Dr. Ariella Samson, left, and vet tech Abrielle Rendar, right, give a shot to Charles, a Yorkie and Chihuahua mix
Dr. Ariella Samson, left, and vet tech Abrielle Rendar, right, give a shot to Charles, a Yorkie and Chihuahua mix owned by Michael Petty of Wilkinsburg, center. Photo by John Beale.

J.J. Rush sat patiently in the hot sun in a South Side parking lot while his cat, Tyson, nestled in a pet carrier strapped across Rush’s chest.

Tyson’s treats and dish were stashed in the pockets of Rush’s cargo shorts.
“He’s healthy and loved,” Rush, of Bloomfield, says of his 1-year-old, gray-and-white feline. 

Because Rush is unemployed, he can’t afford regular veterinary care for Tyson.
So Rush brought him to a Street Dog Coalition event on Aug. 3 at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community hoping to obtain updated shots and a wellness exam for his cat.
Launched in 2015 in Fort Collins, Colorado, the nationwide coalition provides free vaccines and other veterinary care for pets owned by homeless people and other at-risk individuals. 

In Pittsburgh, where The Street Dog Coalition has operated since 2019, Humane Animal Rescue Pittsburgh (HARP) and Allegheny Health Network are expanding the concept to offer more services to pets — as well as medical care to their owners — through a new initiative called the Humane Health Coalition. 

Beginning in September, staffers plan to hit the road in a mobile unit where they can enhance the routine pet care they now offer. 

HARP has acquired a mobile unit that features anesthesia and surgical units, a wet sink, an exam table, built-in cages and seating for pet owners. 

J.J. Rush and his cat, Tyson
J.J. Rush and his cat, Tyson, arrive early for Tyson to be examined at the Humane Animal Rescue’s Street Dog Coalition event. Photo by John Beale.

While HARP vets and technicians attend to the pets, nurses, social workers and mental health professionals from AHN address medical issues for their human owners. 

“The goal has always been a health initiative for pets and people,” says Dr. Ariella Samson, assistant executive director of veterinary care and shelter operations for HARP.

“Transportation is the number one reason people don’t get their animals to the vet or themselves to the doctor,” she says. “By going to them, we can remove that barrier.”

At Humane Health Coalition events, held monthly, HARP and AHN set up shop at community centers or nonprofit organizations throughout the city, like the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on Jane Street, where appointments were scheduled for 25 animals — including dogs, cats and a rabbit — for the Aug. 3 event.

Linda Lagattuta speaks with two vets while her dog Runner is examined.
Linda Lagattuta, left, reacts as Dr. Ariella Samson, right, and vet tech Nancy Gump, examine her dog, Runner. Photo by John Beale.

Coalition staffers bring bins of supplies, set up tables “and see as many patients as humanly possible — and sometimes more,” says Dr. Samson.

Animal Friends provides pet food and other supplies. 

With an equipped mobile unit, Dr. Samson envisions serving more individuals with limited resources who reside in “food deserts or healthcare deserts,” she says. 

She also aims for the coalition to expand its geographic footprint throughout Allegheny County. 

Earlier this year, HARP acquired the used mobile unit for $125,000 from a veterinary practice that was downsizing.

HARP and AHN are in the process of rebranding this mobile veterinary office that the Humane Health Coalition purchased from Stone Marsh Mobile Vet.

Eventually, the organization hopes to buy a new unit. 

The price is estimated at  $400,000 to $500,000, and the current wait time for new vehicles is 18 to 24 months, says Michele Frennier, HARP’s director of marketing. 

Until HARP raises the necessary funds, the used vehicle “has everything we need for now,” says Dr. Samson. 

The vehicle is currently parked at HARP’s East Side campus in Homewood where it’s being rebranded with logos for HARP, AHN and the Humane Health Coalition. 

Dr. Samson’s “wish list” for new equipment includes a microscope, surgical lights, a portable ultrasound and a portable dental machine. 

A microscope would allow her to better analyze blood samples “instead of just using my eyes and nose to diagnose infections,” she says while examining Jazzy, a pit bull mix owned by Bird and Mimi of Homewood, who declined to give their last names at the coalition event on the South Side. 

The couple also brought Moo, a poodle mix that Dr. Samson recognized from a prior coalition event in the East End. 

A vet and vet tech examine Moo the dog on the street
Dr. Ariella Samson, right, and vet tech Abrielle Rendar examine Moo, a dog owned by Bird and Mimi of Homewood at HARP’s Street Dog Coalition event at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in the South Side on Aug. 3. Photo by John Beale.

The veterinarian clipped Moo’s nails, gave both dogs updated vaccines and treated Jazzy for ear mites. 

“We can’t afford vets,” says Bird, who says he receives SNAP benefits to buy food.

Because SNAP food stamps don’t cover pet food, “We have to sacrifice to get the dogs fed,” he says. 

The couple recently lost an apartment and are shuttling between friends’ homes and hotels, so Jazzy and Moo sometimes stay with Bird’s mother or his aunt.

Despite their financial situation, the couple won’t give up their dogs, says Mimi, who works as a cleaner or at other day labor jobs. 

“I can get rid of my TV or other things but not these two,” she says.

The Humane Health Coalition is based on the One Health model of care that connects the well-being of animals, people, plants and the environment, says Kim Holmberg, a member of HARP’s board of directors. 

Bird Johnson of Homewood sits in his car
Bird sits in his car with his dog, Jazzy, outside HARP’s Street Dog Coalition event. Bird brought two dogs for a checkup and shots. Photo by John Beale.

“The idea is that if we take care of pets and humans … and the environment, then everybody’s healthier,” she says.  

HARP estimates the annual cost of operating the coalition at $250,000, including medications, equipment, lab tests, fuel and maintenance for the mobile vehicle. 

Holmberg and her husband, David Holmberg — president and CEO of Highmark Health, the parent organization of AHN — recently donated an undisclosed amount to the initiative. HARP will solicit more contributions at its end-of-summer “pawty” and sold-out fundraiser, Wags, Whiskers & Wings 2023 on Saturday, Aug. 26, where it will also unveil the mobile unit. 

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.