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Puppa's Pals fosters pets in crisis situations

The new nonprofit helps people get the help they need with reassurance that their beloved pets will be in good hands.

Dog lies down in the shade.
Annie, a 5-year-old blue lacy, cools down in the shade in Lisa Lepak's backyard July 22.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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TWIN PORTS — Puppa’s Pals is a new nonprofit that coordinates temporary pet foster placement for people in crisis situations. This includes pet owners who are headed to jail, entering treatment, losing housing, admitted to the hospital, moving into a woman’s shelter, and any other crisis situation.

Puppa, for whom Puppa's Pals was named.
Contributed / Veronica Surges

The idea for the organization came when a client of assistant public defender Veronica Surges called from jail because their dog, Puppa, was left at home with no one to watch him. In the past decade, Surges has had countless clients in prison and jail who are concerned about the people and pets who are left behind, she said.

"It's much worse when the pet is all they have," Surges said. "When clients are sobbing on the phone it is a lot of secondary trauma, talking about their pets starving to death. It was the last straw for me."

Surges posted a request on Facebook for references to any organization that offered pet fostering in crisis situations. She found that such a service didn't exist in the area. At the time, Deb Holman, street outreach worker at CHUM, was taking in the animals herself.

The post circled among others who worked in related fields who also noticed a gap in services for people in crisis situations. Puppa's Pals was born in March, and recently began offering services in the Twin Ports area. Its nine board members, who come from various professional backgrounds, have one thing in common: All identified a lack of services for their clients, and a need for a nonprofit such as Puppa's Pals in the Northland.


Woman smiles while holding a small dogs paws.
Veronica Surges smiles while holding Duckie's paws Aug. 2.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Puppa's Pals board members are: President Leslie L. Dollen , retired attorney; Vice President Surges; Secretary Stina LaPaugh, city of Duluth paralegal; Treasurer Kayla Zinter, mental health background; Daniela Mansbach, of RR Professional Dog Training & Boarding; Holman, of CHUM; Bret Evered, former lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Superior ; Lindsay Snustad , lead treatment court coordinator for Minnesota's sixth judicial district; and foster coordinator Lisa Lepak , certified veterinary technician.

Northern Lakes Rescue saves hundreds of dogs from overpopulated streets in the south. They have launched a fundraiser to keep their Pequot Lakes facility.

"It's a very well-connected board," Lepak said. "We all came together because we saw a similar need in the communities we serve. In the fields that the board members serve, they know there are a lot of people who won't go to treatment because there is no one to care for their animals, so we want to offer this service to help them get their lives back on track."

In crisis situations, if an animal is not placed, they often go to Animal Control for seven days, Lepak explained. If no one comes forward, the animal is transferred to Animal Allies in Duluth for adoption.

Woman plays with dogs outside.
Foster coordinator Lisa Lepak playing with the dogs currently in her care in her backyard July 22.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

"Previous owners would have no way to recover their animal. Animal Control doesn't know where Animal Allies sends the animals. Some strays don't go to Animal Allies; they are euthanized if they're aggressive or pose a risk," Lepak said.

Small dog lies in grass with woman petting her.
Veronica Surges' dog, Duckie, lies in the grass while being petted Aug. 2.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

"A very loved and happy dog that simply needed a place to go was the inspiration for all of this," Surges added.

Although she is unable to share specific information about the open case, Surges said Puppa's owner is now out of jail and the two have reunited.

Puppa's Pals board members continue to reach within their individual circles within the confines of confidentiality to identify people in the community who are facing housing insecurities, chemical dependency, abuse or incarceration, and connect them with those interested in fostering pets, volunteering or donating to the cause.

"People who are facing crisis with a lot of money, they are able to board their dogs and cats," Surges said. "People who don't have money because of the current state of the economy — those are the people we serve."


Currently, fosters are needed primarily for dogs, cats and pocket pets. The need even expands to bugs and reptiles in certain situations, Lepak said. In the future, fosters for large animals and farm animals may be needed. Puppa's Pals will provide food, medical care, supplies, support and training to help acclimate the pet to a foster home. Occasionally, RR Professional Dog Training & Boarding in Carlton can take an animal for a short period of time as space allows.

Woman sits in grass while holding a small dog.
Veronica Surges holds her dog, Duckie, in her arms while sitting in her yard Aug. 2.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

"We want the person who needs us to go get taken care of, without having to worry that their animal is being jostled from stranger to stranger. Our fosters know that this is a commitment of a few weeks to a month to longer. That is difficult," Lepak said. "Some of these animals may not come from a great background so there is definitely going to be some intensive support."

Woman plays with a small dog outside.
Lisa Lepak plays with Benny, a 5-year-old yorkie, in her backyard in Superior on July 22.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Weekly communication between Lepak and the foster volunteers helps to ensure they are getting the support needed to care for animals, especially for pets with behavioral issues.

"The human-animal bond is one of the strongest out there," Lepak said. "There are countless tales of people risking injury to help their pets. I saw a lot of people who didn't have two dimes to rub together, but would go to great lengths to get their animal treatment. It's all these people have. Animals provide a constant unconditional love for people."

Puppa's Pals accepts monetary donations and items for silent auctions and raffles. To help with temporary placement or to donate, contact Puppa's Pals on Facebook or email volunteervern@gmail.com or volunteerlisa@outlook.com .

Woman kneels down and pets dog outside.
Bret Ann Evered, board member of Puppa's Pals, pets Glory, a 5-year-old pit bull, in Lisa Lepak's backyard July 22.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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This story was updated at 1:36 p.m. Aug. 10 to correct the name of Lindsay Snustad's employer. Snustad is the lead treatment court coordinator of Minnesota's Sixth Judicial District. The story was originally posted at 8 a.m. Aug. 10. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Brielle Bredsten is the business reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.

She earned a bachelor's degree in Professional Writing & Technical Communication, with minors in Advertising and Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University, in addition to a two-year professional paid internship as reporter/editor of the student newspaper.

She is an award-winning professional writer, photographer and editor based in rural Minnesota. Over the past decade, Brielle Bredsten has contributed more than 1,000 articles, feature stories, non-profit press-releases, photographs and columns. Her work has been published in several community newspapers.

Send her story tips, feedback or just say hi at bbredsten@duluthnews.com.
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