Sure, many of us giggle at the misspelled “I can haz cheezburger” adventures of felines on websites like LOLcats.com, or forward the viral videos of dogs playing when their parents aren’t home that seem ubiquitous on Facebook and YouTube.
But the unconditional love that pets are known for can be extra meaningful for people who go through life being judged. Few episodes illustrate this more clearly than the early days of the AIDS epidemic when cats, dogs and other pets took the place of the mothers, brothers and best friends in the lives of those dying from the disease.
“Back then, if you were diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, you were pretty much cut off — you lost your job, you lost your family, you lost all your friends — because no one really knew how you could get it,” recalls Kevin Bryant. “So you lost everyone you had contact with, and most people only had their pets as their companion.”
The desire to preserve the nurturing bond between pets and the gay men who lacked the resources — financial, physical and familial — to support them inspired two veterinarians to found Pets Are Loving Support, where Bryant serves as executive director.
As the nature of the AIDS epidemic dramatically improved, PALS has extended its services — primarily, providing pet food and assistance with medical care — to cover individuals with disabilities, senior citizens and those with chronic illnesses, but Bryant says gay pet owners continue to make up a majority of PALS clients.
“It’s still a source of companionship, and it’s nice to have someone to care for,” says Bryant, who adds that pets were, and continue to be, a way for gay men and lesbians to create their own families.
“It’s been very easy for me to relate to, when a client or a potential client calls and I hear how frantic they are about what they’re going to do when some unfortunate incident has happened to them and they don’t want to get rid of their pet,” Bryant says. “My own dog, I got him when he was a few weeks old and now he’s 10 and going through cancer, and honestly, he’s the most important thing in my life.
“I think about him when I wake up and I think about him when I go to bed — he’s my best friend, my companion,” he adds. “He’s got me through a lot of rough years, and partners come and go, but your pet is with you for life.”
LGBT people across Atlanta cherish their bonds with their cats, dogs, birds and other pets every day, animal souls who are there during life milestones and help create new ones, who are quick to lift spirits or offer a shoulder to lean on.
Pets Are Loving Support 2115 Liddell Drive NE , Atlanta, GA 30324 404-876-PALS, www.palsatlanta.org