Russell LaPorte teared up as he spoke about the care his dog and her puppies have received from veterinarian Jeff Wittman.
LaPorte lives in a tent on Stockton Road. His dog Juliet, a chihuahua, had four puppies 10 weeks ago.
“For someone to put up their time and energy to do this means a lot,” LaPorte said. “They could say to hell with us, we don’t want to deal with them.”
LaPorte arrived at Wittman’s Sierra Veterinary Care in Sonora just after 9:15 a.m. Thursday to get the final round of immunization shots for the puppies.
Wittman has provided free veterinary services to local homeless people for the past five years. He says his goal is to prevent animal suffering and the spread of disease.
LaPorte became homeless four years ago. The dogs provide a sense of protection and purpose for LaPorte, who previously lived on Big Hill and worked as an in-home caretaker for 10 years. He said a nervous breakdown drove him to quit his job and retreat from society.
“I have to take care of them because they can’t take care of themselves,” he said of the dogs. “What they do for me is they protect me and tell me when stuff is happening.”
Wittman gave each of the puppies a shot on Thursday that will prevent them from getting parvo, a highly contagious and potentially fatal gastrointestinal illness in young dogs.
Amanda Miller, the clinic’s floor manager, held each of the puppies and petted their heads as Wittman gently applied the shots.
“Those pups, if not vaccinated, would be very vulnerable and at risk,” Wittman said. “It’s also good for the community at large because if we’re seeing pockets of parvo out there, it puts other dogs at risk.”
Wittman has been a veterinarian for 30 years and opened Sierra Veterinary Care at 708 Mono Way in 1994. All of his siblings also work in the field.
The first experience Wittman had with the homeless was five years ago underneath the Sullivan Creek bridge.
Hazel Mitchell, co-founder of the local nonprofit organization Give Someone a Chance, asked Wittman if he would be willing to help some people whose dogs needed vaccinations.
Wittman said he and others from his clinic went to the bridge and gave out vaccinations and other products for health-related issues like flea control.
“When you see a homeless person snuggling up next to their pet as a source of warmth, it kind of breaks your heart and makes you have compassion for them,” he said.
Since that experience, Wittman has provided veterinary services to more homeless people than he can remember. He also regularly provides dog food from Tia’s Tubs n’ Toys, which he also owns and is located next door to his clinic.
Wittman said none of the work he does would be possible without the help of Mitchell, who coordinates appointments and makes sure people come back for follow-ups.
“That’s the only way it really makes it work,” he said. “We can’t see everyone who shows up here without an appointment.”
The hardest part of the job is having to euthanize someone’s pet, Wittman said, whether they’re homeless or not.
Wittman recalls having to euthanize a dog belonging to a homeless person who was sobbing.
“It’s that human emotion, you would have to be heartless not to feel it,” he said. “We end up crying, too, but we also know we’re preventing an animal from suffering.”
Mitchell gave a framed certificate from her organization to Wittman on Thursday in recognition of the work he’s done over the years.
Michael Rogers, another local homeless man, also gave Wittman a thank you card for removing a foxtail from his dog’s eye about two months ago.
Wittman said the gratitude that the homeless have shown him has been one of the greatest rewards.
“That’s payment enough for us,” he said. “They’re up against it and can’t afford it. We do what we can.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.