Through the Better Neighbor Project, Victoria Piar and her team bring free grooming, training, food, and healthcare to thousands of beloved pets.
By Siobhan Brier
Victoria Piar is a humanitarian to the bone.
She worked at Habitat for Humanity on the front lines of the housing crisis, helping people own, build, and repair their homes. With Habitat, she partook in activities like traveling to Macedonia to build homes and building shelters on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness for homeless veterans. For her Master’s in International Development and Service, she worked with a nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, offering aid to migrants traveling through the Mekong region in Thailand. She also spent time with a health NGO in Brussels, again focusing on a migrant health crisis.
Between many locations and many types of work, Victoria remained focused on helping people. Then, on paper, it may look like she switched to helping animals. But Victoria doesn’t see it that way.
As the program manager of the Better Neighbor Project (BNP), Victoria doesn’t see helping pets and helping people as mutually exclusive. “Even though it’s an animal organization, we work with people,” Victoria said. “We’re mostly here to support the owners, which in the end, benefits the pets and the whole family. My role at Habitat was to be an advocate for affordable housing. Now, my role is to be an advocate for pet owners and their pets who can’t advocate for themselves.”
The Better Neighbor Project
It all started with food. Michelson Found Animals (MFA) didn’t want people to have to take food off their own plates so that their pets could eat. BNP first started handing out pet food on small wagons, then started offering pet food at preexisting food pantries. But there was still a significant problem.
“Through COVID, a lot of veterinary clinics were closing or combining,” Victoria pointed out, “and there were a lot of resource deserts where there was a lack of affordable care for pets. So we brought partners together to provide free veterinary services and hygiene.”
Along with pet food, the Better Neighbor Project began to set up stations where people could bring their pets and get food and other pet care services for free.
First, there were stations dedicated to wellness, which includes services like:
- Flea treatment
And the other type of service, hygiene, focuses on:
- Ear cleaning
- Teeth cleaning
- Nail trimming
- Fur brushing and trimming
“For the animals, a mini spa day is something that can help them look better and feel better,” Victoria explained. “You can see that the dogs are happier after.”
A Focus on Collaboration
When Victoria came on board, MFA was having its second pet wellness day event. MFA has a wide national reach, so they started partnering with local groups, like community-based organizations, who would let them use their parking lot to host the events. These partners also offer more reach among the local community.
“It’s really [a] collaboration,” Victoria said, “because we bring our expertise, but we rely on our local engagement to ensure that we serve these communities properly.”
And it’s not just collaboration with the partners but also with the members of the community where they host the events. “We try not to go into a place knowing what the needs are but instead asking questions and learning from them,” said Victoria. “We’re working together; you tell us what you need, and we fill in the gap. Because they’re the experts.”
Some partners include local volunteers like pet trainers who can offer tips and training advice to those who need them. A local cat-focused organization has also offered traps to volunteers who can bring cats in to be neutered and later released to reduce the population of stray cats. Another partner of BNP called Kitty Bungalow has a working cat program, which takes cats who aren’t adoptable and gives them a job, such as in a warehouse or on a farm. In fact, the BNP warehouse is home to two working cats who came from Kitty Bungalow!
Ani and Dani, BNP’s working cats at their warehouse in Los Angeles
Serving Both Ends of the Leash
Victoria took over BNP during COVID when many organizations were lessening their services, and many volunteers were worried about coming into contact with so many people. But instead of cutting down on its program, BNP doubled in size and scope.
“When everyone was pulling back on front-facing community engagement and not being out in the field, we increased our presence,” Victoria explained, “because the need was greater than the fear.”
Under Victoria and her team, the number of pets served doubled and continued growing. The lines of people and critters looking for free pet care wrapped around the block. And they didn’t stop with serving pets.
“We try to keep some sort of human element,” Victoria explained. When the COVID vaccine came out, they started offering free COVID vaccinations at their events for attendees. “We had to specify, this way for human vaccines, that way for pet vaccines,” Victoria laughed.
“People Love Their Pets.”
Now, around 350-400 pets are served every time there is a Better Neighbor Project event.
“We wear the staff shirts, so we always get stopped by people, and they thank us,” Victoria said. “They thank us for coming to their community, and they say that it’s rare to find events like ours that are at our scale.”
BNP is still at its original locations, the first two food pantries where they started offering food. And now, they attract regulars who show photos of their pets, saying things like, “He loved the kibble last time!”
Victoria explained that she might consciously know that there are people from every socioeconomic status, in every neighborhood, and in every country who see their pets as family. But it’s different to see it manifest in person.
