How One Nonprofit Is Connecting Our Country’s Loyal Service Men and Women With Shelter Pets

A woman is kneeling down with two dogs in front of a building, participating in the Pets for Patriots program.

By providing emotional and physical support to those in need, Pets for Patriots is an organization that goes above and beyond the call of duty for both pets and veterans.

Founded by Beth Zimmerman in 2009 and launched in 2010, Pets for Patriots creates unique opportunities for members of the military community to save a life by adopting the most overlooked homeless dogs and cats.

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“Companion pets dramatically enhance the physical and emotional well-being of our veterans,” says Beth Zimmerman, executive director and founder. “Veterans in our program tell us they have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, for example, and have become more physically and socially active with a pet in their lives.”

Zimmerman and her dog Bunny

Zimmerman and her dog Bunny. @Pets for Patriots;

The idea for the organization came about while Zimmerman, of all things, was washing dishes. On Memorial Day in 2009, the lifelong dog lover was cleaning up in her kitchen after her mom and her partner, a WWII veteran and B-17 belly gunner, had just left. It was during this mundane task, she had an epiphany — a voice inside her head said, “pets and veterans.”

“I realized there were two populations with complimentary needs: homeless dogs and cats who faced near certain death if not adopted, and veterans who, for a variety of reasons, would benefit from a new pet friend,” Zimmerman says.

After crafting up a business plan and sharing it with about a dozen super-smart people, she navigated the budding charity to receive its 501©(3) status in six weeks. With the help of friends — and an inaugural donation from her dentist — Pets for Patriots was open for business.

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Today, the organization has matched nearly 1,000 veterans with companion animals, in big part due to the alliances it has formed. While the organization’s headquarters are in Long Beach, N.Y. it operates throughout the country by partnering up with rescues and shelters. It chooses locations depending on a variety of factors, including demand from veterans in the community as well as its needs to complement existing partnerships.

“We may have a shelter partner in a given location and need veterinary partners, or vice versa,” Zimmerman explains. “Other times we identify a location as strategically important due to the density of its veteran population and other veteran-oriented resources. It’s more art than science, but it works.”

Shelley and Zee

Shelley and Zee Image credit: ©Pets for Patriots; all rights reserved.

The organization partners with veterinarians in those same communities who, as a condition of joining, agree to extend a minimum 10 percent ongoing discount to the pets adopted by veterans in the program. Hundreds of shelters, rescues and veterinarians have since joined the program.

Part of the Pets for Patriots mission is to save the most overlooked shelter animals, so the companion pet must be an adult animal, large breed dog or special needs dog or cat.

“These are the animals that face the greatest risk of death or permanent homelessness if they are not adopted,” Zimmerman says. “Many are victims of abandonment, neglect or abuse, yet have a capacity to love that is just remarkable.”

Veterans interested in adopting from Pets and Patriots must demonstrate a minimum service requirement if they are still in service, and if separated, they must have received an honorable discharge. Additionally, Pets for Patriots requires all veterans who are in mental health counseling to provide a letter from their treating mental health professional ensuring that they would benefit from having a companion pet.

Charlie and Sophie

Charlie and Sophie. Image credit: ©Pets for Patriots; all rights reserved.

Because so many pets are in need of a happy and stable home, Pets for Patriots processes online applications daily to get the ball rolling. Once their team receives the relevant eligibility documents to complete an application, it is reviewed and approved within two business days. Veterans in the program are free to choose the dog (or cat) of their liking, as long as the pet fits the above described criteria.

“One of the unexpected yet positive consequences of focusing on hard-to-place companion pets is that most of these animals have stories and issues of their own that really resonate with the veterans who adopt them,” Zimmerman tells us. “The bonds they form are incredibly powerful, and many of our veterans who are dealing with their own challenges find it therapeutic to help a pet who has experienced hardship – whether that’s abandonment, abuse or another difficulty. There’s an incredible empathy that’s developed, and I believe it’s a two-way street.”

Joe, Mia and Karolina

Joe, Mia and Karolina. Image credit: ©Pets for Patriots; all rights reserved.

As the team continues to receive financial support from donors and supporters who love what they do, they plan to have partners in every state by the end of 2017.

“At nearly 1,000 veteran-pet adoptions, we have demonstrable proof that our model of pairing the most overlooked homeless animals with military veterans is a successful one – and one that we intend to grow until there are no more homeless animals,” Zimmerman says.

Now that’s a cause we can stand behind.

Image credit for all images:  ©Pets for Patriots; all rights reserved.

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By Staci Pearlman

Staci Pearlman is our Los Angeles-based writer, covering local events, entrepreneurs and organizations making a difference in the dog world. When she's not writing, she enjoys roaming the neighborhood, baking, and hiking with her husband and MaltiPoo pup Petey.

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