Pet Project: How Pets for Life is making a difference in Baton Rouge

Paula Shaw will be the first to admit it: An unexpected knock on the door can send even the most social of citizens scrambling behind the curtains, peeping out with one round eye to see who dares cross her lawn uninvited. But for the residents of some Baton Rouge neighborhoods, Shaw and her coworker Robin Prestridge have long been a familiar presence—especially to some of the furriest faces howling at the bell.

In 2017, Shaw began canvassing the 70802 and 70805 ZIP codes as Companion Animal Alliance’s coordinator of Pets for Life, the local branch of the Humane Society of the United States’ organization dedicated to providing free veterinary care and much-needed supplies to pet owners in underserved communities. She and Prestridge try to devote several hours twice a week to the task, and in January 2022 expanded their range to the ZIP codes 70807, 70815 and 70791.

“When I started to become involved with CAA, I really began to notice how many people were distraught when they came in to surrender their animal, or when an animal was seized from them,” says Shaw. “After the floods of 2016, for example, a lot of people basically had no other choice, but the bond between these communities and their pets was obviously so important.”

What they needed, she realized, was a support system. Many of the residents in those ZIP codes live below the poverty line with little to no access to transportation. So, when Shaw comes knocking, she observes what animals she finds and asks what the pet owners need, often showing up to surprised faces the next day when she delivers on her promises of collars, leashes, doghouses, food and other necessities. She also uses the services of spay and neuter programs, the pet food bank supplied by public food drives, and the organization’s Amazon wishlist, along with donations managed by Emily Lemoine, CAA’s director of grants and communication.

“We’re very focused on people and figuring out why some communities struggle to care for pets in the first place,” says Lemoine. “Much of what Pets for Life does is help investigate things like systemic poverty, institutional discrimination, housing insecurity, mass incarceration, segregation, education barriers, and implicit bias, to name a few.”

Lemoine and Shaw also work to ensure that their messaging strays far from a savior narrative, offering a no-judgment zone centered on community and outreach. 

“When we drive by and see a dog on a chain in a yard, for example, the attitude isn’t to go in and break the chains and take the dog, but to reinforce the fence, supply a doghouse, and provide things like heartworm treatment,” says Lemoine.

With the Baton Rouge branch having recently received the 2022 Championship Belt award from the Humane Society in honor of its work, and now serving as a training site for other Pets for Life programs, Shaw knows that the organization has the power to create real change.

“Pets belong with their people, we always say,” says Shaw. “There’s always more to a person’s story than meets the eye.”