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Tulsa nonprofit that helps patients with pet care sees jump in demand

A Pause4Paws client is reunited with her dog.
Pause4Paws
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A Pause4Paws client is reunited with her dog.

When Ayla Lehmann was searching for a dog for her three-year-old son, a friend pointed her to some acquaintances in Pittsburg, Kansas. There, she met a dog that stood out from its litter.

“He’s missing a foot on one of his back feet. They were looking at him and were like, ‘We’re just going to put him down.’ But I was like, ‘No, I’ll take him,’” said Lehmann.

She named the Husky-Mastiff mix Aries. He’s been Lehmann’s companion for nine years and has seen her through a lot, including an abusive relationship. Lehmann said the dog hid with her when she was trying to escape violence.

“You don’t find dogs that do that.”

Aries.
Pause4Paws
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Courtesy
Aries.

Aries was there when Lehmann sought treatment for addiction. She needed to go to rehab but there was nowhere for Aries to stay. A social worker told her about Pause4Paws, a Tulsa nonprofit dedicated to pet owners dealing with homelessness, addiction, or mental illness. The organization found a foster for Aries and even sent Lehmann pictures while she was recovering.

“The pictures helped me tremendously. It gave me hope.”

Lehmann’s story is becoming more common in Tulsa, according to Evan Taylor. He’s the new and first full-time executive director of Pause4Paws. From 2022 to 2023, Taylor said demand for foster services increased 140%.

“We obviously know that people experiencing homelessness and these other mental health crises and addictions in Tulsa is huge,” said Taylor.

Pause4Paws operates on a referral basis, Taylor said. A social worker recommends a client who needs inpatient treatment, then the nonprofit makes arrangements for the client’s animals. Pets are given medical treatment and are spayed or neutered before going to a foster who’s not expected to bear expenses for the pet.

The process, which is funded by donations, is anonymous. Foster families and clients never meet, though the services provided are personal. Taylor said pet care is sometimes a major decision in whether or not someone seeks care.

“For people struggling with these issues, it’s their only family sometimes. And they will pass up getting care, they’ll keep living in their car, they’ll keep staying on the street, they’ll keep doing drugs because they feel like they don’t have anyone to care for their pet while they’re in treatment,” said Taylor.

Amanda Lair decided to foster for Pause4Paws after her dog died. A puppy named Malachi was her first charge. Now, she works for the nonprofit as a case manager coordinating care. She said fosters are needed, especially for large dogs.

“Just recently we have run into the challenge of not having enough fosters to cover the pets that come into the program. What that means is that the owner does not get to go to treatment,” said Lair.

1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.