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Making sure pets aren't forgotten

FamilySocial IssuesCharityJobs and WorkplacePetsHotels and AccommodationsUnemployment and Layoffs

Joni Taylor's family was evicted from their home in Venice Beach when she was 15. They couldn't pay the mortgage and moved away, leaving the family's cats to fend for themselves.

It happened decades ago, but Taylor still remembers how she cried for months. She imagined the animals roaming the streets, confused and hungry. Every few days, she would go to the grocery store and head back to her old neighborhood with a supply of canned tuna and hope.

So when the unemployment rate began to skyrocket in Portland, Ore., in recent months, she knew what she had to do.

"People shouldn't have to choose between going hungry and giving up the family dog," said Taylor, now a 53-year-old grandmother and head of Friends Involved in Dog Outreach, or FIDO, a group that helps rally support and donations for the Clackamas County dog shelter.

Taylor and some friends called pet shops and animal food makers, asking: Could they spare a bag or two of dried dog food? Maybe a box of pet chews or puppy treats? Thousands of pounds of dried and canned food poured in.

In February, Taylor and her friends started a dog food bank in this Portland suburb, handing out a 30-day supply to anyone who showed up at their storage facility on the third Saturday of the month. No questions asked. They focused on dogs because there was already a local cat food bank.

On a recent Saturday, a crowd of nearly three dozen shuffled and shivered in the early morning rain. Taylor, who works as an accountant during the week, saw the anxious look in people's eyes. They stared at the ground and stood apart from one another.

Eric Gateley and Bella, a 2-year-old boxer, waited quietly until a volunteer called out his name. Gateley, 40, lost his job as a construction manager in June and has been living in a motel with his wife and 9-year-old son since January. Relatives in Texas have been sending money to help them cover the bills.

He has been trying to make his son believe that their motel stay is an adventure. They swim in the motel's pool. They get McDonald's and curl up in front of the TV on the weekends for movie marathons.

"My wife and I, we have to put on a front for our son," Gateley said.

There's a certain relief in coming for free dog food. "With Bella," Gateley said, nodding to the caramel-colored dog at his feet, "I don't have to fake it."

Taylor, her round face flushed from exertion and graying brown ponytail wet from the rain, listened to part of his story. "You don't need to explain," she said. "Come back if you need more."

There is a familiar ring to the tales she hears. Taylor remembers how her mother struggled to feed her five children after the family was evicted.

The children were sent to stay with friends in Santa Monica who offered a spare room. At least once a week, they would drive Taylor and her sisters to their old neighborhood.

She spent hours wandering around the family home, searching the overgrown backyard and calling the cats' names. Sometimes, they came running. Once plump, they had grown scrawny.

Last year, a social worker told Taylor about people skipping meals in order to feed their children and pets.

She reached out to her friend Linda Cloud, 63, who heads FIDO's program delivering pet food to senior citizens and the housebound. Cloud knew of senior shut-ins spooning Meals on Wheels dishes into the pet bowl.

Cloud's group supplied a first shipment of food. And their joint call for donations and volunteers worked. In the warehouse, wooden pallets were piled nearly 6 feet high with dried sirloin-flavored kibble and faux bacon treats. The scent of beef and chicken was thick.

Pat Foss, a quality inspector for a manufacturing firm who was bracing to be laid off, gnawed on her lower lip as she filled out a food-bank form.

She listed the names and weights of four of her seven dogs: The food bank only lets each household get food for four. Hers are former strays. Foss, 47, can't bear to shut her kitchen door to an animal in need.

Foss was relieved to get her portion -- up to 24 pounds of dry food, two cans of wet food and a gallon-sized bag of big-dog treats. But her heart sank as she saw how many boxes she was taking. The line leading up to the warehouse was still long.

She filled out a volunteer form and promised to return. She helped set up signs. She hauled bags for other pet owners. Before she left, she leaned against her SUV and cried.

By noon, Taylor and Cloud were scrounging through empty boxes in search of scraps. Volunteers had bagged up more than 3,000 pounds of food weeks earlier. Now they had given out just about all of it -- enough for 199 dogs.

"Dig out whatever is left," Taylor urged. A volunteer tipped one box and a few bits of kibble poured into her hand. Some spilled onto the concrete floor.

Taylor bent down and scooped up each piece.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

On the Edge Staff writer P.J. Huffstutter and photographer Genaro Molina are traveling the country, chronicling the hopes and struggles of Americans in this time of economic hardship. latimes.com /hardtimes Find stories from this series and from the Business series "Surviving Recession: A Consumer Guide."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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