BNP events typically start around nine or ten in the morning. But at every event, people show up at 6:00 a.m. and wait in line for hours so that their pet can get their vaccines. Some people are willing to drive to great lengths so that their pup can get their nails trimmed, ears cleaned, and a fresh bowl of food.
“People love their pets,” Victoria said simply. “They treat them like family.”
The events have been instrumental in the growth of BNP, but Victoria doesn’t want to stop there. “I’d like to get more creative with what we do,” Victoria said.
BNP has even had a ripple effect outside of the services they offer and the donations they make. Other organizations have started to offer similar events. One organization offering free pet care events approached Victoria to let her know, “We learned how to do this from you guys.”
“We want to share our experience and knowledge with other organizations,” Victoria explained, “It’s not just our bimonthly or monthly event now; there are other groups putting on their own events. And there is no competition– the more accessible this becomes, the better.”
Because MFA has so many national partners, they get large donations that BNP can then redistribute to shelters and other nonprofits.
Victoria told a story about the VA in West LA, with whom BNP has a close relationship. At a permanent housing complex there, one of the residents passed away, leaving his dog orphaned. A different resident adopted his neighbor’s dog but didn’t have many supplies to offer his new pet. So BNP gave him dog food, pet stairs, and a dog bed, and the dog’s owner sent them a photo and expressed his gratitude that his new family member could be welcomed into his home with the right supplies.
Sweetie smiling with her donations from the BNP team
“It sounds so simple, you know, just a dog bed,” said Victoria. But it’s the small things like that that can really make a big difference. It’s something that makes their relationship with the pet a bit stronger.”
On another occasion, BNP got a huge donation of animal goods that included horse supplies from Chewy via Greater Good Charities. While BNP events have gotten a few iguanas, bunnies, and other unique pets, they haven’t gotten any horses, so they weren’t sure what to do. Then they learned about a nonprofit called Connecting Compton, which has a small stable where community members can help care for and ride horses. BNP was able to transfer the supplies to Connecting Compton, where they were needed most.
Recently, BNP had its first event at Skid Row, which has one of the largest condensed homeless populations in the United States. Many of the people there live with their pets. BNP partnered up with Project Street Vet, which offers free veterinary health services to unhoused people.
“There’s still [a] stigma around unhoused individuals owning pets,” Victoria acknowledged. “But I’ve talked to people who take better care of their pets than themselves. And a lot of them are unwilling to let go of their pets, even if that means missing out on a roof over their head.” Because shelters often don’t allow pets, Victoria explained, there are many people who will turn down the opportunity to stay in one, instead opting to sleep outside, so long as it means they get to sleep with their dog. Victoria pointed out: “Sometimes the bond with one’s pet is unbreakable.”
How to Help the Better Neighbor Project
Veterinarians and Vet Techs are Needed
One of the hardest things about organizing these events has been finding qualified veterinarians and vet techs. There is a national shortage of veterinarians, and that national shortage has been getting worse. “The wellness appointments are the ones that book up the quickest,” said Victoria. “Spay and neuter, flea and tick medications, vaccinations… it’s always a struggle to find doctors. So many organizations will say, ‘We’ll bring the supplies, we’ll take care of everything, but we need a doctor.’”
Victoria understands the struggle. “Vets are stretched thin. They’re working at various clinics. They often don’t have the time to come out on Saturdays.”
But if you are, or know, a qualified veterinarian or vet tech, please reach out to Better Neighbor Project on this page.
Volunteer with BNP
Upcoming BNP events are listed on MFA’s event page here, where you can find out if there are upcoming BNP events in your area. You can also fill out an application on this page to become a volunteer. Volunteers help in every aspect of BNP – from assisting at events to bagging pet food for distribution at pet food pantries; individuals and groups are welcome!
And to learn more about Michelson Found Animals as a whole, you can visit our home page.
If you worry about the resources and expenses often associated with pet ownership, don’t feel discouraged. Victoria says that if there is one message she could transmit to people who are having difficulties caring for their pets due to economic hardships, it would be this:
“There is help out there. There are a lot of great organizations doing great work. It can get overwhelming because things might come up unexpectedly but don’t get discouraged. The joy of owning a pet outweighs the challenges that may come with it, and everyone deserves that joy.” – Victoria Piar, Program Manager, Better Neighbor Project
The Better Neighbor Project Team
(From left to right)
Ruben Riggio, Martin Falcon, Victoria Piar, Jana Brennan, Jess Esguerra