What does it take to be a superhero? Blue tights? Red cape? Special powers? Nope. In Western Washington, we have our own heroes from Whatcom to Clark counties.

By Diana Mivelli

On a cold Saturday afternoon in downtown Seattle, pets and their owners have been lined up since before noon outside the Union Gospel Mission to get help for their animals.

The Doney Memorial Pet Clinic has opened its doors here on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of every month since 1985. Vets and other volunteers see an average of 40-70 cats and dogs (they’ve also seen rabbits, ferrets and even a pet rat) — for check-ups, vaccinations, nail clippings, ear treatments, wound care, medication and some blood work at no cost (flea treatment, however, costs $5).

“What’s amazing is that everything comes in from a truck. We walk into this empty room, bring tables, medical equipment. We bring everything to Union Gospel Mission each time and set it all up,” said Marti Richardson Casey, president of the board of directors.

The clinic has a pet food bank and distributes pet supplies. Sometimes, there’s a grooming station. To receive services the pets must be spayed/neutered. The clinic will provide vouchers to complete the surgery for free in partnership with The Seattle Animal Shelter Spay & Neuter Clinic.

“You’d be amazed at the relationship clients have with their pets. It gives them something to care about and makes them more functional. They take very good care of their pets and will take them to the vet before going to see the doctor themselves,” said Richardson Casey.

Of the volunteers, she says, “They work so hard. I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits and I’ve never seen a more hardworking and dedicated group of incredible people.”

Beck’s Place was founded in 2015 by Melanie Ryan to offer services to low-income residents of Snohomish County. One such service is the Foster Boarding Program, which helps families dealing with homelessness, illness, domestic violence (DV) and addiction.

“They want to get into treatment, they want to stay at a shelter, but they can’t bring their pet,” Ryan said. “Some won’t get services if they have to get rid of their animal. Especially in times of crisis, they need their pets. One thing we hear often is, ‘People never took care of me properly. I’m not going to do this to my pet.’”

Margaret Day-Bangs has been a volunteer foster mom for Beck’s Place for 1.5 years. She and her husband are currently fostering two dogs — Peanut, a 14-year-old Chihuahua, and Gunner, a four-year-old Chihuahua-Pitbull mix (!). They have their own dog Ziggy, a Chinese Crested Pomeranian, also 14. This is their fourth time fostering. “All the dogs have been wonderful. To be able to give people their dogs back after they’ve missed them for 30 to 60 days is wonderful,” she said.

Beck’s Place believes in a holistic approach, supporting both the animals and humans.

“We have something unique in what we provide and how we provide it. We are deeply committed to building a community. We get the feedback that it’s a community and a family for many people that we’ve served,” Ryan said.

But, what about dogs in less ideal circumstances? Dogs who’ve been surrendered. Dogs with an abundance of energy. Dogs that need a job to keep them engaged or they tear up the couch. “We want those dogs!” said Mairi Poisson dog handler and field research scientist at Conservation Canines. The nonprofit pairs handlers and dogs on research projects to locate wildlife scat samples. The dogs can quickly find samples across large areas and minimize sampling bias that come with electronics and traps. The collected samples are analyzed in a lab and provide “genetic, physiological, toxicological and dietary information that reveals the details of an ecological tapestry.”

When not in the field, the dogs live with handlers or at the facility in Eatonville. There are 16 active dogs and four retirees that are still part of the pack. “We’re at about peak capacity. We don’t want to take more dogs than we have work. We want them to be active and happy.”

These are last-chance shelter dogs that were running out of options when Conservation Canines found them. “We were able to give them this opportunity and they get what they needed. That’s true of the handlers as well. It’s a rescue to humans and the dogs,” said Poisson.

The biggest misconception is that little dogs cannot do the work. People are also surprised that they take shelter mutts and not purebreds, like German Shepherds, who have the sniffer traits. “It’s fun showing that these misfits mutts are the perfect ones for these jobs.”

Tom Otto and Shaun Sears have several things in common: they’re both arborists, skilled tree climbers and crazy about cats, so much so, they founded Cat Canopy Rescue and have been rescuing cats stuck in trees at no charge since 2009.

Otto is based in Olympia and travels as far south as Vancouver. Sears is in Woodinville and covers as far north as Bellingham.

How many cats have they rescued? “Shaun and I did a count and just in the last four years, it has to be about 1,500,” Otto said.

“We rescue more cats than anyone in the US,” Sears said. “We rescued 484 last year, not including the 150+ calls that need advice, even in other states.”

Otto says that people believe that cats are self-sufficient and can handle themselves.

“Cats need help sometimes when they get stuck. The most common thing we hear is, ‘They’ll come down when they get hungry.’”

He explained how the shape of cats’ claws helps with climbing but that same shape hampers their descent.

“We’ve rescued cats that have been stuck for 15 or 16 days. They don’t come down when they’re hungry,” Sears said. “When cats go up in trees, it’s a predatory-driven activity — they were chased up by another cat, dog or coyote. There are cases when we think the cat was chasing a squirrel, but most are chased.”

Sears has climbed 175 feet to rescue a cat. Usually it’s 65-95 feet but it can also be 15-20 feet, in which case they ask people to attempt the rescue with a ladder first.

“We don’t carry ladders. We’re tree climbers,” said Otto. “The best part of our day is to help someone get their cat out a tree. They think the cat is dead and it’s up 125 feet in the air. We’re cat people and not emasculated to say we love cats and we are cat guys.”

Animal heroes don’t work with just cats and dogs. The horse is a champion of freedom and strength, but the treatment some of these majestic creatures endure doesn’t do justice to their stature.

Kim Sgro, executive director at Northwest Equine Stewardship Center (NWESC), said overpopulation of horses has led to some 140,000 horses being killed yearly due to many factors, including abandonment and the costs to keep them. Many are placed in kill pens until trucks pick them up and drive them in deplorable conditions to Canada and Mexico to be killed.

Northwest Equine Stewardship Center

“It’s stunning considering the horse has been a symbol of this nation for so many years.”

NWESC helps rehabilitate horses with an on-site vet clinic. They work with local equine rescues to help neglected and abused horses get care and find forever homes.

“We take on equines and rehab them to a level where they can be sent back to the rescues and find lifelong loving homes.”

NWESC also hosts a gelding clinic with dozens of vet students per year from WSU working alongside skilled, experienced vets, which Sgro said, “exemplifies what we do. My favorite element of the job is collaboration. Nothing will be done if we try to exist as islands. Whether people, animals, or the nation. We need to collaborate, period.”

NWESC offers many other programs, including the Equine Facilitated Mental Health and Learning (EFMHL) Program where cruelty case horses that have been rehabilitated are helping children and adults dealing with PTSD and other traumas.

“The horses allow them to start to process their trauma in a well-versed way because that horse knows what that person has been through. Not a lot of programs are using horses that have recovered from their own trauma. They understand what trauma recovery looks and feels like. They are herd animals. They are dependent on accessing the energy of everything around them. If one horse moves, they are all alerted to it, even in a herd of 100. This is what makes a kill pen, transport, and slaughter so awful. Probably one of the most fear-filled experiences that any species could ever be in considering how emotionally in tune they are.”