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Zelda the Superdog

A black mixed-breed pup is a bit of a hero in the Downtown Eastside, thanks to her life-saving ways

Amy Romer
Visual Journalist

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Hey, Zelda!”

“Hey, Zel!” 

“Hey, Zelly!”

When Zelda the mixed-breed canine walks down East Hastings Street, she’s greeted by nearly every resident she passes by. She’s heralded in the Downtown Eastside community as a bit of a superhero. That’s because Zelda — who is part pitbull, mastiff and king corso — can detect overdoses.

Her person, Trey Helten, is the manager of the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS). He’s been working there since 2018, after being in recovery from addiction for two years.

“The only place that would hire me straight away was OPS,” he says.

He began at OPS as a peer volunteer after being rejected from Insite — North America’s first supervised consumption site located near Main and Hastings. Since Helten was a “former participant,” staff at Insite were concerned he’d relapse.

“I was a pretty bad drug user,” says Helten. “Like, a really bad drug user.”

But he met the only two requirements for working at the OPS: that you live in the Downtown Eastside and that you are a drug user, or former drug user.

The society was founded during the initial detonation of a crisis that persists to this day.

On Thanksgiving Day weekend, 2016, Insite began recording unprecedented numbers of overdoses.

“Something ridiculous like 18 overdoses on the Friday, then 26 recorded on the Saturday and 38 on the Sunday,” recalls Helten. “It was staggering.”

By contrast, Helten says overdose numbers before that weekend were around one every two days. According to the BC Coroners Service, there was an average of 207 overdose deaths per year in B.C. between 2000 to 2010. In 2016, that number shot up to 922.

“Something was amiss and something had changed,” says Helten.

‘We’re not going to stand by’

The crisis that Thanksgiving Day weekend went off like a bomb.

“I would imagine it being like a war-torn country where there are bullets flying and as soon as you get one of your comrades in a stretcher, someone else sticks their hand up and says, ‘We got another one over here’,” says Helten. “Before you can even assess what’s happening, someone else sticks their hand up and says, ‘I got another one over here.’ ‘I need help over here.’ I need help over here’.”

At the same time, Sarah Blyth was managing the Downtown Eastside Street Market and noticed a stiff uptick in how many people were asking for help with sidewalk and street market overdoses. Blyth decided to take action and erected a makeshift medic tent in an alley to perform “safe injections,” where volunteers could be on hand with naloxone — the drug that reverses an opioid overdose.

Despite push-back from the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department, Blyth persisted with running the emergency response tent.

“We’re not going to stand by and watch people die in the alley and that’s what we would be doing if we didn’t do anything,” Blyth told the CBC at the time.

She gained support from media, various organizations and eventually the province, which provided her with an exemption and funding to build the Overdose Prevention Society. She is now its executive director.

Unlike Insite, which is federally funded over a 10-year cycle (their current contract supports them until 2031), OPS must reapply for provincial funding every year.

Pets play an important role for those who are isolated

Helten emphasizes that OPS fills a crucial gap.

“The difference with us is that whereas Insite is low barrier, we’re no barrier,” he says.

Insite is an injection-only site that implements a strict set of rules and regulations for participants to use their site, including waiting times, enclosed using-stations, and a no-smoking policy.

“I love Insite, but there are some people that can’t conform to that,” says Helten. “And you need something that can help everyone. So OPS is very vital in that sense.”

The society hires and trains peers in the community to spot the signs of overdose, and how to use oxygen tanks and naloxone kits to help people in need.

A helping hound

When a person uses drugs at an OPS site (there is an indoor location at 141 E. Hastings St. and an outdoor spot at 390 Columbia St.), volunteers are encouraged to check they’re still breathing every three to five minutes — the time it takes for the brain to become damaged when deprived of oxygen. Volunteers call it “doing the rounds.”

In 2021, when Helten went away leaving Zelda at the OPS, the shift supervisor noticed her “doing the rounds.”

Helten looked at the CCTV footage.

“She just went around the room and checked every single person to make sure they were OK, kind of nudging them with her nose until they moved. Then she’d move along to the next person.”

Helten began encouraging Zelda on the street.

“If there’s someone I’m worried about, I’ll tell her to go check on them and she’ll just run right up and start nudging them to wake them up,” says Helten.

If Zelda can’t spark a movement, she makes a “weird yelping noise.” She starts jumping and nudging harder for a response.

“She’s been around heavy drug use her whole life and has seen a lot of overdoses,” says Helten, who has had five-year-old Zelda since she was only three months old.

When Zelda was a puppy, she overdosed “quite frequently,” he says. This troubling fact is a reality for folks in the DTES, where drug use is common and pets serve an important role as companion animals to those who are isolated and lonely, Helten says.

“It’s something people don’t talk about. But when puppies are teething, they just need to chew on things.”

Helten says puppies chew on disposable “cookers,” which are commonly used to mix and heat substances without the risk of transmitting infections from non-sterile drug paraphernalia.

With deadly fentanyl rampant throughout the illicit drug market, it doesn’t take much to seriously harm or kill a puppy, explains Helten, who also uses the OPS as a platform to share information and protocol on how to reverse animal overdoses.

“It’s the same principle as a human,” he says. “Oxygen, naloxone and monitor.” 

Critters make the best companions

When Helten was living on the streets, his old dog Melvin would alert him to dangers he couldn’t see while he was sleeping.

“Dogs are crucial when you’re entrenched in street life,” he says. “For protection and obviously companionship — the main thing when you’re alone.”

Helten says pets can help tackle feelings of isolation and his theory is backed by extensive research, including a 2018 peer-reviewed study published in BMC Psychiatry that determined animal companions are a particularly powerful source of support for people living with mental health challenges.

In 2021, Helten set up a program to help people with pets in the DTES with veterinary costs, recognizing that residents can’t always afford basic care for their furry friends. Helten created a calendar to sell featuring pictures of OPS locals and their pets. All the money raised went towards vet bills.

But this year, Helten went through a period of burnout that led to him relapsing.

 “I nixed the calendars, but I still wanted to help people,” he says.

So Helten has launched “OPS Pet Needs,” a GoFundMe campaign (https://www.gofundme. com/f/ops-pet-needs) to support “critters who need critical vet care.”

He’s hoping to reach a goal of $5,000, and at the time of this writing, the campaign had just topped $1,000.

“Please help support our furried and feathered friends on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside,” writes Helten, who knows more than most how essential pets like Zelda are to the community.

You can also listen to Trey Helten on OPS Radio along with his buddy Smokey Devil (Smokey D) every Monday from 8-9 p.m. at 100.5 FM. Be prepared for surreal, satirical and at times “antihumour and cringe comedy.” Archived episodes are also available online: https:// coopradio.org/shows/ops-radio/

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Amy Romer

Amy Romer

Visual Journalist

Amy Romer is an award-winning photojournalist and visual storyteller based in North Vancouver. Her work focuses primarily on human rights and the environment. She is a National Geographic Explorer. Visit amyromer.com to view her work.

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