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Putting PAWS to Work to Help People With AIDS


Miss Kitty flies down a hallway, skids around a corner, ricochets off a wall and vaults into the men's restroom, eluding the redhead with the Russian-French accent who beckons: "My boo-boo, my mooshky, come here, my dahling."

What Miss Kitty doesn't know is that Nadia Sutton, who is trying to find a foster home for the furtive fur ball, has mastered this game of catch the cat. Sutton, after all, has two of her own and as executive director of PAWS L.A.--a group that helps people with AIDS keep their pets--she is as pet-astute as Ace Ventura.

"You exquisite boo-boo," Sutton says on bent knees after making a beeline for the six-pound feline hiding behind a loo. She cradles the cat, and in return, Miss Kitty rubs her head on Sutton's chin.

This dedication has attracted animal-loving Angelenos--800 clients and 650 volunteers--to Sutton and her PAWS cause, which provides food and veterinary care for more than 1,200 pets and peace of mind for their owners. Sutton founded PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) five years ago after a friend with AIDS told her that his family had given away his cats while he was hospitalized. She receives a salary from the nonprofit organization.

"He was devastated. He didn't even want to come home," says Sutton, who managed to reunite the cats with their owner. Soon after, Sutton, who had been conducting workshops on the quality of life for people with AIDS, was hearing from others struggling to keep their pets. The group also helps HIV-positive people who do not yet have AIDS.

"How could I not do something?" she asks.

Sutton, 53, says that before PAWS came along, some people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome went without food so their animals could eat. Some used medicine money for veterinary visits. Others chose not to be hospitalized because they didn't have the funds to board their pets or no one was available to help care for the animals.

"People would rather die at home than get medical attention because their pets mean that much to them," Sutton says in her West Hollywood office, Miss Kitty brushing against her.

Inside, walls are covered with photos: a cat in bunny ears, another in a firefighter uniform, canines and felines yawning and yowling, stretching and scratching--all loving their ailing owners.

"For a lot of people with HIV, it's the animals who have become their chosen family," Sutton says. "And if a lot has gone out of your life--your job, your house, some friends, some family--it's your animal who is there for you. That little creature is your lifeline."


Sutton says animals have always been her support too.

She was born in Brussels--an only child who was emotionally abused by her Russian father, she says. Suffering from dyslexia, she was mislabeled as "slow" by teachers; classmates teased her. But imagination was her escape, and stray animals became her refuge.

Sutton also found comfort and self-esteem starring in the high school plays she wrote and directed. After graduation, she says she studied acting in Paris; hitchhiked through France, Spain and Morocco, and then, after getting married in London, worked steadily for eight years on the London stage and in television.

In 1979, after a divorce, she came to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of breaking into movies. She worked in a couple of films she prefers not to name. Ten years later, inspired by friends who battled AIDS while fighting to keep their pets, she founded PAWS with three clients and two volunteers.

"As much as acting had been my life, I suddenly realized that wasn't it anymore. It was going to be with animals," she says.

Today, with an annual budget of $200,000, Sutton tries to serve her current clients while struggling to keep up with growing demand--about 35 to 40 new requests for help each month, she says. For the past three years, Sutton's celebrity pals--including Amanda Bearse, Janis Paige, William Katt and Earl Holliman--have performed at the Pasadena Playhouse in fund-raising musical revues called "Aardvarks to Zebras."

Fourteen veterinarians work for half their normal fees, which allows the organization to buy more pet food, now averaging about $1,000 a week. And this holiday season, artists Joe Monroe and Jon Planas have designed greeting cards selling for $10 each, with a donation made in the name of the card's recipient.

Steve Wayland, PAWS' other full-time staffer, and part-timer Gary Granger are constantly on the phone matching volunteers with clients and arranging veterinary visits. Joel Kimmel raises funds part time.


Sometimes there aren't enough homes for pets. Sutton hates asking for favors "because it's really painful." Other times she is under pressure when funds are so tight and there are so many people seeking assistance. Often, she says, she must defend PAWS against criticism that it provides for animals when people need food and medicine. "This is not a cute little organization," she says.

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