The pit bull mix, living off cereal, was unkempt, signified by its lack of fur. It had skin allergies and desperately needed antibiotics. The owner, a gentle, quiet man known to the staff as Mr. Conrad, was referred to the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley at its former Bethlehem location by a local human food pantry. Due to financial difficulties and mental health issues, Mr. Conrad simply didn’t have the funds or knowledge to help his pet.
The dog was examined using funds and donations from No Kill Lehigh Valley and brought to the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley to get started on a proper diet.
Now, when Mr. Conrad comes to the food bank’s donation drive every month at its new location in Emmaus, he eagerly shows Executive Director Amy Kocis a photo of the dog on his flip phone.
Kocis said although the photo is often the same each month, over time she has noticed a sizable difference in the dog’s health and well-being — in addition to Mr. Conrad’s — since he first came to the food bank.
Animal organizations around the country have recently found struggles and success in providing shelter, offering veterinary care, finding homes and raising money to best care for animals in need.
According to national statistics, there is currently an animal shelter crisis, with more than 100,000 dogs and cats in the United States awaiting adoption or facing the risk of being killed.
The Lehigh Valley faces similar issues, yet a plethora of organizations assist owners and their pets with financial assistance and medical assistance in an effort to allow animals to live out full lives.
The Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley sits between a stretch of warehouses and local businesses. The food bank’s primary goal is keeping animals out of shelters and in homes with their owners.
Inside, visitors are welcomed by the office dog, a Shih Tzu named MoMo. Shelves and cabinets are lined with pet food for dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, fish and more. A bulletin board is filled with postcards, Christmas cards and photos of animals the food bank has helped over the past few years.
The food bank hosts bi-monthly distribution days and serves over 200 patrons each time. Kocis said lines for the service often snake around the block. To sign up, clients must present proof of residence, proof of income and a spay/neuter and vaccination certificate to receive an ID card. Clients then present their ID card and are given food and other necessary accessories for their pets.
“I think everybody deserves to be able to have a pet and sometimes it’s just out of people’s means, whether it’s the food or the medical aspect,” Kocis said. “I don’t think the answer is taking the pets away from the people.”
Ashley Schaffer, a volunteer at the food bank, was a client for two years. She said she attended the distribution days to feed her three dogs at the time.
“When I was a client, it was definitely a way of financial security in a sense,” Schaffer said. “It is known that for at least a week or two, the pet will have food even if the owner is in hard times.”
During the pandemic, Kocis said the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley saw a 30% increase in clients. As they often rely on donations of food from various suppliers, due to nationwide worker and supply shortages, food donations decreased.
“I’m just always networking every day trying to introduce ourselves to new people,” Kocis said. “Sometimes it’s just cold calling or cold emailing and you never know what kind of connection you’re going to get.”
Animal organizations in the Lehigh Valley primarily rely on fundraising and donations to support their work and aid animals and owners.
No Kill Lehigh Valley, a fundraising operation for pets and their families, founded in 2008 by director Diane Davison, provides $50,000 in donations a year to support veterinary care. Davison said only about 3% of her clients have health insurance for their animals due to the high costs.
“The calls we get are just so heartbreaking,” Davison said. “People are so upset, often hysterical, because they have a sick animal and they go to an emergency clinic but the costs are so high.”
No Kill Lehigh Valley provides financial support for spay and neuter operations for cats since the majority of animals killed in shelters are cats.
Davison said they fill the gap between what doctors charge and what people can afford.
Despite the need, most welfare organizations have a small staff. Davison works out of her home. Kocis is the only paid person in her organization.
The Center for Animal Health and Welfare in Williams Township, however, has a staff of 20 and supports 230 active volunteers due to extensive fundraising and donations.
Kelly Bauer, the executive director for the center, said the organization offers low-cost vaccinations, supports a “meet your match” program for adoptions and hosts a humane education program for students. It also offers Project Paw, a community outreach center in Easton where patrons may temporarily curl up with a resident cat while shopping in the center’s thrift store or drinking a coffee at cafe Betty’s Corner. It plans to open an emergency foster program, as well.
Bauer said being homeless at a young age instilled in her a value to take care of others, especially animals.
“Animals are so good for our soul,” Bauer said. “Your financial status, your mental health status — none of those things should matter.”
Bauer said she has found honesty and transparency to be the two most important things in forming relationships with donors and other community organizations.
“When you connect to people, it’s not just asking somebody to send a check,” Bauer said. “All of our thank you notes are written by me.”
For anyone afraid to ask for help, Kocis said no one should feel shame or worry. She said it provides visitors a sense of security and eases their anxiety to know that these organizations are there to help.
Regardless of the different resources provided, each organization expressed a similar sentiment: animals are as much a part of a family as anyone else.
Whether it is the lady with $20 to her name who gets on the bus twice a month to pick up food for her fish at the food bank, or the husband and wife who took in a stray cat after its leg had to be amputated using funds from No Kill Lehigh Valley — everyone has a story. For Bauer, it was a pit bull named Jackson, in danger of being sent away or killed, who she took in until he passed of cancer.
“This dog was my soulmate,” Bauer said. “Animals make us better people. They teach us care. They teach us respect. They teach us responsibility. They teach us decision making. They teach us unconditional love.”