As food pantries increase their distribution of turkeys and other holiday fixings, a Camarillo animal shelter is handing out bags of kibble for dogs and cats, an equally needy but often overlooked demographic.
On Sundays, Pet Pantry rolls up its doors and distributes free bulk servings of dry food to recipients who can no longer afford to feed their animals. They are older people on fixed incomes, families who are down on their luck and those who have lost jobs.
Ventura County Animal Services, which operates the pantry, has posted a 25% increase over the last year in the number of animals in its Camarillo shelter, said Monica Nolan, animal services director. Many have been surrendered by people who can't afford to keep their pets, she said. Shelters and rescue groups in Los Angeles and elsewhere are reporting similar increases.
"We are seeing very much a continuing of the recession here,'' Nolan said. "In hard times, pets need to eat too."
Nolan's staff came up with the idea a year ago. It's a win-win on humane and economic grounds, she said. If families are able to keep their pets, shelter populations are minimized, fewer animals are destroyed and the county-run shelter saves money.
Food is donated by Petco, grocery stores and warehouse centers, but the pantry can always use more, she said. Pantry staffers tell pet owners about the county's spay and neutering programs and encourage them to fix their animals, she said
"It's a little like the Salvation Army,'' Nolan said. "We don't ask questions but we do preach."
Manuel Castaneda, 61, has been coming to the pantry once a week for several months. A neighbor told him about it after noticing that he was asking local restaurants for freebies to feed his Chihuahua and her new litter, Castaneda said.
His lost his job as a security guard more than a year ago and hasn't been able to find employment, he said. Pet Pantry helps fill in the gap.
"It's a blessing,'' said Castaneda, holding two bags of kibble and smaller packages of dog snacks. At the staff's urging, he picked a colorful plush caterpillar out of box of pet toys.
For Ellen McMurtery, 68, Pet Pantry is a way to feed her four dogs and four cats. The Ventura woman rescues animals and has a hard time paying for their meals.
"It helps me out until payday,'' McMurtery said. "I live on Social Security."
Food banks rarely distribute pet food, Nolan said, apparently out of concern that people might eat it. Pets-only food banks are relatively rare, although there are organizations scattered across the country trying to fill the growing need.
A Seal Beach group called the Pet Food Bank has been distributing food to shelters and rescue groups for more than a decade, according to its website. In Los Angeles, distribution of free pet food takes place on a limited basis, shelter officials say.
PAWS/LA, a nonprofit animal group that provides support to low-income senior citizens and people with life-threatening illnesses, gives pet food to 1,900 recipients a month.
"When it's time to pay the rent or buy pet food, usually it's the pet who suffers,'' said Raymundo Baltazar, a volunteer and outreach coordinator. "Fido will have to do with whatever they find."
PAWS/LA is not a shelter but people sometimes show up at the door with hungry animals anyway, he said. The group doesn't extend its services to others who are struggling financially or have lost a job. But it's considering including people in that situation due to the growing need, he said.
"How can you say no to a cat or a dog that is hungry?"
At the Camarillo pantry, friends Angela Jacquez and Mark Ortiz have driven from Ventura to get food for their pets. Ortiz, who is disabled and living on a limited income, has a Labrador retriever and a Chihuahua. Jacquez has a cat and struggles to feed it on a part-time job at a YMCA.
Jacquez said she knows that some people will say she shouldn't have a pet if she can't afford to feed it. But since her son joined the military and was deployed to Afghanistan, she's had no other faithful companion, she said.
"She helps me keep my sanity,'' Jacquez said. "If I had to give up my cat?...." she trails off. "There would be no Angie."