In the summer of 2009, Beth Zimmerman hosted a Memorial Day barbecue for her mother and her mother’s companion, a WWII veteran. By the end of the day, Zimmerman had an epiphany: Veterans and shelter animals needed each other. “I wanted to find ways to bring them together and keep them together,” she says.
Later that year, she founded Pets for Patriots, a nonprofit that works with more than 300 shelters around the country to match military veterans from WWII to those currently serving with harder-to-adopt animals. And nearly every day, Zimmerman hears stories that confirm her original instinct.
“She watches my back, and she helps my anxiety come down,” an Iraq War veteran told Zimmerman, referring to the Lab-hound mix he adopted from a Michigan shelter. “I cope with PTSD with exercise, spirituality and having the dog,” shared another Iraq War veteran, who adopted a Rhodesian ridgeback mix from a Florida rescue.
When a veteran adopts a qualified animal—one who, because of age, size or other factors has been overlooked by other adopters—Pets for Patriots sends them a $150 gift card for pet supplies, offers savings on pet goods and services, and gives them access to quality, discounted veterinary care in their own communities. But the relationship doesn’t end there.
Zimmerman and her team provide post-adoption counseling, and if an adopter falls on hard times, Pets for Patriots will provide temporary help with veterinary bills and pet supplies. “We’ve funded everything from basic medications to cancer surgeries,” Zimmerman says. “We have many veterans who stay in touch with us for years.”
To date, Pets for Patriots has helped find homes for more than 2,000 shelter animals while making it easier for former and current military members to enjoy the benefits of having a pet. The team reaches out to veterinary clinics near participating shelters and encourages them to offer military discounts, provides marketing materials, and shares profiles of animals who have been in the shelters the longest through its Forget Me Not social media campaign.
All of this makes it easy for shelters to participate in the program, says Sara Archer, executive director of Blue Mountain Humane Society in Walla Walla, Washington, which has adopted out nine dogs and one cat through Pets for Patriots.
Blue Mountain’s first adoption through the program was a brindle-colored dog named Chica who had been languishing in the shelter for more than two years. “She was losing her heart,” says Archer. “It was really hard to watch.” In July 2017, Chica was adopted by a veteran and his wife and is now flourishing in her new home.
“One thing I think is so impactful and win-win about Pets for Patriots is ... that it’s targeting the shelter population of greatest need,” Archer says. And that, she believes, also makes the adoptions more meaningful for veterans. “They need to be needed. They may not know it, but they do.”