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Adoption Plan Places Pets With Elderly, Case by Case

Times Staff Writer

On the appointed day, Charles and Jomina Johnson, a retired couple from Granada Hills, stepped nervously into the adoption office.

Caseworkers bustled about and the mournful cries of orphans echoed through the gray institutional walls.

When 74-year-old Jomina Johnson saw the sad-looking 2-year-old with big brown eyes, she knew her search had ended.

“We like this one,” she told the caseworker.

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Won Their Hearts

The adoption took place last week at the Agoura Animal Shelter. The lucky dog was Dusty, of golden-Labrador retriever ancestry, who won the Johnsons’ hearts and a new life for herself as part of a program that gives away pets to people over 60.

“I loved her from the start; she has such soulful brown eyes,” Jomina Johnson said. “She can keep us company, especially at night when we’re watching TV.”

The free People for Pets program, sponsored jointly by the Ralston Purina Co. and the Los Angeles Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, matches animals that need homes with senior citizens who need companionship.

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The SPCA provides the adopted animal with a health checkup, required shots and spaying or neutering, according to Jane Evans, the SPCA’s humane education director. Ralston Purina officials said the company donates about $100 worth of supplies for each animal, including large bags of pet food, licenses, collars, leashes and feeding bowls.

Began 7 Months Ago

The nationwide program came to Los Angeles County seven months ago. Ralston Purina officials said they have earmarked $12,000 for the project, enough to save 120 animals from being destroyed.

But SPCA and company officials said the program is taking off slowly. Forty-two pets have been placed so far and only five have gone to San Fernando Valley residents, program coordinator Ia Rooklyn said. SPCA officials blame the sluggish response on lack of publicity.

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They are convinced that more people would adopt the pets if they knew about the program and were aware of the psychological benefits for elderly people. Officials cite recent studies indicating that pets may help lower blood pressure and speed recovery from illness.

“A lot of these things that animal lovers have known instinctively for years are now being proven scientifically,” Evans said.

Animals as Therapy

Evans said she brings animals to convalescent homes and watches puppies and kittens help cure depression. She advocates the use of animals for therapy.

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“The animal is a catalyst,” Evans said. “Pets are loving and non-judgmental. All they ask is to be fed.”

SPCA officials said they urge applicants to choose pets to match their personalities. Haughty, purebred cats or attention-starved mutts, anything goes, so long as the animal is more than a year old.

The age restriction helps ensure that some of the older, harder-to-place animals receive good homes, Clark Brickel, SPCA director of resource and program development said. He added that older people may find a housebroken, trained animal easier to handle.

20 Volunteers

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The program is staffed by 20 volunteers. Adoptions are coordinated with the SPCA in Los Angeles and with Los Angeles County shelters in Castaic, Lancaster and Agoura. The SPCA might also be willing to work with other shelters in the Valley area, Evans said.

Prospective owners are carefully screened. Time away from home, permission from landlords and ability to exercise the animal are all taken into account, according to Evans. Applicants are also asked to name a back-up person to care for the pet in case of emergency.

Once an application has been approved, caseworkers visit the home of the prospective owner. The entire qualifying process takes from one to four weeks, SPCA officials said.

“We qualify the individuals,” Brickel said. “Just because the animals are free doesn’t mean we are going to give them to just anyone.”

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Former Kennel Owners

Caseworkers who visited the Johnson home, for instance, said the couple had a large, enclosed backyard and seemed willing to spend time caring for an animal. The couple, who have been married for 55 years, formerly owned a kennel in Pasadena and raised wire-hair fox terriers, 84-year-old Charles Johnson said.

Since their last dog died two years ago, they have thought about finding a friendly medium-sized dog to serve as a companion for their aging Siamese cat.

When they read in the paper about the People for Pets program, the Johnsons decided it was time to act.

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As they walked through the kennel last week, the Johnsons were greeted by a chorus of barking and yowling. Thirty-five tails wagged as dogs of every size, color and temperament craned their necks to peer at the visitors. Each cage contained an impound ticket listing the animal’s name, sex, age and special traits.

Likes to Ride

Dusty, for instance, is a spayed female that likes to ride in cars, her former owner wrote. She was not housebroken. A phone number was listed in case prospective owners wanted further information about Dusty’s background.

Pets at the Agoura facility are lucky, said shelter personnel, who jokingly refer to it as a “country club for animals.” Whereas unwanted animals brought in by owners may be destroyed immediately at city shelters, those at county shelters are kept as long as space allows, according to Marty Broad, field supervisor for the Agoura shelter.

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