A legacy of pet rescue: VIPP celebrates 30 years

VIPP founder and board member Barbara Drinkwater, left, with her dog Duke, whom she rescued.  - Susan Riemer/Staff Photo
VIPP founder and board member Barbara Drinkwater, left, with her dog Duke, whom she rescued.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/Staff Photo

When island veterinarian Dana Ness was new to Fair Isle Animal Clinic a decade ago, she treated a cat that she suspected had a fatal disease and received her first introduction to Vashon Island Pet Protectors (VIPP) at the same time.

Believing euthanasia would be the only option, Ness said she was taken by surprise when the volunteer who had brought the cat in had other ideas.

“This is a VIPP cat, so do whatever you can,” Ness recalls the volunteer saying.

For Ness, who had come from a veterinary clinic where resources were stretched thin, this kind of determination from an animal rescue program was a dramatic change.

“That is not what I was expecting to hear,” she said. “It was a whole paradigm shift. It really blew my mind.”

Over the years, VIPP, a nonprofit organization run entirely by volunteers, has continuously shown this type of support for animals, said Ness, who stressed that such an approach to individualized treatment is unique in a humane society or shelter setting. VIPP’s work , she said, stands apart.

“They’re  a really great partner in providing care and helping with the general wellbeing of the animals on Vashon,” Ness added.

VIPP, founded in 1984 by a small group of volunteers, celebrates 30 years of service this year and is honoring that work by collecting stories of people who have adopted animals and hosting a variety of events, including its annual Fur Ball in November.

More importantly, throughout the year, volunteers will continue their focus on VIPP’s mission, which has not changed since the group’s early days: that there be no more homeless pets on Vashon.

Since it began, VIPP has adopted out 3,434 cats and 1,213 dogs to families and individuals, according to Geoff Fletcher, the president of VIPP’s board.

Islander Barbara Wells is one such woman, and she can frequently be spotted walking Chloe, her border collie mix, around her north-end neighborhood.

Wells first opened her home to Chloe a few years ago when VIPP put out a call for more foster families for dogs in their care — and Chloe never left.

It was not her plan to keep Chloe, Wells said, but these things happen.

“She just decided to be here,” she added.

Her previous owner gave Chloe up because he moved off the island, and he thought she would be happier if she stayed, Wells said.

While Chloe might seem like an ordinary dog to some — she loves food, to go for walks and ride in the car — Wells said Chloe is not ordinary at all.

“I couldn’t imagine how anyone would give up a dog like Chloe,” she said. “Chloe is exceptional.”

Though many VIPP animals live in homes on Vashon, VIPP’s work is only partly about adoption, Fletcher noted, and includes a spay and neuter program, lost and found assistance and care for animals while they are part of the organization.

VIPP’s most widely known focus on spaying and neutering animals comes each February when, in partnership with Fair Isle, it offers Fix-a-Cat month; neuters are offered for $25 and spays for $35. Fair Isle and VIPP split the difference on the remainder of the cost for each cat, Fletcher said.

This is a popular program, both Ness and Fletcher say, and 83 cats were spayed or neutered last year alone, most as part of that program.

For dogs, Fletcher said, VIPP has a voucher program for low-income pet owners; the vouchers can used at Northwest Spay and Neuter Center in Tacoma or at Fair Isle. Last year 45 dogs were spayed or neutered through this program.

For islanders whose animals run or wander away, many have found help through VIPP. Last year, Fletcher said, 13 cats were reunited with their owners with VIPP’s help and 180 dogs.

Amy Carey, a longtime VIPP volunteer, is the coordinator of its canine lost and found program, motivated, she said, in part because she owned a dog that disappeared and was never found.

Now, she said, she and others volunteers know more about dogs’ behavior when they are missing and can offer useful assistance to dog owners. She has been part of some remarkable rescues, she added, including where one dog was found in a ravine, having tumbled down the steep slope. A VIPP volunteer carried the 60-pound dog all the way back up.

Not all the calls are that dramatic, though, and Carey said sometimes she is called simply when a driver finds a dog running on the highway.

“We want people to do that,” she said. “We want (dogs) to be safe.”

One of her more memorable calls, though, came one night last summer and was not about a dog. A person on Maury Island had found a 12-foot long boa constrictor in a pasture and wanted help.

The boa was never found, she said, but the call symbolized for her VIPP’s value in the community.

“We might not be the right resource,” she said, “but people know we can help them.”

For many people, though, VIPP is best known for its cat house, where as many as 50 cats have lived at one time and where about 30 currently stay, Fletcher said. That too, is run entirely by volunteers — 40 of them, currently — who not only offer weekly adoption days but feed and clean up after the cats, administer medications and provide loving care.

“That’s twice a day every day,” he said.

None of VIPP’s 30 years of work, however, would have been possible were it not for the work of one woman, who is credited with founding the organization, served as its president for nearly all of its 30 years and continues to serve on its board: Barbara Drinkwater.

In an interview last week at her Needle Creek home, with four dogs barking happily downstairs, Drinkwater, now 87, recalled her early days on Vashon, after she moved from California to take a faculty position at the University of Washington.

On many weekends, kids would give away away boxes of puppies and kittens outside Thriftway, she said, and one day a man showed up at her house with four puppies who had been abandoned at the dump.

“It seemed to me very obvious what we needed was some group on the island to encourage islanders to spay and neuter the animals to reduce the young,” she said.

In those days long before the cat house or its predecessor — trailers for cats located behind Pandora’s Box — many of the cats stayed at Drinkwater’s house, where she lived with Pirot Kramar, also a VIPP stalwart. Drinkwater, who has a doctorate in exercise and environmental physiology, worked at Pacific Medical Center full time then.

“At one time I had 40 cats in my daylight basement. … Sometimes I wonder how in the world I did all that,” she said.

She is especially proud, she said, that VIPP, as a no-kill animal rescue, has never euthanized a healthy cat or dog.

“Once you make that statement, you have to follow through,” she said. “It has been difficult at times, but we have managed to do it.”

At BaaHaus Animal Rescue Group on Vashon, a sanctuary for several former farm animals that sometimes partners with VIPP, president Glenda Pearson says that she learned an important tenet from Drinkwater: Think first about the welfare of the animal. It is easy to become angry at people who mistreat animals, Pearson said, but that anger can get in the way of doing what is needed.

“They (VIPP) take the welfare of the animal first and foremost,” she said.

Sometimes she has heard criticism aimed at animal groups that they should focus their resources on caring for humans instead. It is a sentiment Pearson takes issue with.

“None of us have ever been called by an animal asking for help,” she said. “It is always people.”

By helping animals, organizations also help people, she stressed, and when people are faced with giving up an animal, they are frequently facing an extreme challenge, from illness to financial duress. Stepping in to care for the animal provides some peace of mind to the people in need.

“VIPP does that all the time,” she said.

Looking back on the 30 years of VIPP’s work, Drinkwater expressed a similar sentiment, but then took it a step further.

“We have been a great resource for the community, and the community has been a great support to us,” she said.

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