Program using homeless puppies to curb panhandling draws ire of PETA

Dylan Stableford
The Sideshow

A new community program that pairs homeless puppies with formerly homeless people is being tested in San Francisco and has drawn the ire of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which calls the plan "puppy Russian roulette."

Organizers of the pilot program, which launched Aug. 1, say the pound pups—who are matched with caregivers until a permanent home can be found—would otherwise be candidates for euthanasia. And they say the  participants—now living in supportive housing and being paid a weekly $75 stipend to care for the puppies—are often inspired to improve their own lives.

"We've heard story after story of people getting their life on track because of an animal," Rebecca Katz, director of San Francisco's Animal Care and Control, told the Associated Press.

Bevan Dufty, who is spearheading the so-called WOOF ("Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos") plan, says it's a constructive way of curbing the city's panhandling problem.

"I'm tired of pushing people around," Dufty told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. "You can make it difficult for people to panhandle, but ultimately they're just going to go do it somewhere else. Why not try to meet their needs for income in a way that helps the city and its animals?"

Because people with a history of substance abuse should not be given the responsibility of caring for animals, PETA says, and that the money would be better spent on funding spaying and neutering programs.

The organization fired off a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee slamming the initiative.

"Handing over troubled animals to troubled people will save neither, and it places both at risk of injury, further trauma, and a bad end," PETA wrote. ""Most former panhandlers are financially destitute because of struggles with substance abuse and mental-health issues. Placing any animal with them is risky at best, it should be out of the question to play Russian roulette with these animals, allowing them to be used as lures or pawns."

The organizers say the homeless caregivers are not allowed to panhandle and must go through a mental health screening before they're matched with a stray pooch.

That's not good enough for PETA:

They say nothing about the foster caregivers' lack of experience dealing with traumatized dogs with special needs who are "rowdy, hyper or too shy to interact with humans." The last thing the city's most vulnerable dogs need is to be put in a precarious situation and exposed to improper, counterproductive, or cruel training methods, which could result in their being bounced from one foster home to another and make their behavior problems worse, not better.

PETA says it has offered $10,000 to the city of San Francisco to pay participants "to perform any other service for the city, such as leafleting for spaying and neutering. (Earlier this month, PETA and "Celebrity Rehab" host Dr. Drew Pinsky launched a "Cure for Animal Homelessness" campaign advocating the spaying and neutering of pets.)

This isn't the first time a plan to pay homeless or once homeless people for a community service has come under fire. In March, a marketing firm strapped wireless Internet devices to 13 homeless people in Austin, turning them into walking "Homeless Hotspots" during South by Southwest. The stunt was met with an immediate backlash.

BBH, the marketing firm behind the campaign, partnered with Front Steps, an Austin homeless advocacy group, to "employ" the participants. The money that attendees paid for Internet access ($2 for 15 minutes of Wi-Fi access) went directly to the homeless individuals.

The reaction to the publicity stunt has been critical to say the least. "It is a neat idea on a practical level," David Gallagher wrote on the New York Times' Tumblr, "but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us ... we turn human beings into infrastructure?"