As PalsNPets grows, I often ask myself how I came to found such an organization. Having no background in the charity sector, and no experience of running a shelter or animal rescue facility, the answer isn’t obvious; instead, it lies half-hidden in my own and my family’s past.
I grew up in Los Angeles, alongside my three sisters, as first-generation Mexican Americans. Throughout high school and college, I struggled to gain clarity around my ambitions and life-direction. I lacked self-trust and intuition, and my early adult life was defined by an absence of clear purpose.
In 2016, I happened to see a trivial incident that ultimately inspired PalsNPets. As I was crossing the street, I saw a homeless man sitting with his pet dog beside him. I asked myself the natural question: Why would a homeless person keep a dog – it must make life harder on them both?
But, as he passed, a stranger stopped to pet the dog, and he and the homeless man exchanged natural, genuine smiles. It was the smallest of things, but it opened my eyes to the positive energy a pet can bring to the life of someone who has almost nothing.
I just happened to witness this scene as I passed in the street, so why should such a trivial incident have meant so much to me? It seemed to tap into an awareness just beneath the surface, an understanding of the importance of dogs to the lives of humans. That awareness had developed in my earliest years, from my relationship with my grandfather…
Carlos Portillo (or Abuelito Carlos), was born on November 4, 1923, and grew up in a pueblo called Teocaltiche, in Mexico. Tragically, his mother was killed in the crossfire of a shootout, and his father was absent from his early life.
Left with his uncles – who had their own children to care for and very little money – my grandfather was neglected. He would often pass the nights sleeping outside, where he found companionship and physical warmth among the stray street dogs.
After leaving home at fourteen, my grandfather moved to another pueblo, near the USA border, called Tecate, Mexico. Here he found work as a rancher. At sixteen, he married Maria, my grandmother, and had two children, my aunt – Tia Fela, and my father – Rafael. It was about this time that he began to take in stray dogs. While other people in his pueblo viewed them as pests, he gave them food, protection, and the human care they lacked.
As a child, my parents would take my sisters and I to visit our grandparents. I looked forward to these weekly visits – and the chance to see my grandfather’s dogs, often ten or fifteen in number. But it was only later that I understood the full significance of what he was doing.
From the 1930’s onward, my grandfather slowly changed his community’s perception of the value of stray animals. Knowing that he would take them in, local people began to bring him dogs that were sick or pregnant, and he would heal them, or find caring homes for the puppies. In a small way, I often think of my grandfather as having created the first dog rescue in Mexico.
A Connection Through Time
PalsNPets also works to break down barriers and change perceptions, just as my grandfather did. Certain stories stand out to me, and relate intimately to the work I do today. Once, my grandfather kept a German Shepard, which he’d found abandoned and tied to a cactus. The dog was too vicious to be rehabilitated, and would often bite defensively. Most people would have shot that dog, but my grandfather made it as comfortable as possible throughout its life.
It’s common to see these aggressive or protective tendencies in homeless people’s dogs, and this is one of many reasons so few shelters accept pets. But at PalsNPets, we have the facilities and experience to offer support to even the most damaged pets, and to provide them – and their owners – with a nurturing environment in which to heal.
Those career choices I once agonized over have been decided for me. Perhaps it’s fate that brought me to teach – through the PalsNPets Pet Parenting program; to serve as an informal therapist – bonding with those we work with over shared experiences of alcoholism, institutions, a loss of trust in humanity and dysfunctional systems; to work alongside veterinarians and researchers almost day by day… I’ve found so many of my dreams wrapped up in my new calling.
And the sense of legacy reaches back beyond my own life. While his family name may not be passed on, my grandfather’s capacity for compassion and bond with dogs has survived through the generations. I know he’d be proud of family members who – after years of being unconnected – are now involved with PalsNPets. Together, we’ve found a deep healing energy in the work of helping others; this energy continues to attract people who join us in our efforts.
Inspired by my grandfather’s compassion for the stray dogs no one cared about, our organization has become successful faster than I could ever have dreamed. Within a couple of short years, I’ve moved from working odd jobs, to running a thriving non-profit, and leading talks with nationwide organizations on the adoption of pet-friendly policies.
While PalsNPets has answered so many questions in my life, I sometimes feel that it wasn’t truly my idea at all, but a continuation of the work my grandfather began over seventy years ago.
"My Abuelito Carlos spirit is alive and strong in PalsNPets."
- Iliana Belinc