ED LESTER REALIZES HE ISN'T THE model pet owner. Homeless for the past 10 years, he drinks heavily and often sleeps on the street, leaving the scruffy black dog he calls Chicken to fend for himself. "Sometimes I can't believe he's still with me when I wake up," admits Lester, 26. "There's this responsibility thing I haven't really figured out. But I know I have to take care of him."
Luckily for Lester—and for hundreds of other down-and-outers in Seattle—there is help. In the basement of the city's Union Gospel Mission, Dr. Stanley Coe, 64, a veterinarian and owner of the local Elliot Bay Animal Hospital, runs the Doney Memorial Pet Clinic, perhaps the only free medical facility in the nation for pets of the homeless and indigent. Open two Saturdays a month from 3 to 5, the clinic offers food, exams and shots to whoever trots in: The staff of 25 rotating volunteers has treated rabbits, ferrets, pigs, even an iguana that was suffering from radiator burns.
"You never know what's going to walk in the door," says Coe—but you do know it will be someone's best friend. "Most of the clients are with their pets around the clock, so there's tremendous bonding between them," says Coe. "And I've been amazed since I started doing this: You almost never see an animal that's undernourished. They find ways to feed them."
Coe first came to Doney in 1987, after reading in the paper that the clinic's founder, Seattle vet Charles Doney, had died and the two-year-old facility's future was in doubt. With his two children grown, Coe, who lives in Seattle with his wife, Marge, and their two cats, had some extra time on his hands and decided he could help fill a need. "You see homeless people with animals," he says, "and you know they're not able to find the proper medical attention for their pets."
Armed with a veterinary medical degree from Washington State University and 40 years of experience, Coe set up shop in the stale-smelling, fluorescent-lit room that doubles as the nondenominational Christian mission's TV lounge. The clinic, which is funded by private donations, "doesn't have running water, and we don't always have on hand the first choice in drugs that we need," Coe says. But that hasn't hurt business. On an average Saturday, Coe and one of the four vets who take turns working with him see some 70 patients in two hours. Patients like Ed Lester's pooch Chicken, who recently got shots for tapeworm. ("They also gave me flea spray for my house," says Lester, smiling, "but I don't have one.") "Sometimes it's depressing," says Coe. "You treat people's animals for something and you never see them again—they hop the next freight train, and you never know what happened to their pet."
But the work can be gratifying as well. "Most animal owners are making an effort to try to get their feet on the ground," Coe says. "Pets are an inspiration to better their lot in life."
When he sees an owner like Skye Kahli, a formerly homeless woman who sobbed when he ordered blood tests on her cat Misha, he knows he's helping in that quest. "Misha keeps me sane and grounded," says Kahli (who ultimately learned Misha had a treatable tooth infection). "In the past I called veterinarians for help and they just slammed down the phone. But not this place. They really are angels."
IRENE ZUTELL in Seattle