- Associated Press - Friday, April 22, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - It was the late 1980s and the mysterious deadly disease striking gay men had become a four letter word.

Beyond a name however, little was known about AIDS, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1qXeVwD ) reports. Doctors could only offer comfort and tell those with the new diagnosis to get their affairs in order. The disease also brought isolation, with friends and family falling away.

Those facing imminent death took comfort in their pets, loyal companions through the dark times.

But those pets would often outlive their owners, leaving an animal’s care and future in jeopardy. Those with AIDS would often get so sick they could no longer care for their pets. The financial burden of treating their illness forced owners to give their pets away.

Longtime gay rights activist Michael Mullen remembers story after story of those with AIDS being hospitalized for extended periods, coming home to find their pets had starved to death.

Something had to be done to care for the pets of those with HIV, Mullen said.

He came upon a magazine article about an organization in Marin County, California, where volunteers stepped forward to foster pets or help care for them so that the owner could stay with his companion to the end.

Mullen talked with his friends. One put up $500 in seed money. They created a network of volunteers to help walk dogs and provide whatever other assistance was needed. In 1991, their efforts became a nonprofit, Pets Are Wonderful Support, better known as PAWS.

The program now serves about 70 people a year, with an additional 85 on a waiting list. With the advances in HIV care, what was once certain death is now treated as a chronic disease. As a result, owners are now outliving their pets. The focus of PAWS had to shift.

“Since HIV has evolved, so has the program,” said Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, coordinator of the PAWS program, now a part of the services provided by St. Louis Effort For AIDS. Instead of trying to find homes for pets, the agency provides assistance with vet bills, pet food and cat litter - whatever it takes to ensure that owner and pet can live long lives together.

But with that shift has come a need for more funds and donated services. So the waiting list grows for PAWS, with a budget of just $37,000.

Hyrum Griffin found out about PAWS 15 years ago from his doctor. At the time, he had two Weimaraners and a new puppy, a pug named Pixie. Griffin’s health wasn’t good, and he was on disability.

“I was afraid I’d have to get rid of my dogs,” Griffin said. “If you can’t love them and take care of them, you’re abusing them.”

PAWS came through with vet care and food.

Griffin, now 60, lives in the Central West End with two dogs. Toby, a poodle and Maltese mix, begs for attention and serves as an alarm system, barking at the slightest noise. Then there is Pixie, who Griffin thought he would have to give away when she was a puppy. She moves slowly, avoids stairs and holds court from the couch.

Pixie recently had to have some teeth pulled. PAWS paid for it.

“Without them I’d be so lost,” Griffin said of his dogs, Toby cradled in his arms. “They give me so much joy. I’m having a rough time of it. That’s why my pets are so important to me. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably be a lot less healthy.”

St. Louis veterinarian Ed Migneco, with Hillside Animal Hospital, has been a longtime partner of PAWS.

“There’s a lot of research out there that having a pet has benefits,” Migneco said, including lowering blood pressure and stress.

Knowing that a pet can make someone with HIV feel better “is something I like to think about,” Migneco said. But he also knows that when someone has a compromised immune system, it’s important they have a healthy pet. There are diseases that can be transmitted from dogs and cats to their owners such as intestinal parasites, ringworm and rabies.

“This is my small way of helping. I’m really fortunate with the way things have gone in my life,” said Migneco.

Christopher Arnold was 18 when he was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago. It’s been a struggle, but he always thought assistance from agencies such as PAWS should be reserved for those “in a worse situation.”

However, during a health setback in December, his orange tabby, Baxter, got sick.

“I couldn’t do anything for that little cat. He had an allergic reaction to something in my house,” said Arnold, of Pevely. The idea of a vet bill seemed out of reach. Arnold is on disability after back and neck surgery to treat a degenerative bone disease. PAWS took care of the vet bill.

“When I come home, I can say ‘Baxter’ and he will come running to greet me. Every time I get sick, he sits on my lap while I cry it out,” Arnold said.

Griffin found out he was HIV positive in 1984. A diagnosis then usually meant death in a few months. He saw that with his friends.

“All of them are gone,” he said. “I had planned my funeral for years. But I got tired of thinking ‘this is my last Easter, this is my last Christmas.’”

Now, Griffin focuses on his dogs. They remind him he is needed and loved. The loud snoring of Pixie. The shrill barks of Toby. What is noise to others is creature comfort for Griffin.

PAWS continues to add partners so that it can expand its reach. Clients are referred to Bi-State Pet Food Pantry and Carol House Quick Fix Clinic, among others. Migneco, the veterinarian, said he has helped pet owners who are not in the PAWS program, knowing there is a waiting list but not all animal health care can wait.

For Mullen, he finds it hard to believe it’s been more than 25 years since he started PAWS with a small group of friends out of his house. He is heartened by the advance in HIV care and grateful to all that have helped pets stay with their owners.

“It just makes me beam to think about it,” Mullen said.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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