Saviors and saints

Gainesville Magazine: Veterinarian Dale Kaplan-Stein, left, with Brooke, and Chris Machen, right, with Zippy, are shown at Kaplan-Stein's residence in Gainesville, Fla.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 2:35 p.m.

It’s an idea that first got trotted out on horseback.


St. Francis House Pet Care Clinic

WHERE: 501 SE Second St.
WHAT IT DOES: Serves pets of homeless, veterans and very low- income residents of Alachua County
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Dale Kaplan-Stein, a local veterinarian, and Chris Machen, animal advocate and wife of University of Florida President Bernie Machen, were riding their horses and swapping ideas.

Both women had noticed that cars pulling off Interstate 75 at one of the Gainesville exits frequently encountered a man holding a cardboard sign reading “Will work for food.” The man was often accompanied by a dog.

So who takes care of these dogs, they asked themselves.

“We talked it out while riding together and came up with the plan for the St. Francis House pet care clinic,” Machen recalls.

The goal was to provide primary care to the pets of those who were homeless, veterans and very low-income residents of Alachua County.

“We started with one woman and one dog,” says Machen. She herself has two dogs.

“We are taking care of the animals,” Kaplan-Stein adds. “Just because they belong to poor people doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have basic care, and in doing so, the people should also benefit.”

Kaplan-Stein’s doggy household includes two Irish setters, two Labrador retrievers, two “schmauzers,” a cross between a shnauzer and a Maltese, and a Yorkshire terrier.

She asks, “Why does one dog end up at your house and another dog find itself on the other side of the railroad tracks?

“It’s nothing more than a flip of a coin.”

Machen and Kaplan-Stein teamed up with Dr. Natalie Isaza of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, who brings a group of third- and fourth-year vet students to the weekly clinic.

“We want them to see another side of the veterinary business, that there is another population out there who love and care for their animals, and who are good people” Machen says. “When they start their own veterinary business, we hope that they’ll remember that.”

The clinic’s home is a small red building, a former storefront near the downtown bus station.

On Tuesday mornings, clients and their pets start lining up about 8:30. The vets are there from 10 to noon.

Machen and Kaplan-Stein describe clinic days as “controlled chaos.”

“We knew the need was big, but we had no idea how big,” Machen says.

Last year, they saw an average of 20 dogs and five cats for vet care each week. Another 30 dogs and 10 cats got medications and food. Machen says fewer than 10 percent of the clients they see are totally homeless.

One requirement is that they must be eligible for food stamps to be eligible for the program.

The clinic asks for a $10 donation per pet, per month, for those who can pay. All the staff are volunteers, like the Pittsburgh couple, semi-retired veterinarians, who turned up one January Tuesday after reading about the clinic in a veterinary journal. They say they’ll be coming back until March.

“Not everybody can do this,” Machen says. “For some, there is too much going on, so I tell them, ‘Just go home and raise money.’”

Kaplan-Stein adds, “We serve a group that has never had the opportunity to have vet care for their animals. They learn from us, which gives us a boatload of healthier pets and more responsible pet owners in the community.

“I think of it as paying it forward.”

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