If you visit Melbourne’s Wesley Uniting Church on the last Sunday of the month, you will find its historic church hall transformed into a mobile pet clinic.
Kittens, canines and even the occasional pet rat can be seen receiving medical check-ups from a team of volunteer veterinarians and vet nurses.
The clinic is run by Pets in the Park Melbourne, a volunteer organisation that provides free health checks, vaccinations and medication for pets of people who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.
“We usually have a really loud, raucous church,” Pets in the Park Central Melbourne administrator Carol Addicoat said.
“We have young children who own pets come with their parents, to people all the way up to their 70s.”
Pets in the Park was formed in 2009 by veterinarian Dr Mark Westman, who offered free vaccinations at a small park in Parramatta for the pets of people attending a community outreach program.
Since then, it has expanded to four states, with clinics in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and the Uniting Church Early Morning Centre in Canberra.
The first Melbourne clinic opened in Frankston three years ago. A second clinic was established at Wesley Uniting Church in 2016 to meet the needs of homeless people in the CBD.
Ms Addicoat said the arrangement with Wesley began during a visit to The Big Issue office, formerly located next to the church.
“We got asked by The Big Issue to come to their vendors. Our manager at the time, Dr Mark Kelman, had a talk with the minister at Wesley, Alistair Macrae,” she said.
“He said he would love to have us there and that it would be a very good use of the church hall.”
Approximately 30 to 40 people visit the clinic each month with their furry friends. They are greeted by a team of volunteers, which includes vets, vet nurses, support staff, administrators and photographers.
There are currently 158 Pets in the Park volunteers across its two Melbourne sites.
“We couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” Ms Addicoat said.
“Usually, we have three or four vets or vet nurses at each clinic. But we also have a lot of vets and vet nurses turning up to staff the produce table or give out medications if they need to take any home.
“We also have people who donate pet food. Donations come in from the public – toys, blankets, financial aid.”
For those sleeping rough on the streets or living in temporary accommodation, pets offer love and emotional support that they may not be able to find elsewhere.
Numerous studies have shown that pets can have a positive effect on physical, social and mental wellbeing.
“They bring companionship when people are lonely. Sometimes they’re their only friend,” Ms Addicoat said.
“Pets provide protection and they love you unconditionally. They are non-judgemental, although with cats I’m not quite sure!
“It also teaches responsibility. Being a good pet owner means you have someone to look after.”
However, the financial cost of caring for pets can quickly accumulate. Vaccinations, flea treatment, worming, de-sexing and micro-chipping all add up to hundreds of dollars every year.
Some pet owners face a heartbreaking choice: sacrifice their own welfare to pay for their pets or surrender their beloved companions to an animal shelter.
“We’re here to provide some support when things aren’t going so well,” Ms Addicoat said.
“For those that are at risk of homelessness because they can’t pay their rent or have a huge bill because of their pets, this service helps keep a roof over their heads.”
The stigma associated with homelessness can often lead to further social isolation. Ms Addicoat said it is vital that visitors to the clinic are welcomed and acknowledged as pet owners, rather than defined by their socio-economic status.
“When people come to the clinic, they’re happy that they are respected,” she said.
“No one wants to end up homeless so we are very non-judgmental about the way we work.
“And pets don’t care if you have money or not. They care if you have love – and you can see a lot of that at our clinics.”