It started in 2015 with just one shelf. But within two years, Sandra Howlett’s garage in a sleepy suburban Bowmanville neighbourhood had become so crammed with pet food that she couldn’t even fit her Jeep inside. More than a thousand pounds of kibble, treats, and kitty litter were piled from floor to ceiling.
“It got to be too much for one little garage,” says Howlett, the founder of Biggie and Frank’s Pet Food Bank, named after her two dogs.
So this December, she took her inventory to donated warehouse space in Whitby, where those in need can now pick it up. “Up until that time, I had been like a pizza guy driving around with dog and cat food filled up in my truck, delivering it all over the place.”
Howlett’s charitable service, which provides low-income pet owners with free animal feed, is not unique: similar pet-food banks have been established across southern Ontario in recent years.
“I think it’s the economy,” says Wendy Gorman, who has run the No Empty Bowls pet-food bank in London for the past four years. “Everything costs so much — particularly rents. They’re getting ridiculous,” she says.
For Gorman, the pet-food bank is a way to keep animal owners from having to make the difficult choice between paying the bills and keeping a furry friend. “A lot of people are wanting to surrender their animals because they can’t afford to feed them anymore,” she says. She has worked with local animal rescues for more than a decade and seen this dilemma firsthand.
Two weeks a month, she does drop-offs in her area: an estimated 500 people are served through local No Empty Bowls pick-up spots. Though she mostly provides cat and dog food, her offerings vary depending on the donations she receives from pet-food stores and fundraisers. She’s helped owners of birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, and fish.
Many of her clients are low- or fixed-income seniors, she says. Howlett, who runs the Bowmanville bank, reports a similar, albeit smaller, client base of about 60 to 80 people, most of whom are pensioners or receiving government benefits. “I don’t have a specific form that people fill out,” she notes.
She does, however, keep track of how many pets her clients have to make sure they aren’t acquiring more animals at a time when they are struggling to make ends meet. “I’m trying to avoid people becoming dependent on the pet-food bank,” she says. “This is not a way for you to feed your pets. This is way to help you out of a temporary financial crisis.”
Howlett is used to naysayers who argue people shouldn’t have pets if they can’t afford them. She points out that most people she encounters through her service have had their pets for years and need help now due to unexpected expenses, like car repairs or moving costs.
“Unfortunately, it’s usually the pet food that is not high up on the priority list at that point, or they didn’t buy enough,” she explains. It’s best not to judge others without knowing an individual’s story, she adds. “Everybody is, like, what, three pay cheques away from being homeless?” she asks. “I always put myself in another person’s shoes.”
An unforeseen change in circumstances is the reason Oshawa resident Roberta Bradley-Neads now comes to Biggie and Frank’s to feed her three dogs.
A self-described “avid coupon-er,” Bradley-Neads would donate to Howlett’s pet-food bank when she could — then she lost her job at Walmart last year and started accessing the service she had once helped.
“People don’t look at all the costs when they see a cute little puppy, and then all of a sudden something happens with their financial situation, and they have no other choice but to ask for help,” says Bradley-Neads. “There are a lot of people that need animals. Like, there are people that have depression… their animal is what wakes them up in the morning,” she explains.
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Toronto is home to multiple pet-food banks. The Toronto Humane Society operates one from its River Street headquarters daily, and another in St. James Town on the second Tuesday of each month. Both are intended to support people facing temporary challenges. Not far away, on Queen Street East, the WoodGreen Community Services’ pet-food bank serves a somewhat different demographic.
In 2014, the social services agency — which also operates a general food bank — identified the need for a pet-focused service for Toronto’s precariously housed and homeless populations.
“A lot of people that are homeless, or are sort of in precarious situations, have a pet as a companion — which is one of the few sort of lifeline supports that they have — and what we were worried about is people were skipping their own meal to ensure that their pet had something to eat,” says Teresa Vasilopoulos, executive director of WoodGreen.
Approximately 75 people use the service every month. A 35,000-pound donation of pet food from PetSmart Charities in late 2017 has allowed the operation to run two days a week this year, rather than one.
“It’s been tremendous. People find it really helpful,” Vasilopoulos says. “For emotional support and companionship, the animals actually play quite a big role in these people’s lives, because lots of them don’t have any other family or relationships.”
Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based reporter.
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