Germany’s Tiertafel Clinic is more than a “soup kitchen” for animals

Maxine the tabby at Germany's Tiertafel Clinic in Berlin.There are all sorts of ideas about the types of people who might patronize a “soup kitchen for animals”.  And it can raise all sorts of questions. Why get a pet if you can’t afford it? How did you end up unable to care for your animal? Why don’t you give your pet away to someone who has more money?

But these questions wouldn’t float around if everyone were able to spend a short time at Tiertafel – The International Fund for Animal Welfare partner in Germany. Based in an old school, Tiertafel in Berlin is made up of a long hallway with a series of rooms dedicated to one thing or another – shelves packed with bags and cans of pet food, tables for client registration, an area for distribution, a waiting room, a clinic. This is one of 23 pet “soup kitchens” Tiertafel provides across Germany, and since the autumn of 2010, IFAW has made it possible for this location to provide the only regular, accessible medical care in the area for the pets of those who are impoverished.

Tiertafel carefully screens it patrons - who line up outside the building and fill the rooms and hallways on Saturdays - to be sure help is really going to those who need it most.  For many, it’s impossible to imagine being in a position where one couldn’t provide the basics for a beloved companion.  Things like food and vaccinations can seem so simple. But sometimes we take simple things for granted and those who wait in line at Tiertafel love their pets equally as much as any other pet owner.

When I was there this past weekend I met the owner of Maxine, a six-year old female tabby who needed emergency care. Blood had been coming from Maxine’s mouth and she’d been unable to eat. Her lower jaw would sometimes tremble.

When Maxine’s owner arrived at Tiertafel her face was positively stricken as she explained what had been happening to her cat.  She told us she’d hand-raised Maxine since she was a tiny kitten, so small that she had to be bottle-fed. When Maxine became ill, she’d tried taking her to the same veterinarian they’d always gone to, one that had known Maxine’s owner for almost 20 years and had treated her other pets – two senior dogs.  But when she couldn’t afford to pre-pay for Maxine’s examination and treatment, explaining that she was going through a difficult financial time and just needed to pay in a few installments, the veterinarian refused to see Maxine. (Pre-payment has become a common practice for many veterinarians across Germany since the recent economic crisis resulted in clientele who would more frequently fail to pay for services). But in the case of Maxine it didn’t matter that her owner had always paid her veterinary bills or that Maxine was suffering, there was no way to get care.

Maxine’s only option was to see our veterinarian at Tiertafel Berlin, and arrangements were made to get her in right away last Saturday. When the veterinarian examined Maxine she discovered tartar build-up so thick on the right side of her mouth that her gums had swollen to 3 times the normal size. The right side of her jaw was seriously infected and extremely painful. 

With the infection from her teeth spreading through her circulatory system, left untreated her condition could have become life threatening. But Maxine received antibiotics and painkillers, and follow-up dental treatment was scheduled. Maxine’s owner’s stricken face finally softened and she held her cat close. She thanked everyone, multiple times, for making such a visit possible – for saving her cat.

But Maxine and her owner were only one of many amazing pairs of people and their pets I met this past weekend.  I also met “Daggie”, a little terrier with a belly like a barrel and an underbite that left all four front teeth protruding, and ever-grumpy face. Her wiry hair was mostly smoky grey, with unusual patches of black and flecks of white.

Her owner explained that even though Daggie was 12 years old, she’d only had her for 4 years. Daggie’s previous owner had been a drug-addict and had been looking for someone to watch her for a few weeks while he went through rehab.

After a few months and no word that the man would take Daggie back, his current owner went looking for him. But when she found his apartment she also found he was gone, and a neighbor appeared and asked her to please keep Daggie. She explained that in Daggie’s previous home she’d been physically abused, kept in a box, and constantly bred. Daggie would be happier and safer, she explained, if the woman would just keep her. And she did, telling us that since coming to live with her, Daggie had finally learned how to play with toys.  As Daggie’s owner told us the story, the little dog calmly sat at her feet as though this was the person she’d been with her whole life.

Bessie.Across the hallway from Daggie was “Bessie”, who looked to be a cross between a husky and a shepherd. A big black and tan dog with pointy ears that flopped to the side, Bessie kept looking up and down the hall waiting for the next person to walk past and pet her.

She was adopted from the animal shelter and her new owner wanted to give something back for the support he got in his life (from organizations like Tiertafel and IFAW – but also because he is simply unemployed).  So he started to train “Bessie” and now spends time as a therapy dog visiting nursing homes. Her owner told us that on more than one occasion, Bessie had helped the nursing home patients make progress on their rehabilitation. He also showed us a slew of Bessie’s tricks, including one that ended in a very sloppy kiss.

When you stop in the rooms and hallways of Tiertafel and talk to people about their pets, there is no question about what they mean to each other. Dogs looking dotingly up at their owners with the same affection their owners reflect back onto them. People like Maxine’s owner are overwhelmed with gratitude that there is some place to turn for help when the alternative is unthinkable. 

It’s hard to imagine there is any reason these people and their pets shouldn’t be together, or that these owner’s wouldn’t do everything for their animals if they could. For the unshakeable bond that can form between people and animals, it’s so important places like Tiertafel exist.

-- HL

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
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