SANTA CRUZ, Calif., — As a veterinarian working for decades on the Central Coast of California, Dr. Merrianne Burtch has marveled at the remarkable bond between humans and their pets.
Unfortunately she also has had to witness those agonizing moments when owners must say goodbye to their four-legged family members. What she could never abide, though, was watching that bond break due to a financial obstacle.
Back in 2013, unable to just stand by and allow saveable pets to fall through the cracks of a system, Dr. Burtch founded BirchBark Foundation. She launched the nonprofit primarily to help preserve that human-pet bond by providing resources to pet owners with limited financial means. A decade later it has evolved into so much more.
Today BirchBark protects and honors that human-animal bond through several funded programs that serve communities in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
“Our animals can change our lives in profound ways,” Dr. Burtch said. “A lot of people find unconditional love is something that doesn’t bubble up anywhere else in life.”
Embracing this time-honored bond, BirchBark will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Feb. 9, 2023 with a special Fall in Love Gala from 5-9 p.m., at Carmel Valley Ranch. Guests will enjoy full appetizers, beer and wine, along with an opportunity to bid on silent auction items, and mingle with other passionate animal lovers.
BirchBark has named the accompanying sponsorship campaign “SmitTEN with YOU!” creating several levels of financial support (from $1,500 to $10,000) to help fund the following core programs:
PetAid Gifts: Provides financial assistance to financially struggling families who cannot afford to treat their pet for a life-threatening or life-compromising illness or injury. BirchBark pays 50 percent of veterinary expenses, with veterinary partners and pet families splitting the remaining 50 percent.
Pet Loss Counseling: Provides a safe place to honor the important bond shared with a pet who has been lost. This is important because the loss of a pet can be devastating but is not always recognized as valid. Group and individual sessions are offered at no cost.
Educational Programs: Quarterly webinars offered, featuring leading pet professionals (veterinarians, trainers, etc.) and others from our community.
Rocky’s Fund: Launched in 2022, this pilot program offers comprehensive care for pet families experiencing homelessness, with all veterinary costs, including preventative care, fully covered.
The fundraising campaign hopes to reach its goal of $250,000, with the gala designed both to celebrate the past and to secure the nonprofit’s future for the next decade and beyond.
Sarah Stender knows what it’s like to be faced with the prospect of giving up a pet. During the height of the pandemic, she found herself displaced from her home due to the fires in the Santa Cruz mountains.
“I wasn’t getting paid from my job as a nanny, and my cat had an emergency in the middle of the night,” she said. “I did not have $1,000 that I needed, but someone told me about BirchBark and it saved my cat.”
Stender came away so impressed she eventually took the job as BirchBark’s interim executive director.
“It was a big deal at a horrible time,” she said. “It’s all about helping save our beloved pets whose lives would be lost if not for our supporters, veterinary partners and volunteers.”
Dr. Burtch is grateful that funding now exists to carry out BirchBark’s programs. No longer does she have to turn away distraught pet owners who cannot afford to help a saveable “family member.”
Beginning with a remarkable $5,000 donation from a client in Pebble Beach in 2013, BirchBark is able to serve hundreds of pet owners each year.
“The generosity on the Central Coast is astounding,” said Dr. Burtch.
BirchBark by the numbers
BirchBark works with 27 veterinary partners.
The nonprofit has four members of the board directors, a management staff of two and works with three counselors.
BirchBark served approximately 650 pet owners in 2021.
132 families received assistance through a PetAid gift in 2021 (a 50 percent increase over 2020).
In 2021, 28 percent of PetAid recipients were disabled, 34 percent were unemployed, 11 percent were students, and 10 percent were aged 65 and over.
Average cost of each PetAid Gift in 2021 was $1,200.
Number of families served through PetAid increased by 50 percent between 2019 and 2020.
150 people registered for educational webinars in 2021.
100 people registered for pet loss counseling.
For more information on BirchBark Foundation, visit https://www.birchbarkfoundation.org/fall-in-love-2023 or call (831) 471-7255. To sponsor a vet partner stipend, make a monthly or annual donation, create a memorial or tribute gift or establish an estate plan, visit here.