BANGOR, Maine — For many people, pets are more than possessions.
Dogs and cats and other animals often are considered family members, serving not only as companions but also an outlet for those who need to feel needed.
That’s the case with Betty, 69, of Bangor, who said last week that after her husband died five years ago, she found herself barely able to face each day.
“I was in deep depression. I live alone, and I don’t have any family,” said Betty, who asked that her last name be withheld. “And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute — nobody can take care of these kitties better than I can. They’re my pride and joy. They give my life purpose.”
But like many Mainers, Betty lives on a fixed income, which makes it hard to afford food for her cats, male Riki-Tiki-Tavi and females Lady Catherine and Lady Amara.
Betty is among roughly 900 Maine elders with low incomes or with disabilities served by Eastern Area Agency on Aging’s Furry Friends Food Bank, which provides pet food to the agency’s clients and to the Tree of Life Food Pantry in Blue Hill, Rob Crone, EAAA’s nutrition director, said last week.
Because some of those served by the pet food bank have more than one pet, the program feeds “well over 1,000 animals,” added Carol Higgins Taylor, Eastern Area Agency on Aging’s director of communications.
“The numbers are shocking,” she said.
Increased demand, in turn, has led to shortages of pet food at the Furry Friends pantry and others like it around the state.
According to Higgins, Furry Friends aims to preserve the special bond between people and their pets by providing pet food and basic pet care supplies to income-eligible seniors and adults with disabilities who live in its four-county service area.
Since taking on the pet food bank program in July 2008, EAAA has distributed 80,310 pounds of pet food — about 30,000 pounds during the first year and about 50,000 during the second year, according to Crone.
Most of the pet food is donated to the agency by stores that can’t sell it because the packages were damaged during shipment, he said. Several area Wal-Mart stores and Green Acres in Bangor are some of the pet food bank’s biggest supporters.
The pet food is distributed through EAAA’s Meals on Wheels program and network of Community Cafes, Crone said.
“The real essence of this thing is keeping companion animals with our seniors,” Crone said.
“You know, most of us who work in this program have a real thing for animals but our business is people, and we support the people business by keeping their friends with them,” he said. “There are people who literally think of their animals as friends and family.”
Crone said that one of the reasons he’s behind the program is the fact that some of the elderly and people with disabilities the agency serves sometimes share their own meager food supplies with their pets. That’s because many can’t afford to buy pet food and others aren’t physically able to get to the store to purchase it, he pointed out.
Betty described herself as “a grateful recipient” of the pet food program. Without it, “I wouldn’t be able to afford medical care” for the cats.
“When the [Meals on Wheels] driver shows up, he looks for Riki. Riki is our social ambassador. He greets everybody at the door. The girls are a little more shy,” she said.
Program in crisis
The pet food bank is facing a crisis. EAAA’s supply of pet food is down to a few bags. Donations of food have come to a near halt and there is no funding to go out and purchase more, Crone and Taylor said last week.
“The need is desperate — more than it’s been, ever,” Crone said. “We’ve never been in this situation before. We’ve always been able to call around to get food from one place if another is running low but now we’re down to a few bags [of dog and cat food].”
“I don’t remember it ever being this bare,” Taylor added. “This [program] has so much potential. We are completely desperate. The worst thing is that we just can’t serve people and their animals are either having to go hungry or people are having to share their own food with their pets. I’m sure that’s happening now.”
To that end, Taylor and Crone are putting out a call for donations so that EAAA can continue helping those who depend on Furry Friends.
Though any donation is welcome, Taylor said that financial contributions would stretch farther than food because EAAA can use the money to buy pet food at wholesale prices.
She said that Mainers also can help by supporting Bradford resident Phil Pepin in his effort to raise funds for Furry Friends by hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer. Taylor said that Pepin aims to raise $21,750, or $10 a mile.
