Helping the helpless; PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap bring hope to struggling pet owners | Kitsap Week

Recognizing the importance of pets, PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap strives to keep pets with their owners. - Courtesy photo
Recognizing the importance of pets, PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap strives to keep pets with their owners.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The struggling economy has caused more than lost jobs and foreclosures. It's also caused heartache for pets and their families.

“In the three years since the downturn of the economy, pet shelters nationwide have been besieged by pet surrenders, which were done purely for financial reasons,” said Mark Hufford, executive director of PAWS of Bainbridge and North Kitsap.

But before we go any further, let's clear up the name confusion. The PAWS in this article is an independent organization. It’s not affiliated with any of the 40 organizations nationwide that use the name PAWS.

So what does the local PAWS do?

“We are more than just the cat adoption center on Miller Road [on Bainbridge Island]. That’s only about one-sixth of what we do,” program director Marylou Zimmerman said.


An important mission of PAWS is to help pet owners keep their furry friends. This is accomplished by providing low-income spay and neuter services, veterinary assistance, and stocking pet food at local food banks.

“We do what any caring neighbor would do if their neighbor came to them and said, ‘I lost my job and my dog needs surgery,’ ” PAWS executive director Mark Hufford said. “We help low-income families and provide direct financial assistance to care for pets of low-income neighbors.”

Locally, he estimates PAWS has helped more than 1,000 pets remain with their owners.

PAWS asks the question, “How can we help families keep their pets?” If a dog  suffers from an ear infection and the owner can’t afford treatment, sometimes the owner believes the only option is to turn the dog over to a shelter in order for it to receive medical care. That is where PAWS steps in to help provide financial assistance.

“I believe we’re the only organization in all of Western Washington with a program of this type, and there’s no question it’s helped stem the tide of potential pet relinquishments,” Hufford said. He estimates that since the stock market crash in 2008, PAWS has helped more than 1,000 pets remain with their owners.

Keeping the pet out of the shelter benefits the animal and its owners.

“If you are at a low-income level, everything is already stressful,” Zimmerman said. “Being able to have a connection with a pet that is uncomplicated is great for the whole family.”

In the two years since PAWS began its pet food drive, Zimmerman estimates PAWS has helped to distribute 12 tons of food to local food banks.

“They can’t keep it on the shelf,” she said.

Pets and Loving Seniors (PALS)

Based on research showing that living with or interacting regularly with pets lowers rates of heart attack and heart disease, PAWS has teamed up with seniors in the community to connect then with other seniors  — senior cats, that is.

Through this program, an older cat is placed in the home of a senior, and PAWS maintains ownership of the cat. (That way, if the foster parent needs to move to a different location where animals aren’t allowed, the cat will be returned to PAWS.) PAWS also covers the cat’s expenses.

And because older cats are more difficult to adopt (most people prefer to adopt kittens or younger cats), this program helps get an older cat out of the shelter and into a home.

“As a senior, having a warm, loving body in your house may be your only daily connection with something else,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a nice connection for the seniors, and it’s great for older pets.”


Another facet of PAWS is its Buddy Bridge program. After passing an eight-week training class and becoming certified, dogs can spread joy and love in areas that don't often receive four-legged visitors. Participants visit nursing homes and senior centers, as well as schools and libraries.

It takes a special dog and the training is rigorous — the instructor tests how well the dogs do with loud noises, medical equipment and shouting.


The PAWS adoption facility on Bainbridge is strictly for cats, but it offers a personal shopper service to help families find the perfect dog.

Here’s how it works: an adoption specialist sits down with the interested party and asks a lot of questions, such as “What are you looking for in a dog?” “What is your family like?” By asking questions, the adoption specialist can help narrow down the types of dog that would be the best fit for the family.

Then the specialist begins to scour websites looking for the right dog. Specialists are familiar with how to decipher listings on the Internet — think doggie personals. “Would do best living in a house without felines” may mean the dog enjoys chasing cats.

The goal is to help find the right match for the dog and the new family. Taking the time up front to figure out what type of dog would best suit the family helps to prevent the dog from being returned. If, say, the prospective family prefers low-energy activities, a border collie wouldn't be the right fit.


Like most non-profits, PAWS relies on donations to help cover expenses. Requests for veterinary assistance have gone up 30 percent per year, for three years in a row.

In order to meet the continuing demand, Hufford said PAWS has a goal of raising $75,000 by Jan. 1. During the month of October, the first $10,000 in online donations will be matched dollar for dollar by an anonymous donor. (Donors can donate via the PAWS website; see below for details.)

Hufford is constantly amazed with the generosity of the community — down to its youngest members. “We’ve had kids (operate) lemonade stands for PAWS, or some ask for donations to PAWS instead of birthday gifts,” Hufford said. “When that happens, it just about knocks you over with a feather.”

And while there has always been a percentage of the population that struggles financially, Zimmerman said the group has grown larger.

“We get assistance requests from people that used to be our donors,” she said.


PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap: PAWS’s service area is Bainbridge and North Kitsap from Hansville to Silverdale. Info:

Rescue Every Dog (R.E.D): Kitsap-based, but help dogs throughout the state. Info:

Kitsap Humane Society: Located in Silverdale. Info:

The organizations all work together, with the common goal of helping pets and owners.  Abby Ouiment, director of public relations for the Kitsap Humane Society, said, “Sometimes in the non-profit world, people think you’re competitive for donor dollars and publicity. But in the animal welfare world, people really care about the animals, so it’s whatever it takes to get them adopted.”


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