pet veteran

Photographing dead bodies in Vietnam, undergoing 37 operations and suffering from head-to-toe disabilities may make some of us kind of disgusted with life. Heck, stubbing a toe can make some of us disgusted with life.

Unless, of course, you happen to have a pet.

Getting free pets for military veterans is the mission of the new Pets 4 Vets Program launched by the Tucson nonprofit 4-Legged Friends Inc. Once the program is up and running, the group hopes to help provide free pets for any vet who wants one but can’t afford the adoption fees.

“When a vet gets a free pet it gives them hope!” group co-founder Lee Vork writes in an email. The exclamation point is all his. Vork’s enthusiasm comes easily despite his 37 operations, his 100 percent service-related disability status and his being pronounced dead in 2002 after a heart attack.

Another group co-founder is Tucsonan Bill Wilson, a vet who spent four years taking pictures of dead bodies in Vietnam, and whose experiences there include being shot down in a helicopter. His 100 percent service-related disability status is still pending, although he currently rates at 90 percent.

Vork and Wilson both grew up around animals on Midwest farms. They met in Tucson in 2005 and 4-Legged Friends was born a few years later. While the Pets 4 Vets Program is new, the group has been helping animals since the get-go.

“Over the past four-plus years we have helped save about 50 animals, and most recently we saved a family of five kittens found in an alley, and they are now happy, healthy and holistic cats!” Lee writes. Holistic food is another big chunk of the group’s goal, which is to educate folks on the benefits of holistic pet care.

The 4-Legged Friends corporate headquarters, at 7739 E. Broadway Blvd., currently houses 11 cats, eight dogs and six birds.

“We have an enclosed outside bird feeding area where the birds eat dry Azmira cat kibble and love it!!!” Lee writes.

Tucson’s Azmira Holistic Animal Care is where 4-Legged Friends obtains the holistic food it then sells to folks at discounted prices. Not only is Azmira local, but it also has been engaged in holistic animal care since 1982, long before it became the “in” thing to do.

Vork’s love of animals even helped nab him a wife! (The exclamation point is all mine.) Anya L. Lobos-Vork, a novelist, artist and consultant, played an integral role in helping 4-Legged Friends get off the ground.

“When I first met Lee, about 5 years ago, his enthusiasm for 4-Legged Friends completely blew me away,” Lobos-Vork writes. “His excitement was contagious. In no time at all, I was working on a logo, helping write fliers, brainstorming … doing anything I could to help.

“For me, anyway, there’s just something so compelling about a big, grown-up man who’s not afraid to speak tenderly to a kitten.

“All the founders of 4-Legged Friends have a profound appreciation for animals. For example, Lee and Bill are veterans with disabilities, and I’ve often heard them talk about the life-changing effect their pets have had on their lives.”

One of those life-changing effects came from two Japanese spaniels, one named Mama Yoshi, who had a special affinity for baby cats.

“Yoshi would let the kittens snuggle up on her and they would suck on her, not getting any milk, just letting them go through the motions, so to speak,” Vork says. He still has one of the kittens, now a 10-year-old cat named Tiger.

“I say to him, ‘Remember Mama Yoshi’—and he reacts!!!!”

Vork and gang also love seeing the transformation animals make with the switch from “crap pet food to holistic food.” A recent rescue cat named Mr. Magoo, who grew up eating a popular commercial brand, nearly died when his kidneys and liver began to shut down.

“With forced feeding of goat’s milk, warmed in Azmira holistic wet food formulas, along with hand-feeding salmon, Mr. Magoo is not dead and is slowly on the mend,” Vork says.

Saving animals, educating pet owners and helping vets and others experience the joy of pets is what 4-Legged Friends is all about.

“People don’t always realize the treasure they have in a pet,” Lobos-Vork writes. “Here is a furry, living, breathing being whose presence has the power to heal and transform!” The exclamation point is all hers.

This column was originally published in the Tucson Weekly.