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Volunteers Pitch In to Help AIDS Patients Keep Their Beloved Pets : Morale: Dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits and ferrets are welcome. Snakes? Well, they'll think about it. Their care enables the animals to continue to live with, and boost spirits of, the ill.


PHILADELPHIA — Losing the cat that cuddles up when depression strikes or the dog that provides joy every day can cut through to any pet owner's heart.

For those who are dying, the pain is almost unbearable.

That's where PhillyPAWS steps in.

Volunteers working with Philadelphia Pets Are Wonderful Support Inc. walk and groom dogs, change cat litter, deliver food and arrange veterinary care for AIDS patients, allowing those too weak to handle chores to keep their beloved pets.

Dogs, cats, birds, fish, rabbits and ferrets are welcome. Snakes? Well, they'll think about it.

Since it opened in June, 1993, PhillyPAWS has served 76 clients on its shoestring budget. These days, the group serves about 60.

"Friends and co-workers often stop visiting these people. The animal becomes their entire world, sometimes even giving them a reason to live," said David Hellman, president and co-founder of PhillyPAWS.

The group is a nonprofit agency modeled after organizations in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In all, 17 major cities have similar organizations.

The City Health Department reported 1,940 new AIDS cases in 1993, raising the total number diagnosed since the epidemic began in 1981 to more than 5,700. Nationwide, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about 1 million Americans are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"We have both had lots of personal losses," said Sue Dakin, another co-founder who functions as the client coordinator. Like Hellman, she often volunteers 25 or more hours each week to PhillyPAWS.

"I think we found a niche. This is something we can do in honor of the friends we lost."

In early September, Hellman and Dakin stopped by to visit Daryl Belgrave, one of their first clients and the owner of a 1-year-old black and white cat, Miss Cutie, Scutie for short.

Belgrave and her husband, also HIV positive, appeared to be doing well. But they could not carry 20-pound bags of cat food and litter, so PhillyPAWS volunteers came by once a month to deliver.

Scutie was also receiving all her veterinary care through PhillyPAWS.

"I guess we'll be needing them a little more and more," Belgrave said, walking gingerly across the room to retrieve her feline friend. "It's such a comfort to know they'll be there for us."

Scutie playfully pranced out of reach, her white-tipped black tail swaying back and forth. Belgrave laughed.

"I call that her periscope," she said. "Sometimes when I'm not feeling too well and I'm stuck in bed, I'll look over and just see that tail going by and I know she's checking on me."

"I don't know what we'd do without PhillyPAWS," she said. "God bless them. It takes a special kind of people to do what they're doing; it truly does."

The two founders of PhillyPAWS shared a look, both smiling proudly.

"Anything I can ever do for you--you let me know," said Belgrave.

Dakin, seeing the joy she has helped create, responded tearfully: "You're doing it right now."

Ten days later, Daryl Belgrave died of AIDS complications.

Neal Belanger is one of 120 volunteers trained this year by PhillyPAWS. Three-hour orientation sessions are held about every 10 weeks; new volunteers are always welcome.

Three times a week, Belanger walks Rouge and Shredder, a Doberman and a Shepherd-mix.

"They are big, friendly dogs," said Belanger, who, like many others, first began volunteering after he lost a close friend to AIDS. "I have fallen in love with these animals. Taking care of them really makes me feel good about myself."

Providing veterinary care for animals like Rouge, Shredder and Scutie is a top priority for PhillyPAWS.

Dr. Robert Moffatt is the only veterinarian on staff. Most of the time he volunteers is spent fielding phone calls from clients seeking his advice.

"I have a certain ability I can offer and I have a strong desire to help people," Moffatt said. "This way I help people and animals at the same time. It's a bonus, and I'm glad to do it."

Moffatt's association with the Veterinary Medicine School of the University of Pennsylvania is also a bonus. Through him, more than 40 veterinary students have donated their time to making house calls, providing rabies vaccinations and other non-emergency care.

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