Friday, June 8, 2012 | 3:18 p.m.
Ben Williams is not a particularly well-known writer, unless you count this line: “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
It’s a thought you can’t help thinking when you visit Noah’s Animal House. It looks like a pet day care, with cuddle rooms, “cat condos,” a clinic and a shaded run where dogs can play. But some of the tenants, despite all the purring and tail wagging, have been through the same ordeals as their owners, from homelessness to violent abuse.
The bond between people and pets can be vital to recovery and even survival, says Marlene Richter. Since 2008, she has been executive director of the Shade Tree, a safe haven for women and children in North Las Vegas and the parent organization of Noah’s. Richter says that without a guaranteed place for their pets, many women chose not to seek the shelter’s help. They couldn’t bear the thought of leaving behind what, in some cases, was their only real family.
“On the homeless side, we had women that would not come in from the desert, who had nothing, not even two dimes to rub together. But they were not leaving their best friend. … We had elderly people whose dogs were all they had, and they weren’t coming in without them,” Richter says.
- Noah's Animal House
- Noah’s provides temporary boarding for the dogs and cats of Shade Tree clients, and foster homes are available for pets that require more or specialized living space. Everything is free of charge, including vet services, and Noah’s depends on community support to offer such comprehensive care, which costs almost $200,000 annually. Immediate needs range from dog food and cat litter to toys, potty pads and gift cards to stores such as Petco, Target and Home Depot, with monetary donations always appreciated. Give by calling 385-0072, ext. 126, and click here to visit the website for more information.
So in 2007, Noah’s was founded right next door to the Shade Tree. Especially in cases of domestic abuse, Richter has seen it make the difference between women staying in bad situations and breaking free. She tells of one who was in an abusive relationship for five years, from the time she was a teenager, with a man who kicked and put her Chihuahua in the freezer. Another came in with her dog, a big, sweet animal that had been stabbed in the shoulder by their abuser. Richter says he used the dog to manipulate his wife, threatening or harming it until she did what he wanted.
“Finally the owner, the woman, couldn’t take it anymore. So she risked her life and the life of her pet and got out. If people saw what goes on under the roofs of their neighbors they would not think it’s someone’s choice to stay in a domestic violence relationship. They would understand that it is truly power, control and fear,” says Richter, who told such stories when she testified last year for Cooney’s Law, which made animal abuse a felony in Nevada. “The pets in the home, they do take on sort of a helpless voice that encourages the women, enough is enough. … And only 1 percent of the women have gone back to their abusers when they bring a pet. 1 percent—I don’t even know what to say. … That’s in contrast to 7 or 8 times recidivism before they would get free.”
Richter, who has worked as an advocate for at-risk youth and adults dealing with homelessness, abuse and human trafficking for nearly 20 years, says she has been blown away by the positive impact pets have on healing, no matter what the trauma. Noah’s has the capacity to house 15 dogs and 15 cats at a time, with foster options for reptiles, fish and even farm animals. Seeing the results, other shelters have inquired about intake processes and operations so they can begin to offer similar services.
“This process of having Noah’s here and watching families get bonded back together and get on their feet and move out has taught me an awful lot about forgiveness,” Richter says. “It’s really an incredible journey that our very brave clients face each day, and they’re smiling and laughing and pushing forward. And there’s their dog or their cat right beside them. … People come in that aren’t ready to talk about why they’re coming in, and we don’t care. We just want you to come in. We just want you to be safe, trust us, and then the story comes out.”
LJ Berarducci was one of those people. She arrived at the Shade Tree after a few days on the street, the first days of her entire life in which she truly needed help. Her face was bandaged and bruised, but the wounds were not from an abusive relationship. She took a bad spill the same day she lost her home, and the pain went far beyond the physical.
As she begins to share her story, I can tell it’s hard for her to relive that time in her life. She is a well-spoken, well-dressed woman in her early 60s, with intense eyes that say more than she’s able to. This should not have happened. Someone like her, with a college education and decades of successful work as a corporate compensation and benefits manager as well as a real estate agent and administrator, should not have wound up destitute. But she did.
LJ explains that the downward spiral started slow. A divorce and subsequent move to Las Vegas followed closely by the economic meltdown left her with astronomical debt, and her fiercely proud nature made it impossible to ask for help at first. She ended up losing her home, all of her belongings put in hock save the clothes on her back and 39 cents in her purse. While dealing with the eviction, her ankle gave out and she fell into a curb so hard that she had to go the hospital. While she was there, her beloved cats, Scottie and Charlie, were taken to Lied Animal Shelter.
Scottie, a red tabby Persian, and Charlie, a seal point Himalayan, were both 12 and had been with LJ since they were six weeks old. They had never been apart from her or each other, and she was terrified that they would be euthanized. She tells me that Lied required $300 for their release.
“You’ve fallen this far, you’re going to lose your babies, too,” LJ says, recalling the utter heartbreak of that moment. As for her own safety, she had met a kind stranger who gave her a place to stay for a week and referred her to the Shade Tree, where LJ met Noah’s manager and licensed veterinary technician Crystal McIntosh. As soon as she heard LJ’s story, McIntosh made a phone call. Shortly thereafter, she and LJ went to Lied and picked up the cats, both of whom hadn’t eaten for 10 straight days due to the shock of the situation. LJ didn’t have to pay a penny.
“If I didn’t have the boys I wouldn’t be here; that’s how strong the bond is,” LJ says, fighting tears. “Thanks to Crystal they’re still here, and so am I. She was my archangel.”
For nine months, LJ stayed at the Shade Tree, visiting Scottie and Charlie multiple times a day while she worked to resolve her homelessness. Having that outlet, that safe, cozy place to come and be with her babies as well as supportive staffers who were always willing to listen, brought LJ back from the brink. And it taught her about real friendship.
“I had what I thought were friends. When I became homeless they all disappeared. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life are from this place. You have a common denominator that doesn’t exist in the real world—survival,” she says.
While it was difficult for LJ to accept assistance and especially to apply for food stamps, she swallowed her pride and moved forward. Nevada HAND helped her into a home in a low-cost community just down the street from Noah’s, where she is rebuilding her life, teaching computer classes for seniors and volunteering as secretary of the residential advisory committee. She also volunteers at Noah’s twice a week, paying forward the kindness she was shown by caring for the people and animals still caught in the struggle.
“What they need is somebody to understand, who’s walked in their shoes. That is the thing I think I can bring that no one else can. I can talk to the women and ask, ‘How are you?’ And they can actually tell me," she says. "If I feel like I’m doing something for someone else I feel whole.”
When LJ gets ready to leave, she and Crystal hug with genuine love. And many of the women passing between Noah’s and the Shade Tree say hi and ask LJ how she’s doing. When she answers, some of the animals raise their heads. They know her voice from when she was on the other side.
“The bottom line is that what we do at Noah’s Animal House not only saves animals' lives but saves people’s lives as well,” Crystal says. “It is an amazing thing to be a part of.”