This summer the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) is celebrating its 11th year of operating “Pets for Vets,” a program designed to provide a pet to Veterans at no cost.
The brainchild of Dr. Russell Lemle, Chief Psychologist at the SFVAMC, "Pets for Vets" operates solely on donations.
Dr. Lemle, a pet lover himself, used his own funds as seed money, and
enlisted Voluntary Service to establish a fund for other donations. To
date, the program has given out certificates for 169 four-legged
“Pets for Vets” is a caring effort in which everyone benefits. Cats
and dogs are adopted into homes and Veterans gain the love and
companionship that pets bring.
“She helped me get better.”
— Veteran Rick Magnone
Mazie the Cattle Dog
Rick and Mazie are the perfect example of a pet and a Vet coming
together with great results. Rick Magnone is an Air Force Veteran who
remembers that he was “very sick with Hepatitis C” back in 2000 when
Mazie came into his life.”She helped me get better.” Mazie is a
Queensland Heeler, an Australian cattle dog, trained to herd. An
instinct hard to restrain, according to Rick. “When I would take her to
the dog park, she would constantly try to herd all the other dogs in the
“When we first met, she ran right up to me and started making circles
like a drover dog does so I knew we were supposed to connect. The Pets
for Vets program is great. I love it.”
The 11-year bond between Rick and Mazie was very valuable when Rick’s
wife passed away recently. “What a wonderful time to have a friend like
Mazie. She is a godsend — so gentle and responsive.”
Pet Owners Take Less Medication
“The elderly, who often experience disproportionate loneliness and
loss, are especially well served by pets,” said Dr. Lemle. “Studies have
suggested that pet owners have fewer annual visits to physicians, take
less medication, recuperate better from certain surgeries and take more
According to the Centers for Disease Control, owning a pet can have
measurable medical benefits, including decreasing blood pressure,
cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.
Studies show that it can significantly lower feelings of loneliness
while increasing opportunities for exercise and socialization.
“Dog Tags” Photo Exhibit
To complement the free adoption program, the halls of the San
Francisco VA Medical Center have been graced with a permanent gallery of
30 professional photographic portraits of Veterans with their pets.
Captured in natural light, these black and white portraits reveal an
animal-human connection filled with intimacy, candor and occasional
humor. The theme has a rich poignancy: men and women who served their
country and the animals that serve them with allegiance and love.
The photo exhibit, entitled “Dog Tags,” has been extremely popular
with Veterans, visitors, and staff alike, and has been featured on Bay
Area TV news programs and the regional Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) magazine, Our Animals.
The exhibit also went on tour, with exhibits at the San Francisco War Memorial and in the halls of VA headquarters.
All portraits were taken by Don Crowe, Ph.D., a Bay Area psychologist
who is one of the leading pet photographers in the country.
The Pets for Vets project is now almost completely supported by a
grant from the Annenberg Foundation through their Dog Bless USA project.
To learn more about Pets for Vets, contact Russell Lemle at Russell.Lemle@va.gov
Punkin had a Very Good Life
by Stan Lewandowski, Veteran
I was the first Veteran to adopt a pet through Dr. Russell Lemle’s “Pets for Vets” program.
I have always had cats and my little Spencer, a rescue cat, had recently passed away.
I was given a certificate for the San Francisco SPCA and coupons for a local pet store that provided me with a litter box, litter, a collar, food dishes and a bag of food, a brush and a cat toy.
I adopted an adult spayed female that I named Punkin because of her orange coloring, a black round spot on her nose and, well, it was October.
The SPCA classified her as a calico and she was multi-colored like they all are, with orange, black, brown and white fur.
She had been declawed by the first owner and I had read that since declawed cats no longer have natural defenses, they bluff their way through tough spots by being vocally aggressive. I thought it was an endearing habit and I would talk back and forth with her as long as she would keep it up.
Punkin settled right in and quickly became a part of the family.
She loved to curl up on my lap whenever I lay down on the couch — she was very loving. I adopted her in 1999 and she passed away in the spring of 2008 surrounded by her family, at home, in my arms. I get tears in my eyes remembering.
She had a very good life, full of love which she returned in spades. To this day when I think of her, I can’t help but smile.
The “Pets for Vets” program was begun to help Vets through the loving interaction with a pet, a completely understanding, accepting, loving presence that can make you laugh when you feel down or just be a friend.
They make you go through the effort to feed and care for them even if you are just going through the motions and you don’t feel like it. They reward you with unconditional love and acceptance which can change lives.
Pets add so much to our existence that I can’t imagine life without one.
Stan Lewandowski is an Army Veteran, 1971-1974, and has worked for VA for almost 19 years.