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    When Dogs Heal

    pancakesIn honor of World AIDS Day, December 1, we are featuring the non-profit Fred Says, which promotes pet ownership to improve the lives of those with HIV/AIDS. Fred Says ( also raises funds to support HIV+ youth, with the money going to other organizations working to make a beneficial difference.

    Founder Dr. Rob Garofalo knows what it is like to live with HIV. Diagnosed in 2010, just four years following a cancer diagnosis, the prominent Chicago-based physician went through a prolonged period of depression. In January of 2011, however, he adopted a sweet little pup named Fred (now 5 years old), whom Garofalo credits as creating a space for peace and joy in his life.

    Since the start of Fred Says, many pet owners—including several from the Bay Area—have connected to Garofalo’s story of finding comfort, help and healing through a beloved pet. We would like to share some of those stories with you now, starting with San Francisco-based LGBT community leader Gary Virginia.

    His expertise in networking, community building, fundraising and grassroots activism has been very evident in positions such as President of San Francisco Pride’s Board of Directors (last year), multiple years on the board of Positive Resource Center and Co-founder of the annual and always fabulous Pride Brunch.

    Wild About Harry

    By Gary Virginia

    Twelve years ago while sitting nervously in a cold, sterile medical examination room, I shared with my doctor my persistent feelings of anxiety and depression. As a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, I was well versed in western and eastern approaches to healing. But I had suffered a stressful relationship breakup that left me feeling hopeless for my future.

    When my doctor asked if I had any pets, “my aquarium of fish” was not the answer he was seeking. We chuckled and then the conversation shifted to furry, four-legged pets. I explained my lifelong love of dogs, but how I could not have one due to being a tenant in a “no pets” building. He enthusiastically explained the benefits of an emotional support pet, and that he could prescribe an assistance dog for me.

    I didn’t act on his advice immediately, but down the road I spotted a puppy named Harry in the Castro and fell in love. I kept running into this tricolor, wire-haired pup with big ears, tethered to parking meters outside of laundromats, bars and coffee shops, and would always stop to pet or cuddle him. My friends knew I was obsessed with this little guy, and would call me if they spotted Harry in the ‘hood, day or night. I would rush out of my house with hopes of finding him, if only for a minute or two of licks and hugs.

    One day I met the man whom I thought was Harry’s guardian, but it turned out that he was a volunteer for Wonder Dog Rescue and was socializing Harry until a permanent home could be found for him. That generous man was Brad Hume, who passed in January of this year.

    What I thought was only a dream—to see Harry daily—became a reality after I successfully rescued and registered him as my assistance dog 10 years ago. In truth, Harry rescued me. And my life has been changed for the better ever since.

    In recent years, science has confirmed the healing power of pets. The Center for Disease Control cites that pets can help humans lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, cure loneliness, increase exercise and improve social life. The American Heart Association backed these claims with scientific research. Other research has shown that pet owners with AIDS are less likely to be depressed than non-owners; that kids growing up with cats or dogs tend to have fewer allergies and asthma, stronger immune systems, and learn greater responsibility.

    None of these studies were needed for me to experience the healing power of Harry in my life. As a single person living alone, I’ve developed an intimate, interdependence with my 25-pound bundle of joy. He forces me to get out of bed each day feeling appreciated, requires me to get outside at least three times daily for exercise and fresh air, and communicates a multitude of emotions in his unique ways.

    There’s no such thing as a stranger to him—people or pets—as his passive approach melts hearts wherever he treads. For a time he would join his “aunt” Deana Dawn when she worked at Under One Roof (the former retail store supporting many Bay Area HIV/AIDS charities.) She made him a nametag, and he served as a greeter luring in disarmed shoppers from Castro Street.

    On a lark in 2010, I entered Harry’s photograph in a readers’ poll contest and he won “Cutest Dog in the Bay” in the SF Bay Guardian. That year we celebrated his April 1st birthday as a benefit at Under One Roof, where a turtle, rabbit, and cats and dogs joined the party to celebrate!

    Recently, we were invited by Dr. Robert Garofalo to participate in the When Dogs Heal photo essay project with exhibitions about to open in Chicago and New York City. After I was interviewed by Zack Stafford, Harry and I sat for award-winning dog photographer Jesse Freidin. Harry is usually calm and endearing, but that day he was like a Mexican jumping bean. I was beginning to blush with embarrassment, so I swept Mr. Fuzzball into my arms to position him toward the camera and—FLASH—Jesse captured the loving bond I share with this gentle creature for our exhibition photo. (Editor’s Note: The photo is featured here and on the cover of this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times.)

    There are financial costs when adopting a pet, which are explained by rescue agencies. That became clearer to me in 2014 when one day Harry was immobile and yelping in pain. The diagnosis was degenerative disc disease and the vet explained that surgery would likely add many pain-free years to his life. The other option was not discussed, nor could I imagine my life without my buddy. The expensive surgery was a success—except for my finances—but how can you put a price on unconditional love?

    In closing, I want to thank my exceptional doctor of 20 years who recently retired, Dr. David Senechek, as well as the late Brad Hume who chose me among several potential guardians for Harry. Being a 27-year HIV/AIDS survivor with better treatment options now available, I’ll likely outlive my trusted companion. But, who knows? I may not have made it this far without him. Thanks, Harry.

    Gary Virginia is on the board of San Francisco Pride and is an advisory board member of the Positive Resource Center.