AIDS may rob its victims of their health and eventually of their lives, but volunteers are making certain the disease does not deprive them of their loving pets.
The Pet Owners With AIDS Resource Service, called POWARS for short, provides food, fun and foster care for the dogs, cats and other pets of New York City AIDS patients who are too sick to care for them.
"People's first concern has to be themselves. Once they're attended to, it's time to think about their pet," said Steve Kohn, founder of POWARS.
"By the time they get to us, they've been through a nightmare of federal, state and local red tape. We're trying to take the chaos out of somebody's life," he said.
Kohn, a City University of New York laboratory technician with two Boston terriers, founded POWARS in May, 1988, with $2,000 of his own money.
Now, he and about 200 volunteers help care for some 30 cats, 20 dogs, a bird, a ferret and fish--the number of pets grows each week. Some clients get monthly food deliveries, while others need occasional or constant litter-box cleaning, supplies, grooming and walking. Some veterinarians donate their services, as well.
A few clients pay $10 or $15 a month; most get supplies and services free, thanks to donations to the tax-exempt group.
When a client is hospitalized, volunteers care for his or her pet in its own home or a foster home. Permanent homes are sometimes found when patients die.
"It brings tears to my eyes, the organization is so wonderful," said Phyllis, a Manhattan woman with AIDS-related complex who asked that her last name be omitted.
"I know how much love I have for my animal. I depend on her; there's not as much intimacy with people, sometimes," she said of Suzie, her 3 1/2-year-old mixed Maltese-Yorkshire terrier.
A friend persuaded Phyllis to call POWARS for help. She resisted, at first, because "I had a lot of pride. I want to walk her as much as I can."
Now POWARS provides food, grooming and veterinary care for the fluffy white dog. "When I saw how accommodating, nice and sincere they were, I could let the help in," Phyllis said. "It's possible I may need more of it sometime down the line."
Tony, who has AIDS, gets help with his 10-year-old Yorkie, Herbie.
Last summer, Tony was distressed about unemployment and medical bills. "On top of that, I was worried about the dog," he said.
Then he learned about POWARS. The service provided minor eye surgery for Herbie, "something I couldn't afford. It's a comfort to know he is well. I can be better; part of it is stress," he said.
"I love this dog. He's my friend and foe," Tony said, playfully shaking the tiny dog, who clearly adored him too. "He makes me laugh. He's a little pal. It's better than living with humans sometimes."
Tony had a heart attack in January. "When I got out of the hospital and I saw my dog, I cried. Everything else is dispensable."
A neighbor took care of Herbie that time. But Tony feels confident that POWARS will be there if a friend can't be.