As COVID-19 cases rise, so do the number of pet owners needing help

With the coronavirus taking a toll on the economy, unemployment is at an all-time high in Florida. This impacts an unexpected population: pets.

Enter The Pet Project, which has stepped up to meet the staggering demands of people who are now unable to feed or care for their pets.

“A lot of times, people are in such dire financial straits that they’re having to decide between buying their own food and medication or keeping their pet,” said Tricia Blair, the assistant to the executive director.

Since 2002, The Pet Project has provided free food, litter and discounted veterinary services to those with limited incomes. This includes the disabled, seriously ill, or people who lost their jobs. The goal, they say, is for people to keep their pets  rather than send them to a shelter.

Prior to the pandemic, The Pet Project had 2,450 ongoing clients. Now, they are receiving up to 50 calls for help a day and their volunteers are assisting an additional 5,150 people.

The first Saturday of the month, food can be picked up at the organization’s Wilton Manors headquarters, 2200 NW 9 Ave. The second Saturday of the month, volunteers take food to the Pridelines Community Center in Miami. 

Due to the risks of the coronavirus, the number of clients who need deliveries made to their homes has also increased almost threefold from about 150 to 500. That includes JoAnne Perdue of Oakland Park, who was a volunteer and now a client of The Pet Project. 

Before COVID-19, she would pick up food and litter for her Yorkie, Harry, and her tuxedo cat, Missy. Now, she stays home because her terminal illnesses put her at high risk.

“I used to go and get it because there was no fear of anything, because you just drive up and they put it in your vehicle for you. But now I have to have it brought to my door,” she said. “My friends get mad at me if I even [think] about going to the grocery store. They say ‘No, stay where you are.’”

Angelio Scicolone, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, has also been a long-time client of The Pet Project. He injured his back so badly during a work accident in 2002 that he has been unable to work and, because of his medications, stopped driving about a year ago. 

The organization’s volunteers have dutifully brought his rescued Chinese crested dogs their food every three months, and sometimes even some treats and toys. When his dogs’ veterinarian wanted them on a weight control diet this summer, The Pet Project has made special trips to get specialty food.

They’re so integral to Scicolone’s life, in fact, the executive director of The Pet Project, Sue Martino, is an emergency contact number and the organization is listed in his will to ensure his dogs are cared for after he passes.

“Not only does [The Pet Project] give me the security of knowing my dogs are well fed – because I would go hungry before they do – but it also gives me the security knowing that, God forbid, Sue would come over immediately and get them,” Scicolone said.

The 80 volunteers at The Pet Project are the worker bees of the organization. Not only are they handing out supplies and making home deliveries, but during the beginning of the pandemic, they closed down their thrift store, Hidden Treasures, to make renovations. Previously a drafty warehouse, volunteers remodeled and reorganized the shop. They’re also working to move some items online for people to purchase as a fundraising effort.

“[The coronavirus has] affected every aspect of the organization, as it did for everybody; we’re not unique in that,” Blair said.

Visit thepetprojectfl.org to learn more about The Pet Project, make a donation or volunteer.

Originally published in The New Pelican.

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