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Southwest PA Kennel a 'Blessing' for Those in Crisis

Erika Beras
90.5 WESA

In rural Lawrence County, part way between Slippery Rock and New Castle, there's a repurposed farm building sitting on 42 acres of land.

Eleven people call it home, and on site there are mental health workers, a director and other staff.

There's also close to a dozen dogs and cats.

That's because the facility, known as the Caritas House, is not just an enhanced personal care home for those with serious mental illness. It's also a crisis center for pets.

The people who live at Caritas House work on site at a neighboring building. Among the things they do is take care of pets that need care while their owners are in crisis situation, such as going into a facility for inpatient psychiatric stay, entering rehab or staying at a domestic violence shelter — places they can’t bring their pets.

"Many times people don’t want to go into the hospital because they are concerned about their pets," said Steve Plyler, the organization’s residential director. "Many times ladies don’t go into a shelter because they are concerned about their pets being left with someone who will abuse them, and so they are less likely to seek treatment."

Plyler said the residents are there by a variety of means. 

"Some were living in the state hospital or other residential facilities and just got to the point where they need this level of care," he said.

When Mary Beth Weatherby appears in the kennel, the dogs jump with excitement at the sight of her. The 53-year-old has bipolar disorder and has lived at Caritas House for the last three years. She's one of the residents who takes care of the dogs and cats at the kennel.

"When I see the dogs early in the morning and they are barking ... I love that," she said. "It just touches my heart ... I get real happy, because I love the dogs, I love what I’m doing."

The kennel opened last year, the first short-term pet crisis shelter in this region.

People from all over Southwestern Pennsylvania can bring their pets in for up to a month, although accommodations are made for people who need to be away longer. Run by a nonprofit called Human Services Center, the grant-funded kennel is free and currently operating at full capacity – room for five dogs and six cats.

Jamie Cochran, the vocational supervisor at Caritas House, said that while the program benefits those who drop their pets off to seek care, it also has a tremendous benefit to the residents of Caritas House. She said it gives them a sense of purpose because they can earn a paycheck without having to go into a traditional work environment.

"A lot of the difficulties are that our clients have severe mental health issues and a lot of them are very paranoid when they are out in the community … it's easy for them to work here, where there is not a lot of pressure on them," she said. 

Cochran said it's initially difficult on the pets, who don’t understand why they are in an unfamiliar place without their owners. But they also respond to and connect with their temporary caregivers.

"The animals understand our clients have a disability and are very gentle with our clients … so it's kind of a win-win situation for the animals and our clients that provide service," she said.

When John Rand and his longtime girlfriend broke up, he needed a place for his dog Loki, an Akita-Pitbull mix, while he found himself an apartment and got his life back together.

"It was a blessing but it was hard," he said. "It was rough. I mean, I’m a 6’4", 200-something-pound male that cried like a 4-year-old girl."

Loki spent nearly three weeks at the shelter.

"I don’t feel secure leaving my dog anywhere without me, but when I went there I was still skeptical and I met Jamie and I saw the facilities…" he said. "I felt fine with it."