"I love my dog more than I love myself. I would do anything and everything for that dog. My dog is my child I never had. Now I have two! They’re so adorable. They bring the joy that I long for. When I get stressed out I hold them and everything starts to melt off. They brought me a better life by bringing me serenity."
When I first met Ray he was selling Real Change, a Seattle-based newspaper that helps provide opportunity and voice for low-income and homeless persons, outside of Trader Joe's with his dog, Zephanius. Sitting by Ray's side, Zephanius, was decked out with his own Real Change Vendor badge. It was the first of a series of meetings with Ray over the course of six months across three different locations, giving me a glimpse of the constant state of flux he has to deal with.
Ray got Zephanius in early February 2011 when he was living in low-income housing - "Before I had my dog I’d come home and I was totally alone – it was a boring life. I started gaining weight... Once I got him I no longer felt alone - I had something here. You’re gonna talk to your animals, you got something you can talk to. When he needed to go out he took me along with him. In order to walk him I had to be there for him all the time. They’ve helped me physically by being my walker, not just mentally by being my friend. I met other people who had animals. Now I really really don't feel alone!" After four years with Zephanius, he started to feel the urge to get another dog to join them. Disregarding his building's one pet policy, he got Zafina when she was seven weeks old and told the landlord that he was just watching her for a friend. "I feel a lot better having two dogs," he tells me, "It feels like I did something extra for my first dog, my friend, not myself. [Zephanius] has become more social through her and livened up his life through her. And yes, I’ve been livened up, too. Two are better than one!"
Three weeks after he got Zafina, he told the property manager that he was moving out. As Ray puts it "They’ve changed my life to the point that I knew what I had to do was to be homeless. I was scared for the dogs’ safety in our housing because drunks would scream and yell and try to intimidate them. I’m homeless because of alcohol and drugs, but I don’t use. But that environment is why I’m homeless." He recalls a friend, Jennifer, who also left their building for the same reasons with her dog, Belle. She was unable to find shelter that would allow her and Belle together and made the heartbreaking decision to give Belle up. Three weeks later, she committed suicide. "Things might have been different if she could have kept her dog," Ray states somberly, "She loved her so much. She should still be here with her dog."
Ray has been in Seattle since 1990, originally from Texas. He's been a vendor for Real Change for 12 years and has consistently pushed for a column that focuses on animal stories or gives space for people to write about their relationship with their pets. Ray recalls his anger issues before he got Zephanius, noting that as soon as he realized that his dog was scared when he was angry he found a way to calm himself before he ever got to that point again. "My stress levels have gone way down since having them. If you have high stress and you see your dog having high stress you gotta change. He became my stress-level meter... I have two understanding entities who live with me. If I have a bad day they sense it and try to make it better. People need something to rescue them from bad days."
Seven months after he got Zafina, she got pregnant from Zephanius and soon gave birth to a litter of four pups. The first time I met Ray the puppies were barely two weeks old, still suckling on Zafina. He had found homes for all of them with people he knew well and that he could see from time to time to watch the dogs grow up - "I’m not selling you a dog. I’m selling you love," he says. He'd like her to have one more litter before he gets her spayed, but acknowledges this has made vet care harder to come by because of the Doney Clinic's requirement that animals be spayed or neutered by the time of their second visit. Ray had taken Zafina to Doney for her first shots, so when he returned to have a problem tooth pulled for her, he was turned away. He found a private clinic to help them and spent the weeks after flying a sign with the vet bill to help cover the costs.
When I run into Ray several months down the line, he has sold the puppies and moved his RV from Greenlake to the new Ballard RV Safe Lot. He invites me to meet him at the Safe Lot later that day to show me his new space. He signs me in and gives me a tour of the lot, stopping at all of the RVs of people with pets to introduce me to everyone, then shows me his own RV, pointing out all the food and treats he has for the dogs and the bed he's made for them in the shower stall (though of course they seem to sleep on his bed, anyway). He tells me that he takes them to a self-serve pet cleaning service from time to time to make sure they are bathed and clean. "You maintain your hygiene if you’re homeless so you should do that for your dog, too," he says, "Their job is to give you a better life and your job is to provide them good hygiene and diet. You have to give and receive love."
"They have a soul or spirit," he tells me, "God says there will be animals in Paradise, I imagine dogs will be in heaven. They need people the way we need them. I don’t know where the bond first came from but that bond may have been given by the Creator."