Chico homeless find comfort in animal companions
There’s an old joke that construes what a homeless guy’s dog must be thinking: “Man, this is the longest walk I’ve ever been on.”
They are hard to miss in Chico—these companions sitting in the park, cruising the sidewalks, hanging out near the convenience store. Just like any segment of the population that’s not fully understood, it’s easy to stereotype and condemn the human half of these relationships and accuse them of irresponsibility and animal abuse. Hey, they can’t take care of themselves, for goodness’ sake.
Robin Tripp is well aware of this perception. About a year ago she read a letter to the editor published in the Enterprise-Record that basically said homeless people should not have pets.
“I had to respond to that,” Tripp said. “So I decided to write a letter to the paper and explain my goals.”
Those goals included starting a community organization called Chico Homeless Animal Outreach (CHAO). Her letter was noticed and Tripp said she got good responses from the public. It also caught the attention of Valerie Caruso, a Paradise veterinarian who, for the past four years, has hosted free quarterly veterinary clinics in the parking lot behind the Jesus Center on Park Avenue. Tripp, Caruso and a woman named Annie Cox now sit on the CHAO board of directors, and, with a couple of volunteers, administer the free clinics four times a year.
The most recent was held July 12 and about two dozen animals were brought in for examination and treatment.
“What I try to do is preventative health care to keep their pets healthy so they don’t have crises where they can’t afford to treat their pets,” Caruso explained. “I do vaccines, dewormings and flea and tick control.”
Caruso also offers spaying and neutering at her Companions Animal Hospital in Paradise. Tripp helps arrange transportation to the Ridge and back. The procedures cost the pet owner $10, which Caruso donates to either a homeless shelter or TOPCats on the Ridge, a Paradise organization that provides for the welfare of feral, homeless and abandoned cats. She can hold the clinics only every three months because she must also tend to her regular practice.
Tripp and Cox get the word out about the service by driving around town and stopping when they come upon an apparently homeless person with a pet.
“We stop and have food and water in the truck,” Tripp said. “When it’s really cold, we have coats that we give them. Then we have leashes and paw protectors for the summer. If there is going to be a clinic coming up, we tell them to come to the Jesus Center.”
Caruso, whose job is to maintain the health of the humans’ furry companions, said those that are homeless are not necessarily worse off than those that are housed. The relationship is important to both sides in terms of food, protection and companionship.
“I’ve seen very few mistreated and neglected dogs,” she said. “It’s the exception, not the rule. These people often share their own food with their pets.”
Clem Edwards is a street musician with a singing companion named Muddy Waters, a hefty brown Labrabor with warm golden eyes. When Edwards plays the harmonica, Muddy throws his head back and howls into the air. They are regular performers at the Saturday farmers’ market, where customers offer them money for their act.
Muddy is 5 years old and, according to Edwards, eats better then he does.
“I used to weigh 220 when I was in the Marine Corps,” he said. “Now I’m losing weight and he’s gaining it. He’s got all the shots.”
Muddy is very important to Edwards.
“He got arrested by animal control and I had to play music overtime to make the money to get him out of the shelter,” he said. “I made the money and went to the shelter with 76 bucks. It cost me 75 bucks to get him out. I left there with my dog and a dollar.”
Edwards was born in Long Beach, moved here with his family as a child and grew up in Chico.
He said he met Muddy about five years ago while playing his guitar on the sidewalk next to Tres Hombres. A young couple walked by with a cardboard box full of puppies. Edwards had recently lost his canine companion. He picked Muddy, he said, because of the guitar-shaped marking on the dog’s chest.
“He’s got this electric guitar on his chest, so I said, ‘I’ll take this one. How much?’”
The couple said $40 and Edwards told them to come back in a couple of hours and he’d have the money. When they came back they told him he could have the puppy for free, but only if he took the entire litter.
“So I got this box full of puppies and I write ‘Free Puppies’ on the box,” he said. “I take him out and place him in my guitar case. They all got dispersed in a couple hours. That is how I got him. Now he’s my lead singer.
“He is the best dog I’ve had. During the daytime he likes to snooze, but at night he’s on point and I can go to sleep. He’ll be lying next to me and if anybody comes up, this dog’s on them. He is territorial; that’s how dogs are and this is why I have a dog. I’ve lived outside for seven years.”
Thomas “Digger” Lake and his cat, Spot, are fixtures in downtown Chico, where they are regulars at the corner of First and Main streets, greeting passersby and passively asking for change. They’ve been together for eight years and recently added two members to the family—Blackie, a male cat, and a female named Stray.
“They just kind of showed up,” Lake said. “I leave Spot’s food out at night and that drew them in. They all eat before I do.”
Spot and Stray are fixed, he said, but Blackie is not. Someone recently gave him a card with Tripp’s name and number and they have been in touch.
He said people who walk past him on the sidewalk offer varying reactions.
“Some turn and say, ‘Get a job.’ I’ll say, ‘I have one. Have a pleasant day, sir.’ Some are genuinely concerned about my welfare. The cats keep me out of trouble.”