Santa Paws, a.k.a. Anita Baez, steps out of her car in the parking lot at the Senior Care of Western Hills nursing home in Temple surrounded by an assortment of critters decked out in their Christmas best.
The menagerie of birds and dogs, a total of six, squawk, yap and run in circles, eager to get into the building to visit the residents.
Baez places Jolie, a one-eyed miniature poodle, and Sofia, a 14-year-old Maltese into a pet stroller; Delilah, a 16-year-old umbrella cockatoo and Mandisa, a 15-year-old African Gray Parrot perch themselves on the stroller’s handle. Pumpkin, a South American sun conure parrot, hitches a ride on Santa Paws’ shoulder. Hannah, her Yorkie, leads the parade as the group makes its way into the home.
Once inside the foyer, a cacophony of animal voices can be heard throughout the building as the squawks, yaps and barks get louder. One by one she collects her brood and adjusts their costumes and the birds’ flight suits that are really just a disguise to cover their diapers. “When you gotta go, you gotta go,” Baez said as she attached the Velcro straps under Delilah’s chest. As she turns to adjust the straps on the tiny Pumpkin, Delilah is busy pulling apart the straps of her flight suit with her beak in an effort to disrobe. Baez tries a few more times to keep her garment secure and eventually, Delilah lets the straps be. After making sure the dogs’ costumes are snug in place, the troupe is ready to stroll through halls of the home with Hannah forging the way.
“Hannah is the alpha dog,” Baez said. “She is the boss of everybody. She helps Jolie get around and they have become best friends.”
Hannah is Jolie’s seeing eye dog companion. Hannah knows Jolie cannot see well, she only has one eye after losing one to cataracts, and often wanders off in a different direction. Hannah is quick to respond, staying close to Jolie, and herding her back to the group.
With the troupe in place, Hannah takes the lead, her little furry body bouncing down the halls, greeting all that come in contact with her. Sofia, on the other hand, smells something interesting being rolled into the resident dining room. In a flash, she turns around and follows the scent, finding her way to seated diners, waiting for something to drop her way.
“Sofia, a Maltese, is the matriarch with a problem,” Baez said, a giggle in her voice, while she calls out to Sofia in Spanish, because all her dogs are bilingual. “She loves to eat. While walking down the hallway she smells the food in the dining room. She is all about eating, and when it comes to food, she will run. She is usually slow.”
Watching the group make its way through the maze of hallways to visit residents, there is a distinct jingle of bells coming from one of Baez’s legs. Wrapped around her knee is the bell collar that belonged to her beloved Labrador, Jake, who passed away. She wears it in memory of him.
“Many of them (the residents) don’t get a visitor,” said Baez, an information security officer with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They may have families from out of state. It’s very hard on them, so we share the love of our pets with the rest of them.”
“Anita is so encouraging about letting the animals be involved with everybody,” said Deborah Stiehl, wellness life and enrichment director for Western Hills Senior Center.
“It’s just like being at home and these are your own pets. It is your home and your pets are there to visit.”
Stiehl said Baez visits at least once a month, and sometimes twice.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” Baez said. “It wins because the dogs love to be petted, residents love the animals (they can’t have animals so we bring them to them), and for the volunteers it gives us such joy to see the happiness between the residents and the pets.”
“It makes me feel happy,” said resident Edmund Mendez, as he cradled Sofia on his lap in the resident lounge.
“They make me smile,” added resident Hildona Messer, holding Jolie.
“It so rewarding to see the residents open up, smile, give kisses and be involved hugging the pets,” Stiehl said. “For people that cannot get out of bed, Anita puts the dogs up on the bed and the birds sit on the bed rails. It’s a whole menagerie. If Anita plays music, the birds will sit there and dance.”
But it isn’t just the residents that benefit from the visit.
“I am blessed in the way that God has allowed me to have my pets, and healthy for so long, and I feel in this blessing I really need to share that happiness they give me with the residents I know don’t have their pets,” said Baez, who is often accompanied by another pet volunteer. “All my life I’ve had pets. Once you go into a nursing home, it’s not by choice. If I ever have to go into a nursing home, I pray and hope there is someone who will share their pets with me.”
Baez said she’s been doing therapy pet visits since 1997 when a group of students at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor got the idea for a pet therapy project. It was a six month project that went beyond its expiration date thanks to the caring volunteers who continue pet therapy visits today.
In the early days, Baez they would visit the VA hospital and nursing homes three Saturdays a month. “We would go with the dogs to visit inpatient or outpatient residents. We always dressed up in costume, depending on the season — Fourth of July, Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Now I usually do special occasions like Christmas or Halloween, just a few times a year.”
Baez said all pets are obedience trained and up to date on all their vaccines before visiting homes.
From a tropical island to Texas
Baez was born and raised in Puerto Rico and said as a child, her family always had dogs and cats.
“My love affair with animals started a long time ago,” she said. “One of the first photos of me is as a baby surrounded by puppies.”
In addition to cats and dogs, Baez said she and her siblings had an assortment of birds, turtles, fish and hamsters as they were growing up.
She called her childhood an innocent time when she and her friends would get together, take bus trips to the beach, go to movies or hang out at the mall. “We were having fun, doing the right thing,” she said.
Her parents were from different cultures. Her mom was from Scotland and migrated to America when she was still in her 20s. Her dad was Puerto Rican. Her parents met when they were both living in New York. She said her mom had never heard of Puerto Rico.
“I’m half Scottish and half Puerto Rican,” Baez said. She grew up bilingual, speaking English at home and Spanish with her friends and at school.
Jolie was her late mother’s pet, still living in Puerto Rico with her father. After her dad passed away, Baez went back to the island and brought Jolie home to Texas.
Baez likes sharing her pets with others. She said the residents can associate and relate to the loving feeling of holding a dog, or seeing a bird.
“Some people have never touched a bird before,” she said. “Touching, holding and petting a dog calms a person. It helps them so much. I like to share the joy and happiness I receive. It is my responsibility to share it.”