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Working to meet needs of hungry pets

Kevin Vallas holds his cat Jinxy at his

Kevin Vallas holds his cat Jinxy at his home in East Northport. (May 2, 2012) Credit: Barry Sloan

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.

"We actually give out . . . more pet food than baby food," said Dennis Hood, director of Joseph's Storehouse at The Refuge church in East Northport. "It hurts people when they can't care for their pets."

On a recent weekend day, more than a quarter of the 42 households served received free dog food before the supply ran out. Last Saturday, there were dog treats but no dog food available.

There's often less, or nothing, for cats. One man visiting an Island pantry said his cats eat spaghetti. Another said he buys liver -- cheaper per pound than cat food. Others stretch cat food by mixing it with rice.

Hood said some clients say their cats aren't picky -- "They'll eat dog food."

That's what Kevin Vallas' cats ate after his East Northport home-building business folded four years ago. Married with four children and four pets, he got kibble from The Refuge for his two dogs, while his two cats ate canned dog food.

"They don't care what the label says," Vallas, 44, said.

Long Island Cares distributed 82,000 pounds of pet food in the first three months of this year, compared with 109,382 pounds for all of 2011, Pachter said.

To explain the trend, he points to the Nassau and Suffolk budget deficits and an exodus of companies, noting, "More people are losing their jobs."

Heating system installer Joe Matos of Central Islip, who said he lost his job in November, used up his savings last month and visited Long Island Cares.

"I'm glad I won't have to ask my parents for money to feed my dogs," said Matos, 50.

He picked out doggy beef stew for his pit bulls, Xena and Coco, who let his granddaughter ride them like horses.

"They have a heart," he said, "so I take care of them."

In need of free pet food? Here are some resources:

 

Long Island Cares, licares.org. 631-582-FOOD (ext. 3663)

Animal Relief Fund, arf-ny.org, 917-361-3090

Food Bank for New York City, foodbanknyc.org, 212-566-7855

 

Long Island Cares also offers these programs:

 

Welcome Waggin' Pet food baskets given to people who adopt from animal shelters.

Pets for Patriots Veterans adopting adult shelter animals get free pet food for life.

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