The dog kept flinging her empty food bowl around. The cat tried slapping his owner with a paw. “They were hungry, but there was nothing to eat,” said Bruce Sykes, 53, of Mattituck, a disabled veteran living on $420 a month. This past January, all three lost weight and shared what little food they had — corn, a can of chicken, a couple of wild rabbits. Sykes said he lost 20 pounds, filling himself with iced tea so Kady the retriever and Mitch the gray cat could survive.
Relief came at the end of the month when a mobile pantry delivered food for him, and, to his surprise, his pets. “They saved my life,” Sykes said. “And my animals’ lives.”
A growing number of pets are hungry as Long Island families suffer in this parched economy, but more food pantries are trying to address the problem. Food banks have distributed more than 400,000 tons of pet food in Nassau and Suffolk counties since mid-2009, when the effort began, officials said. This year, demand is on a record pace, far exceeding supply.
“People experiencing unemployment are trying desperately to hold on to their pets without putting them in shelters,” said Paule Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares — The Harry Chapin Food Bank, based in Hauppauge. “Many pet owners will sooner sacrifice themselves than their animals. By us providing the pet pantries, we avoid that and allow people to focus on themselves.”
Throughout the recession, many pantries have heard this refrain from clients: “Do you have pet food?” When the reply was no, people picked certain items, such as beef stew or tuna, thinking it would be a suitable substitute.
In many cases, the pet owners were seniors, disabled or empty-nesters — people who’d be alone if not for animal companions, pantry officials said. Their tales were of tough choices: heating oil or cat food; gas in the car or food for the dog.
To help stem pet hunger and abandonment, Long Island Cares partnered in 2009 with the newly formed Animal Relief Fund, a Manhattan-based nonprofit. That year, fewer than 20 Island pantries carried pet food. Today, 220 pantries — more than a third of the 580 in the food bank’s network — stock pet food.
That shows pantries have redefined “family” to include pets, “a major shift” among food charities, said Susan Kaufman, founder of the Animal Relief Fund. “Pantries and food banks were saying ‘Hey, our mission is to help people. Our mission is not to help pets.’ ”
That attitude has changed and pet food pantries have been opening around the country, she said. Much of the food is donated by some of the nation’s largest pet food manufacturers and retailers.
The relief fund pays for transporting pet food in bulk to Long Island Cares.