Groups help low-income Hartford residents care for pets
HARTFORD — For John Alverez, of Hartford, his Chihuahua, Chiquita, “stabilizes” his life.
Alverez’s son rescued Chiquita from a kill shelter and brought her to Alverez when his other dog, a Maltese, died. As a retired person, caring for Chiquita is his life’s work.
“I love her with all of my heart,” Alverez said.
Living on a fixed income means Alverez can’t always afford pet food and veterinary care for Chiquita. A nationwide survey published in September found that 75 percent of pet owners said inflation was making pet ownership more expensive, and 26 percent are “struggling to afford” their pet.
Pet ownership is especially challenging in communities like Hartford, where 51 percent of residents were considered low-income as of 2020.
“Everybody is always asking for pet food,” said Lorie Reardon, dietician and founder of AID-a-Pet in Hartford. “And if they don’t get pet food, they’re going to compromise themselves. And they’re going to give it to their pet.”
Reardon, a dietician at the Charter Oak Health Center, said many of her clients were feeding their pets human food like tuna fish and reserving less for themselves. They’d come to the health center asking for resources for their pets before addressing their own needs. So, she decided to launch a program that would begin to tackle the demand.
Once a month on Saturdays, about 100 residents line up outside of Holy Trinity Church on Capitol Avenue to get free pet food and access to affordable veterinary care. It’s the work of Reardon’s AID-a-Pet that is helping residents like Alverez keep their pets while also feeding themselves.
“I have no Social Security, disability,” Alverez said. “I just have my retirement. And it’s hard to get by, you know? So it was very difficult for me to maintain her health and give her the proper food and so on.”
AID-a-Pet, which launched in 1998, accepts donations of pet food, cat litter and other pet supplies, which are kept in the basement of the Holy Trinity Church, one of the few churches in the area that allows pets to come to mass.
“Father Jacob had seen the ad and said, ‘Wow, if you are almost homeless, please come join us,'” Reardon said. “Lovely, pet-friendly church. And people are welcome to bring their pets to mass. And then he gave us this setup. And it has really, really made the world of difference.”
Over time, Reardon said, the demand for AID-a-Pet’s services has begun to outgrow the church and the organizations’ pocketbooks.
“It’s far past what we’re capable of doing,” Reardon said.
In addition to handing out pet food and supplies, AID-a-Pet volunteers every month help connect residents to affordable pet care with the help of East Hartford-based Protectors of Animals.
Jody Macrina, president of Protectors of Animals, has been aware of the work of AID-a-Pet since its founding in 1998. Protectors of Animals has a program called “POA Spay” that partners with AID-a-Pet to provide a more affordable option for spaying and neutering the pets owned by those who come to the Saturday morning pet food pantry.
“People love their pets,” Macrina said. “They love their cats and their dogs, but they just don’t have either access to transportation and/or funds to be able to get their animals vetted. Our services are strictly spay, neuter, vaccines and preventatives, but that’s about all we can do to help them. At least we know that their animals are not reproducing.”
Transportation is a huge issue for pet owners like Alverez, who usually ride the bus. The public bus system does not allow pets on board, so getting to the clinic in East Hartford can be challenging for pet owners.
“I have had an elderly lady that walked hours to East Hartford with her dog for an appointment that we arranged for her because she couldn’t take her dog on the bus,” Reardon said.
Like at AID-a-Pet, resources at POA Spay are stretched thin. Macrina estimated that the team is spaying about 20 animals a day, four days a week.
“We could be open probably seven days a week with double the staff with the need that is in our community and still be booked,” Macrina said.
The pet owners served by AID-a-Pet are not always pet owners by choice, Reardon explained.
“These folks that we do serve, they say that many times, they would have to surrender their pet because they could not afford it,” Reardon said. “And, it’s not like, these people are buying the pets. They’re finding them on the streets.”
Regardless of how the pet came into their care, Reardon believes responsible pet ownership can benefit people by teaching them how to care for themselves.
“If they’re being so much more attentive to their pet, we hope they learn, in return, that their health is just as important,” Reardon said.
That’s been the case for Alverez.
“She’s the one that keeps me mentally healthy,” Alverez said. “As a young man, I went through many trials and tribulations. As I got older, I’d seek help with a psychiatrist and stuff. Having her and having my other dogs really helped stabilize my life.”
AID-a-Pet is seeking donations of pet food and money to help pay for veterinary visits and transportation. Those interested in donating or volunteering should visit AID-a-Pet on Facebook.