By Kendra Sitton
North Park resident Judi Heitz estimates that since she began volunteering for the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS) in 2014, she spent 5,000 hours assisting the organization dedicated to animal welfare. She volunteers in almost every way imaginable – changing bedding for animals at the shelter to bringing therapy pets to visit people in the hospital.
Heitz’ interest in therapy animals began when her mom was dying in the ICU.
“It’s my mother’s fault… She was on her deathbed, and the entire family was there, and the only thing she wanted was her dog,” Heitz said.
Bringing in a pet was against hospital rules but of course Heitz snuck the dog in. When the nurses discovered the deception, they yelled at Heitz then told her since the dog was already inside the hospital, she needed to take it to visit other patients.
“[It] took me two-and-a-half hours to get out of the hospital. And when I saw what the animals did for people, even a short visit. It’s kind of like, okay, we need to do that for other people,” she said.
Today, she has a therapy dog, Buster, and therapy cat, JJ, who have visited hospitals, schools, jails, libraries, senior citizen’s houses and assisted living centers.
Heitz is warm and quick-witted with the ability to bring comfort to those suffering and entertain a packed school assembly.
While much of those visits stopped during COVID, birthday parties and scout meetings are starting to invite her again.
Typically at these events, she puts Buster at the front of the room and has the kids yell orders like “Sit! Jump! Roll over!” In reality, Heitz is at the back of the room giving Buster hand signals about what to do.
“They think they’re getting him to do stuff when he’s actually responding to hand signals, but they get a kick out of it,” she said with a laugh.
For a reading program at libraries and schools, Buster sits with children who are struggling to read. They get to practice to the encouraging presence of the dog.
“I had a little kid came up and he said, ‘I don’t want to read,’ and I would say, ‘That’s too bad Buster here wants you to read.’ He looks at me sideways like I’m telling him a lie. He said ‘Yeah? What does Buster like?’ I said ‘stories about animals.’ He said, ‘Does he like gorillas?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, he might be a little scared.’ So he goes gets a book about gorillas and he sits down. He’s reading the book and then he reaches over and puts his arm around Buster and says, ‘Don’t be scared. This is the gorilla.’” Heitz was torn between laughing and crying at that moment.
During the pandemic, SDHS unveiled Anipals, a program for dogs to write letters to people in isolation. A medical professional in a closed unit during COVID received a letter from Buster about his adventures chasing squirrels.
“Her family asked that she get a letter, and she wrote back ‘It made it made everything much, much better to get a letter from a puppy,’” Heitz said. “Buster can’t type well, by the way, so I helped him.”
In addition to donating time, Heitz’ monetary donations have funded new sinks in the kitten nursery, scholarships for SDHS behavior training, and a new dental x-ray machine to the El Cajon Campus. Heitz said SDHS has a number of donors who help fund large projects so she talks to staff and volunteers to discover what small problems are being overlooked. In the kitten nursery, there was only one sink to wash hands and make formula which was not adequate for stopping the spread of infection. From there, she has funded new sinks in other rooms where the current ones were not meeting the needs of animals and people.
“I’m taking over the world one sink at a time,” Heitz laughed. She sees her role as talking to people to find budget shortcomings and overlooked problems so she can fill in those holes.
“Volunteers like Judi are truly a rare find. Her support goes beyond volunteering,” said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO, San Diego Humane Society. “Judi always goes the extra mile to donate much-needed equipment and critical funds to advance not only the welfare of our animals, but also our community of pet lovers. We’re incredibly lucky to have Judi’s steadfast assistance and expertise. She plays a vital role in helping San Diego Humane Society provide exceptional care for animals in the San Diego region.”
Heitz is proud of some of SDHS’ new programs that are keeping pets with families and out of shelters. The scholarships for the behavior center allow families who adopted a pet during the pandemic to train it out of behavioral issues so the animals will not be returned to the shelter. Dogs at the shelter with problematic behaviors are also trained so they’re more likely to be adopted instead of just euthanized because no one wants them.
“It’s good for the family, it’s good for the kids, it’s good for the pet — everybody wins,” she said.
Another new program Heitz supports helps victims of domestic abuse escape. Often abusers hold the animal over the victim because the victim does not want to leave them and many shelters for victims do not allow animals. The SDHS program puts those pets in foster homes until the survivors have stable housing again.
SDHS also has free spay clinics and free food clinics that are often utilized by unsheltered San Diegans.
“A lot of the people are homeless because they couldn’t afford a place in San Diego because of their animals. They wouldn’t give up their animals so they’re living in their cars,” Heitz said. “One of the major things about the Humane Society is to keep the animals with the people, so that we don’t have so many animals in the shelter.”
For her part, Heitz is fostering kittens until they are ready to be adopted and adopted a cat with brain damage. All of these efforts are to unite pets with pet lovers so they are not stuck in the shelter.
“I have been incredibly lucky. I have more than enough money. I’m retired. I have everything I need. I have more than enough. And the responsibility to those who have been given much, much is expected,” Heitz said.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at email@example.com.