David Lopéz spends his nights on cold city streets just trying to get by.
Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to do it alone, thanks to a loving four-legged companion who follows him wherever he goes.
“He’s really everything to me,” Lopéz said about Soldier, his sturdy red-nosed pit bull.
Many human-animal companions like Lopéz and Soldier live one day at a time in the City Different, trying to scrounge up enough to eat or to find small comforts that make living outside just a little easier. In many cases, these people would be separated from their animal companions if not for the Street Homeless Animal Project, also known as SHAP, a nonprofit that helps pets on the street get food, veterinary care and all the supplies their owners need to look after them.
“We have always believed at SHAP that no companion animal of a homeless person should be hungry or in pain, just because their guardian doesn’t have a roof over their head or money in their pocket,” said Karen Cain, the organization’s founder. “Our mission is to alleviate suffering and keep homeless, animal-human families together. … Our services bring hope and peace of mind to homeless individuals.”
Lopéz said before the pandemic, he lived in an apartment with Soldier and a German shepherd named Bella and worked at a Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
When COVID-19 hit, closing many restaurants and forcing people to work from home, Lopéz lost his job and his apartment.
He said he tried to take on landscaping jobs but has never been able to make enough to afford a place to live. Lopéz said he had to make the hard decision to give up Bella but refused to give up Soldier.
“I couldn’t do it,” Lopéz said. “He is like my baby.”
Brandon Tadlock also lives on the streets with his partner, Milan Quintana, and Annie Bone, a perky-eared pit bull with a heart-shaped nose.
Tadlock said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after deploying to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Then, after the death of his grandfather, he ended up on the streets of Tyler, Texas. That’s where he met a man who was carrying the small white and brown spotted pup in a backpack.
“She was so chill. She just, like, looks up at me and goes back to sleep,” he said, recalling the moment he first saw Annie.
He said the man often left Annie tied up for more than eight hours a day while he panhandled. Tadlock said he eventually convinced the man to let him watch Annie, and before long, Tadlock and the dog had become best friends.
Through a twist of fate, the dog became his.
“One day I come back to my spot; I hadn’t been there in a while, and she was there, not tied up or anything. Just sitting there waiting for me, pretty much,” Tadlock recalled.
Since then, the two have been inseparable.
“She’s like my little avatar, my shadow,” Tadlock said. “I can’t take a step back without stepping on her. … She’s like the best ever.”
Tadlock and Annie came to Santa Fe about five or six years ago when he was trying to get to Colorado for a job, which was filled before he got there. He decided to make Santa Fe his home, and found love when he met Quintana about five years ago.
Tadlock said Cain and SHAP have changed their lives for the better, especially after the group helped Annie get a surgery to remove a growth from her eye. He said the growth started off small, about the size of a marble, but eventually got bigger and started causing issues for Annie. Cain was eventually able to get Annie to a vet and had SHAP cover the $600 bill, which Tadlock could not have afforded.
Now Tadlock serves as an outreach volunteer for SHAP, helping connect other homeless pet owners with the program to get them help.
Cain, who had always been an animal-rights activist, started the program in 1998 after moving from Dallas to Santa Fe. She said it all started when she saw a man and his dog on the side of the road.
“Both were limping, and so I pulled over, and I asked him if they needed help,” she recalled. “He said, ‘My dog needs a doc and I need a doc, too,’ and so really, from that day on this program was born.”
Cain said she drove the man to a doctor and took his dog to a veterinarian, paying for the animal’s care.
“And so after that day, it was like an epiphany, and I became very involved with homeless activism, and advocacy. I saw how important these bonds were between the animal and their person,” Cain said. “They’re a pair; they’re a family. I know how much mine mean to me, and that is identical to how people out on the street feel about their companion.”
Over the years, SHAP grew from a small operation to an organization that helps homeless pets all over Northern New Mexico. Cain said the organization mainly partners with the Smith Veterinary Hospital to help get the animals the care they need, from spaying and neutering to vaccines to necessary surgical procedures.
Even with SHAP, life is still hard for homeless people and pets living on the streets.
In 2021, Tadlock was shot on the right side of his face while panhandling near Zafarano Drive and Rodeo Road. Richard Archuleta, 19, was arrested and charged with attempted murder and two counts of shooting at or from a motor vehicle. Danny Romero, 23, was also charged with attempted murder along with conspiracy and tampering with evidence.
Tadlock, who had to be flown to the University of New Mexico Hospital, made a full recovery, but the scars, both physical and mental, remain.
Every night, these families try to find a place to sleep outside, sometimes in freezing temperatures. The search has been made harder since the city made camping illegal. Even though Pete’s Place, a local shelter, has kennels available for dogs outside, both Lopéz and Tadlock said they don’t want to leave their pets’ sides.
Both men also said they often face harassment, usually from people who feel they shouldn’t have pets. Lopéz said he wants people like that to know he is working hard just to get by but wishes it were easier.
“The other day a guy yelled at me, he was like, ‘You lazy [expletive] get a job,’ and I was like, ‘Well, you give me a job. I will go clean your yard or whatever.’ So you know, I’m not lazy,” Lopéz said. “I’m not out here just because I want to. I don’t want to be out here, like, I’m trying. It’s hard.”
Tadlock said he wants people to know his love for Annie is real and not just something he uses to gain sympathy.
“People think that we’re just using it as a crutch,” Tadlock said. “Our dog is not a possession or like something that we own. She’s our family member, you know; she’s our baby. It will always be our job to make sure we take care of her first.”