It's A Dog's Life
Life is good in San Francisco even for a dog in a wheelchair

By Steve Mollman, Special to SF Gate Monday, June 24, 2002

You can learn a lot, it turns out, from a Chihuahua in a wheelchair. Ask anyone who's met Pinto, a celebrity in the neighborhood around Duboce Park. His back legs don't work, so Pinto needs a wheelchair to get around. Instead of being remorseful and withdrawn, however, Pinto is a remarkably energetic and cheerful pooch.

"Animals don't carry all the baggage we do," says Kat Brown, deputy director of San Francisco's Animal Care and Control shelter. "They don't get down like we do. To me, it's a lesson of what we do to ourselves.

Pinto's adopted owners, Dennis Neumann and Lisa Hawkins, get bombarded with questions every day as they take Pinto out for his romp in the park. He's hard to ignore. Besides the fact that he's hyperactive, his sleek, ergonomic black wheelchair sports a bright orange pennant poking high into the air. On the back, a miniature California license plate bears his name in capital letters. At the end of this month, he'll be marching in the Gay Pride parade -- with a rainbow flag.

On a recent Saturday, a dozen or so people approached Pinto and his owners in the space of a few hours.

"People always smile when they see him," says Hawkins. "A lot of people immediately want to know about him. It opens up their eyes as to what dogs can live with, disability-wise."

And even to what humans can live with, disability-wise. Neumann tells of a woman who brought her niece, who uses a wheelchair, to the park specifically to watch Pinto play with the other dogs: "She wanted to show her niece that a wheelchair is not a bad thing. Here was this dog in a wheelchair, living a good life. She thought it might make her niece feel more comfortable."

Pinto seems oblivious to the mechanical contraption attached to his body. Other dogs pause to check out the gear, but then almost immediately the usual ear-flopping good times commence. Pinto especially enjoys playing with large dogs. "He's fearless," Hawkins says with a laugh.

Pinto's rise to inspirational local celebrity says a lot about the city he lives in. What exactly happened to him remains a mystery, but after his accident, his previous owners abandoned him at a smaller shelter, which then passed him on to Animal Care and Control, the City's official shelter.

In most areas of the U.S., this would have been the end of the road for Pinto. According to Bing Dilts, ACC's veterinarian, only 20 to 25 percent of the 13,000 to 16,000 animals that pass through the shelter each year are euthanized. The national average is 75 percent.

Says Neumann, "What a lot of people don't understand is that out in America, it's not like this. A lot of the shelters struggle financially, and they don't have the kind of community support we have here."

"San Franciscans tend to be more animal oriented," agrees Dilts. "And at Animal Care and Control, we put in a lot of effort to find them homes."

Such effort, for Pinto, led to a welcome at Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit animal shelter/hospital where Hawkins is shelter manager and Neumann is a vet tech.

Once equipped with a wheelchair -- from K-9 Carts, in Oak Harbor, Wash. -- Pinto quickly established himself as Mr. Popular in his new home, wheeling freely around the grounds and delighting visitors. Hawkins and Neumann eventually adopted him as their own.

Caring for a disabled pet has plenty of challenges, however. First off, it can be expensive. Pinto benefited from the resources of Pets Unlimited, which tends to attract wealthy sponsors because of its Pacific Heights location. Vanessa Getty, for example, has been a supporter for years and often pays for surgeries on disabled animals -- and she bought Pinto's wheelchair.

Not that you have to be wealthy to own a disabled pet. For Hawkins and Neumann, working at Pets Unlimited is a labor of love, not a road to riches. But owning Pinto isn't a strain on their resources. Wheelchairs from K-9 Carts cost from $250 to $460, and Hawkins says she would have happily paid more for one herself if Getty hadn't spotted the bill.

It's not just financial challenges, however. Pinto doesn't have full control of his bowels and bladder, for example. K-9 Carts sells special pet diapers, but Pinto doesn't wear them; instead, Hawkins and Neumann simply limit him to certain areas of the house and clean up after him as necessary. "It definitely takes a special kind of person," says Hawkins.

Kirk Versatz and his wife, Melina, spared no effort or expense for their pug, Hades. They bought Hades as a puppy from a breeder, but, as they were to learn, there are good breeders and bad ones. Within four months, Hades had begun to drag his back legs. (Neumann recommends avoiding breeders altogether -- you can get healthier, cheaper pets at shelters, he says, and overbreeding leads to problems like canine hip dysplasia.)

X rays revealed a malformed vertebrae that was pinching Hades' spinal cord. Diagnosed as a genetic problem, it was likely the result, Kirk says, of excessive breeding. The breeder offered to euthanize Hades and provide a new puppy free of charge, but the Versatzes wouldn't hear of it. A specialist in Davis was able to prevent Hades from suffering complete paralysis, but couldn't restore use of his hind legs, or bladder and bowel control. The surgery set the Versatzes back more than $5,000.

These days, Hades, like Pinto, gets around happily in a wheelchair. He's a regular, in fact, at Pug Sunday, a celebration of pugs held in Alta Plaza Park. "Melina's patience and my love for him, as well as his courage through this all, is well worth helping him with his disability," says Kirk, an executive recruiter at Hall Kinion.

Of course, for every happy case like Pinto or Hades, there are many sad tales. The truth is, Animal Care and Control euthanizes, via lethal injection, thousands of unlucky animals each year: many lost or abandoned pets and quite a few hard-luck cases like Pinto. One-legged birds, three-legged cats, paralyzed rabbits, one-eyed iguanas -- they all end up at ACC. Some pets are disabled by accidents, others by abuse. ACC veterinarian Dilts has treated a dog with acid poured onto its face and, sadly, cases worse than that.

But considering what Dilts deals with every day, she seems remarkably upbeat. In the approximately five years she's held the post, she says, the statistics for finding disabled pets good homes have improved each year. This is one thing, it would seem, San Francisco can take pride in.

"People, no matter where they are, seem to find a place in their hearts for disabled animals," says ACC Deputy Director Kat Brown. "But if you happen to be a disabled cat or dog, San Francisco is the place to be."

Pinto, panting happily in the cool grass of Duboce Park after a vigorous romp, seems to agree.