Willy, a young beagle-basset, was up to little good last spring, roaming loose on Maryland Avenue, lacking street smarts and facing an uncertain future.
He was rescued by Jean Box, a Pets on Wheels Inc. official, who took him home to her family. Willy then began commuting to work as the unofficial office mascot, visiting Alzheimer's disease patients weekly at Keswick Home in Roland Park and cheering up most everyone in sight, from Ms. Box's children to the elderly patients.
If only the future of Pets on Wheels Inc. were as solid as Willy's, Elaine Farrant says of the statewide nonprofit that she considers the major way people visit the aged.
"People don't line up to visit nursing homes," she said. "Pets on Wheels is a main way to get into the nursing homes. Not that many individuals or families visit."
Ms. Farrant, the Maryland coordinator who has run Pets on Wheels Inc. almost from its beginning in 1982, is concerned about sustaining the mission of the small charity of 1,100 volunteers and pets who have talked, barked and meowed their way into the lives of thousands of lonely Maryland nursing home patients.
"It's so sad to see so many old people just sit," Ms. Farrant said. "You see them there in nursing homes staring and despondent. Their families have left them.
"We come in with our dogs and cats. The patients may not react visibly at first, but they come around in days or weeks or months. They pet the animals, they comb them, they talk to them, they are less lonely."
She talked of needing money and volunteers, concerns of many nonprofits.
Maryland helped fund the effort started by Dr. Frank Furstenberg through programs for the aged, she said. But the state financing stopped five years ago. And, federal assistance is ending this July after six years of up to $30,000 a year.
"We have a reserve but in a couple years, it'll hurt," Ms. Farrant said. "We're looking for new money sources."
Pets on Wheels also gets funding for its $110,000 annual budget from personal contributions, individuals designating through the United Way, foundations, corporations, the annual 5K Dog-A-Thon walk in October and other sources. Almost half is for grants for Pets programs she coordinates in 17 Maryland counties.
As with many nonprofits, a few paid staffers direct things, but volunteers do the main work, often one to two hours a week. "But it's harder now to get volunteers in some places," Ms. Farrant said.
Forty Baltimore nursing homes are visited, but Pets has a list of another 22 city homes and other care facilities looking for just one pet team of animal and human.
The executive director wasn't sure why volunteers are down in some areas, such as Baltimore, which had 220 volunteers in 1992 and 135 now, while Anne Arundel County with far fewer nursing homes (about 14) has 200 volunteers.
Ms. Farrant said the pet teams are rewarded.
"It changes the volunteers' life," she said. "You learn about death, illness, yourself. We don't deal with death in this country, we're so uncomfortable.
"I volunteer at a West Baltimore nursing home with a neighbor's dog, Buttons. It isn't easy to do in the beginning, but stick with it, and it will change your life. It will put your irritabilities and personal problems in perspective."
She offered some facts about Pets on Wheels: Unwanted animals should be taken elsewhere. Prospective pets get a temperament test and require a veterinarian's health form. Dogs outnumber cats (dogs generally are friendlier and attract quicker responses than cats because of that), but rabbits, birds and guinea pigs also visit. Volunteers get to pick the times and nursing homes (or hospitals and other facilities) they want to visit. Patients may first ignore or yell at your pet but they'll come to love the visits.
Willy changes some lives every week, William Hoyt Jr. of Lutherville said. For a year, Mr. Hoyt took his dog, Briscoe, to visit Alzheimer's patients at Keswick once a week. Like many humans, Briscoe wasn't cut out for social work.
"Briscoe returned affections with a jaundiced eye," he said. "He likes one or two people at a time, but in a large group of people he'll go under the table."
Then Ms. Box, the Baltimore City coordinator, found Willy wandering near the crowded small Pets on Wheels offices at 2619 Maryland Ave.
She adopted him for her family, including her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, Elly and David Bernstein. Ms. Box and Willy commute to Maryland Avenue from Mount Washington each day.
L Mr. Hoyt agreed to take Willy to Keswick, replacing Briscoe.
Willy and the Alzheimer's patients were a perfect match.
"Willy has an open heart," Mr. Hoyt said. "He loves the attention and affection he gets and he returns it. He's a perfect dog for this kind of thing."
Mr. Hoyt is struck by the impact the pet teams have on the lonely residents.
"Willy comes by and sees them every week," he said. "They may not remember 15 minutes later seeing him or me, but that's not the point. Willy brightens them up for the time he's there. He is perfect for such a valid, good program."