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A Second Chance for Pets

news3The BirchBark Foundation provides a lifeline for pets whose owners are unable to pay vet bills

Yrelda Rodriguez’s 2-year-old Shih Tzu, Lacie, has come to feel more like a family member than a pet, especially after a doctor told Rodriguez she was incapable of having children.

But when Lacie was run over by a reckless driver, Rodgriguez—an agricultural worker who lives near Soledad—was faced with a terrible choice: come up with money she didn’t have for surgery, or put Lacie to sleep. “I was horrified,” Rodriguez says.

Her situation is not unique.

In her 14 years as a Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist in Capitola, Dr. Merrianne Burtch says she’s seen the same story play out time and time again—pet owners who love their pets deeply but don’t have the financial means to cope with an accident when it occurs.

Veterinary bills can easily run into the thousands of dollars—a cost that can be devastating for those who live paycheck to paycheck. And, unlike hospitals for humans, animal hospitals generally require payment up front before treatment can proceed.

To address this, Burtch launched The BirchBark Foundation in February. The Santa Cruz-based nonprofit provides resources to pet owners with limited financial means that can often mean the difference between life and death.

“There are many people who talk to me about selling things or not paying their mortgage to pay for their pet because of how precious they are to their daily well-being,” says Burtch, BirchBark’s founder and director. “Those are the people we’re trying to help.”

Rodriguez found out about BirchBark from a secretary at the animal hospital she’d taken Lacie to, and later that day she was able to get the assistance she needed to pay for Lacie’s surgery. Months later, Rodriguez says Lacie has made a full recovery.

“Now you look at her and you can’t even tell she was smashed by a car,” Rodriguez says. “If BirchBark hadn’t been there … I don’t know what would’ve happened.”  

Since it began accepting applications for grants six months ago, the BirchBark Foundation has helped 14 other pet owners on the Central Coast.

The organization works from two different angles to provide assistance. By making arrangements with local animal hospitals, it’s able to reduce the cost of a given procedure by about 25 percent. Then, with money raised through donations, BirchBark pays for 50 percent of the operation—requiring pet owners to put up only 25 percent of the cost. Procedures BirchBark has helped with ranged from $1,300 to $6,500.

The idea came to Burtch four years ago, but began to take shape last year when she turned to her friend and client Bunny Tavares to help realize her vision.

Tavares, an independent marketing and media consultant, is no stranger to love and loss when it comes to pets. Since she met Burtch more than 12 years ago, she’s lost both a dog and a cat to cancer.

After committing herself to the BirchBark Foundation, Tavares worked tirelessly with Burtch for a year doing research and raising the initial donations. Now, as BirchBark’s unpaid executive director, Tavares fields up to 25 calls a week from distraught pet owners seeking help. A rigorous application process makes sure applicants have demonstrable financial need.

“Every single person I talk to means that person knows about BirchBark and can help spread the word that we’re here to help,” Tavares says.

The organization, which set a goal of doling out $50,000 in grants over its first year of operations, has awarded $30,000 in the first six months of giving grants. Grants are dependent on fundraising success, which has been encouraging so far. A boost to these efforts is on the horizon: BirchBark will be the recipient of Whole Foods Capitola’s Nickels for Nonprofits program from November to January. The program donates the $.05 cost of a paper bag to a local nonprofit.

Going forward, Burtch and Tavares have high hopes for the foundation’s future. In the long-term, they have plans to establish a hospice program to provide relief for dying pets and their owners, as well as a respite program, where volunteers will watch over sick animals at their owner’s home.

Both women say that while BirchBark is still trying to establish a solid foundation, they’re proud of what it has achieved so far.

“We vacillate between anxiety over whether or not we’ll be able to keep it going,” says Burtch, “and pride and a lot of hope in our community, because without that we never could have made this work.”

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