he increasingly stocked with meds donated by the Animal Welfare League, where he worked. (The indefatigable Westman now works part-time at the RSPCA and full-time on a PhD in shelter medicine.)
It didn’t take long for word of his one-man mission to get around and, over time, he accrued a team of volunteers. “The vet community is very altruistic,” he smiles (Westman smiles a lot). “Vets and nurses always want to do more.”
In 2012, another vet, Leah Skelsey, and two enthusiastic vet nurses, Linda Warlond and Vicki Cawsey, came on board, and encouraged Westman to take Pets in the Park to the next level. Together, they established the second clinic at Darlinghurst, registered the organisation as a charity, grew the volunteer list exponentially and attracted a team of corporate sponsors.
“We got a bit of a name for ourselves,” Westman grins, “and a reputation for doing things efficiently. We work with respected human service providers to screen our clients, so sponsors and volunteers know that we’re helping those people and animals who are most in need. Once we’d developed that reputation, it was easier to get corporate sponsorship. Now, with corporates donating the products and volunteers donating their time, it’s become a sustainable project. And everyone at Pets in the Park works voluntarily, so we have no administration costs. Every cent that’s donated goes to animals in need.”
Pets in the Park now operates two monthly general health clinics and
a quarterly desexing clinic in Sydney.
“The desexing clinic was our greatest challenge,” says Westman. “Initially, I was thinking about my experience overseas and, maybe a bit naively, I thought we could do it all in the park, but the regulatory bodies said no to that one. So we now operate the desexing clinic out of a vet practice that donates its surgery space. Once every three months, Hanrob donates a pet taxi van to collect the animals from Darlinghurst and Parramatta and transports them to and from the clinic and we staff the clinic with volunteer vets and nurses. There are a lot of organisational cogs in that but the end result is that our clients trust us to take their animals away for the day, they understand why the procedure is important, the pets are desexed in an A-grade hospital and get top level care.
“We work on a similar system when animals need surgery. We’re setting up networks of partner clinics that volunteer to do a certain number of surgeries per year free of charge. It might only be three but every one helps. We organise the transport to get the animal to and from the clinic, we talk to the client and pass on all the information they need, so there’s no direct interaction between the client and the clinic. It works well for everyone.”
In the coming year, Westman hopes to expand that network and increase the spread of the monthly clinics to other parts of Sydney. He’s also keen to find a small team of volunteers who could transplant the Pets in the Park model to a country town or an interstate capital.
“It would be great to see more programs set up under the Pets in the Park umbrella,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of the legwork now. We have a model, we’ve built a reputation, we have corporate sponsors who are keen to roll this out nationally, so it would be relatively simple for other groups of vets and nurses to set up local branches.
“It’s just a matter of finding the right volunteers who understand the model and have the enthusiasm and the leadership to take responsibility for the next clinic. It takes a special sort of person to say, yes, I’m going to commit to this, but I’m hopeful. Perhaps someone who reads this article will be that special type of person…”