Higgins and Crone said that if that amount could be raised, EAAA could buy pet food and set aside some funds to help seniors and clients with disabilities pay for veterinary costs, especially fees for having pets spayed or neutered, which is required of those who take part in the Furry Friends program.
Pepin embarked on his hike two months ago and is due back in August, Taylor said. Now in New York, Pepin so far has raised about $2,000, far short of his goal. She said that more information about Pepin’s hike, including his online journal, is linked to EAAA’s website.
Focus on dogs
Also hard-pressed to meet the needs of those who are struggling to feed their pets is the Penobscot Valley Kennel Club, which provides dog food to those who need it.
“It’s not just the elderly who are having the problem,” said Nancy Daniels, who established the kennel club’s dog food program in November 2008, she said.
“A lot of young families are struggling, too, and I think it’s getting worse. If both parents need to work [to make ends meet] and one parent loses a job, it can be devastating on the family’s finances and oftentimes, pets are the first things to go,” she said.
The kennel club’s program deals strictly with dog food.
While EAAA’s program serves those who are eligible for its services, the kennel club’s program helps anyone who shows up at participating food pantries.
“We started with just Manna [Ministries Inc.’s food pantry] and it’s since spread to 13 food pantries in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Waldo counties,” Daniels said. She said the club has been distributing between 400 and 700 pounds of dog food a month. The club buys dog food in bulk at discount costs using funds collected in labeled canisters that members have set out at local businesses.
“But we’ll need people’s help in order to continue,” she said. “I’m sure we’re not reaching 50 percent of the people in these three counties that could use the help. So that’s our aim, to see this grow even more so that we could help as many people as possible. Every penny helps.”
Volunteers to the rescue
Both Crone and Daniels say their respective programs could not exist without the help of volunteers and donations from the public.
Daniels said that the labor involved in the kennel club’s operation, such as repacking dog food into smaller bags before it is taken to food pantries, is done by club members and other volunteers, including teenagers looking for ways to fulfill their schools’ community service requirements.
Furry Friends’ star volunteer is Marc Derosier, 70, of Bangor.
Derosier, who has been a volunteer driver for EAAA’s Community Cafe and Meals for Me programs for more than two years, has taken on the mission of picking up and distributing pet food donated by Wal-Mart and some of the region’s smaller businesses, including Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor.
The stores set aside surplus pet food, oftentimes contained in bags that are damaged in shipping or after arrival. The food, Crone and Derosier said, which is still perfectly good, otherwise would be thrown away.
To that end, Derosier makes weekly rounds among the stores, collecting as much as a ton of pet food at time. He delivers most of it to the Tree of Life food pantry in Blue Hill, where another volunteer repacks it into 5-pound bags that then are distributed to those who need it through EAAA’s network of meal sites and to the homes of shut-ins.
While the kennel club program deals strictly with dog food, the Furry Friends Food Bank distributes food for a variety of pets.
“Rabbits, chickens, birds — we get just about anything,” Derosier said with a laugh.
Crone said the pet food program probably wouldn’t be possible without Derosier, who has been known to drive 50 miles out of his way to pick up a cat in need of a home.
“Marc’s reliability has really been the key to this,” Crone said. “The reason it’s been successful for us and not for other people they’ve worked with is that Marc is incredibly dependable,” Crone said. “If you can’t pick up [the pet food bags in a timely manner] they’re not gonna hang on to them.”
Derosier, who lives in Bangor with wife, Rhonda, and their 15-pound cat, Baby, says he does it because he’s an animal lover himself.
To contribute, call Eastern Area Agency on Aging at 941-2865, 800-432-7812 or TTY 992-0150. Donations to FFFB can be made online at www.eaaa.org or by checks made out to EAAA, 450 Essex St. Bangor 04401. FFFB should be put in the memo section.
To donate to the kennel club’s program, e-mail Daniels at email@example.com.
For a comprehensive list of pet food pantries throughout the state, visit the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals’ website at www.msspa.org/news/pet-food-pantries-maine.