Second Chance nonprofit a lifeline for Mendocino coast dogs
Fort Bragg residents Steve Sapontzis and Jeanne Gocker know better than most the bond that exists between dog owners and their beloved canines.
Through their nonprofit, Second Chance, which assists low-income dog owners along the Mendocino coast, they’ve encountered numerous people who adore their dogs and would do most anything for their welfare.
One woman was willing to sell her wedding ring so she could afford veterinary care for her beloved pet; a man was ready to part with his treasured collection of vintage record albums to fund his dog’s surgery.
“It’s an unquestioning bond,” said Sapontzis, a California State University East Bay professor emeritus of philosophy and ethics and author of “Morals, Reason, and Animals.”
Second Chance provides services so dog owners who are homeless or barely making ends meet won’t find their pets in dire circumstances. Sapontzis and Gocker and their dedicated team of volunteers host monthly first-Friday clinics at the Fort Bragg Food Bank, where clients can pick up flea and tick treatments, dog food, treats and merchandise ranging from dog toys, collars, harnesses and leashes to handcrafted dog blankets, sweaters and jackets — all free, with an honor system in place.
“We’ve been there through hailstorms and whatever,” Sapontzis said.
“Rain or shine, and sometimes it’s pouring all day long, we’re still there waiting for the animals,” said Gocker, a retired teacher who taught typing, secretarial skills and English as a second language during her long career at Piedmont High School near Oakland.
It’s not just the Second Chance team that endures the weather. Dog owners, many of them elderly, overlook inclement weather for the benefit of their pets. Typically 100 to 125 dogs show up with their owners each month. The demand has gone down significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, with clinic modifications in place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Most people now leave their dogs at home and stop by briefly to pick up supplies.
“Some truly love their animals and will do anything for them,” Gocker said. “These people will come out in the pouring rain. That’s dedication and shows how much people care.”
The all-volunteer organization also funds spay and neuter services and offers limited — but crucial — financial help for veterinary care for sick or injured dogs. Second Chance started working with Mendocino County spay and neuter programs in 2007, providing funding to help reduce pet overpopulation and animal suffering. It covers about 100 canine spay-neuter procedures annually.
Twice a year, clinics provide basic veterinary care, microchipping and dog and puppy vaccines. During the pandemic, services are provided by appointment at a local Humane Society.
There’s been a consistent need since Second Chance was founded more than a dozen years ago, with services gradually added. “We started out small, then opportunities came to expand and we did that,” Gocker said.
Local veterinarian Barbara Weiss is a longtime volunteer and can recall an “overwhelming” response when clinics for vaccinations, rabies shots and basic care were offered annually. “There was so much need,” she said. Spreading services to biannual clinics has helped, with 75 to 80 dogs at each clinic.
“People are extremely grateful for what we’re able to do,” Weiss said. She’s been helping the pets of those in need since her days attending veterinary school at UC Davis, when she donated her services helping the pets of homeless people in Sacramento.
“It’s a long-standing interest for me,” she said. “This program is an opportunity to carry on doing a similar kind of thing.”
Gocker and Sapontzis have been assisting dogs since the early 1980s when they lived in Hayward in the East Bay. They founded Hayward Friends of the Animals, now called Hayward Animal Shelter Volunteers, overseeing efforts to make dogs more adoptable, from grooming them to replacing metal doors with mesh so visitors can see available dogs without looking at their reflection in an overhead mirror.
They also started Hug a Pet, a program bringing visiting animals to convalescent homes, with results so touching they still elicit emotion from the couple; one elderly man hadn’t spoken until he had a friendly toy poodle named Teddy on his bed. The man, Gocker and Sapontzis discovered, was a Holocaust survivor.
Additionally, they began providing dog food to Meals on Wheels clients who were sharing their lunches and dinners with their dogs, rather than eating the full meals themselves.
The couple was awarded Hayward’s prestigious John Pappas Humanitarian Award for lifetime volunteer achievement in 2015, just two years before they relocated to Fort Bragg.