We've had pets for as long as I can remember, and we love them to death. Seeing our collie killed by a car when I was nine just about broke my heart. We spent $2500 (back when we could afford to) to save a cat that was hit, more to save Katie the pain of losing her than to save the cat herself. When sweet Sushi died a few months ago, poor Will was a wreck for weeks. They're all so loyal, so unconditional about their affection. All we have to do is feed them and they love us for life. Our current dog, Charlie, sleeps up against our bedroom door (we don't allow animals in our bedroom), and when he's not guarding anyone in particular, he's curled up near the front door, on alert for intruders. We didn't teach him to look after us; he just knows.
We feed our dog and four cats dry kibble most of the time. Charlie gets a bite of meat with his pills in the morning, and a few treats throughout the day. The skinny cat, Ryuk, gets a little canned food in the morning, and the other cats lick up whatever he leaves behind. We keep the cats' food up on a file cabinet, because everybody knows that a dog will go after cat food in a heartbeat, no matter how well trained he is.
But our oldest cat, Blazer, eats the dog kibble. Have you ever known a cat to prefer dog food? I sure haven't. She's quite a character. She follows Charlie around, going outside when he goes out, trotting back in behind him. I wonder if her eating his food is part of her connection to him? They've lived together for nearly 15 years. They probably think they're siblings. I know Charlie feels left out when I sit in my recliner and Blazer jumps onto my lap. Sometimes two of the others join her there. My purpose in life, in their eyes, is to be a soft, warm place to sleep.
Remember the stories we used to hear about poor old women who would have to eat cat food, because they couldn't afford anything better? That situation has turned upside down, at least here in Oregon. People can get help with food costs, but food stamps don't cover pet food. So tuna sales are up, and cats are delighted that their owners are too poor to buy cat food. I'm sure poor people aren't the only ones who make sacrifices for their pets. Our need to love trumps our need for just about anything else.
So many of our homeless neighbors have dogs. They aren't a luxury or foolish expense; they're often their owners' only friends, and everybody needs to love and feel loved. Homeless dogs meet a critical need in the darkest, lowest parts of our society. Sometimes the loss of a pet is the loss of the last sliver of hope a person has, and they allow themselves to succumb to the forces of exposure, hunger, cold, lack of hygiene & medical care, and they just fade from life. On average, one person dies every week in Portland, from causes related to homelessness. Interesting fact: Homeless people with dogs receive more donations and sympathy than those without.
You rarely see pet food on the list of needs for emergency food pantries. Shelters don't allow pets, so many homeless individuals choose sleeping outside so they can stay with their trusty companions. When we're providing meals downtown, it's understood that many people take enough food to share with their dogs.
Too much food is still going to waste every day. I met with a school yesterday about recouping some of that waste, and they fear liability issues. But liability doesn't apply to animal feed. If there's any question about food safety, we can designate it for the pets of our homeless friends, leaving more higher-quality food for the humans.
Our hearts are hardened by opportunists and con artists. We hesitate to help strangers, knowing they are potentially dangerous. But can anyone pass up a dog who is obviously starving? For every suffering dog we see, there are 50 more hidden in the shadows of our cities. And saving these dogs can often be the thread of kindness that also saves a human from despair.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.