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A home after death 

A local hospice takes care of the pets of the terminally ill

Walking into the headquarters of Hospice of San Luis Obispo is rarely fun. The old Victorian house creaks under your feet, and the décor is reminiscent of a well-run funeral home. Though the people who work there are kind and understanding, there’s a sadness that permeates the walls and bears down on visitors.

- FIDO LIVES :  This dog will likely survive and thrive even after its master has passed away. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • FIDO LIVES : This dog will likely survive and thrive even after its master has passed away.

Hospice workers, due to the nature of their calling, seem to wear the trauma of their work on their faces and in their voices. So it’s a welcome change for them to talk about saving something for the people they care for.

Hospice of San Luis Obispo is a mostly volunteer organization that works to help the terminally ill and to ensure no one dies alone.

For many people, dying may be harder than it would otherwise be with the knowledge that passing means they’re leaving their pets behind, not knowing what will happen to them. Though no one wants those pets to wind up in the county animal shelter and eventually be euthanized, that can happen.

In fact, it’s something that happens every day, hospice workers say.

But recently, some hospitals and hospices have started a program that may slow this quiet massacre. It’s called Pet Peace of Mind, and, however banal the name, the service is beginning to both rescue animals from the clutches of the pound and give the dying the comfort of knowing that their pets will be OK.

Hospice of San Luis Obispo began its version of the program in June with help from a grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust. Local volunteers hope the program will continue to operate on donations.

Kris Kington-Barker, executive director of Hospice of San Luis Obispo, discovered the positive effect of animals when two of her friends died.

“Both of them had animals in their lives,” Kington-Barker said. “We could incorporate the animal into the death experience with one of them. The difference was tremendous.”

As people live longer, they’re replacing their long-gone children with pets, she explained.

“These animals have been in these homes for a long period of time, and so the animals have aged with them,” Kington-Barker said. “And they really think of them as a really huge part of their family.”

When she heard there was a pilot program starting, Kington-Barker jumped at the chance to enlist.

“We’re the only volunteer hospice program doing this,” she said. “There are only three programs like this in California.”

Volunteers will take pets out for walks, wash them, and do whatever it takes to help them and their owners.

Aside from the obvious pluses, there are hidden benefits to the program, Kington-Barker said. People who are sick are sometime reluctant to seek treatment. The program may encourage those who would shun help for themselves.

The program has taken care of five animals so far: all dogs.

“One lady reached out to make sure her dog would get walked and have
the fun that he likes,” Kington-Barker said. “Because of this, we were able to get her resources that she wouldn’t have got unless she had called because of her dog.”

From an animal’s perspective, the program is all gravy.

When a pet owner dies, SLO County Animal Services takes the animal and tries to find a relative to take care of it. Unfortunately, many of the animals are older and not likely to get adopted.

“We think we’re really well placed to help find the dog an appropriate match,” said Sonny Brown, director of volunteers. “We can put them in a family that is similar to the one that they are used to.”

“We’re really the voice of the animal,” said Molly Todd, events coordinator. “We can give them the background that they wouldn’t have [if they were adopted through the animal shelter].”

Hospice workers said they’ll be able to take care of any animal after the owner has passed on. Dogs, cats, rodents, amphibians, and even horses can be cared for, they say.

The crucial benefit of the program is the guarantee that the animals of those who are dying won’t end up in the pound. 

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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