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Feed America's hungry (and their pets), says nonprofit group

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 1:04 PM EST, Sun December 25, 2011
Nadine Turner rests beside her dog, Giorgio, in Atlanta.
Nadine Turner rests beside her dog, Giorgio, in Atlanta.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ann King is the founder of an Atlanta-based nonprofit group called Save Our Pets Food Bank
  • The group provides pet food and medicine to pet owners, who are unable to afford for it
  • "No shelter would take me and that dog," says 57-year-old Nadine Turner
  • Each year, between 3 million and 4 million cats and dogs in shelters are euthanized

(CNN) -- Food banks across the country kicked into high gear for the holiday season this week in an effort to feed America's hungry. But a few instead homed in on an often overlooked casualty of hard times -- the family pet.

"It's the forgotten pets that go by the wayside," said Ann King, founder of an Atlanta-based nonprofit group called Save Our Pets Food Bank.

Appalled by tales of pet owners compelled to hand over their cats and dogs to shelters, King formed her organization in 2008 in an effort to provide cash-strapped owners a way to keep their canine and feline friends.

Each year, between 3 million and 4 million cats and dogs in shelters are euthanized, according to The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington-based animal advocacy group.

"I've had people say to me, 'I'm down to my last half bag (of pet food) and I don't know what to do,'" King said. "People sometimes just cry because they need help."

Flying dogs to freedom

But King, also the pet food bank's executive director, said that unlike traditional food banks, her group doesn't typically benefit from a resource boost around the holidays.

"Most people don't think to give to us and funding is a big problem," she said.

"A lot of the homeless shelters also don't allow pets. So a lot people often just drive up to the local animal control centers and push their dogs out," unable to feed them, she added.

Some people, out of work or under-employed, are forced to live in their cars but still refuse to say goodbye to their animal companions, she noted.

"They don't want to turn their pets over to shelters, because many of the shelters are full and (their pets) will be put to sleep," King said. "People don't realize that pets, they're family too."

One such family member is a 12-year-old German shepherd named Giorgio -- a favorite of Nadine Turner's late husband, who died of prostate cancer more than a decade ago.

"He loved that dog," said Turner, 57, who became homeless earlier this year after moving to Atlanta in search of work. "He's the last link that I have to my husband.

"Whatever I do, I have to do my best to keep him alive."

Turner, a former business owner and insurance broker from Oakland, California, said she lost her business in 2009.

Bunking with friends, she was ultimately forced to camp out on a park bench with her dog near a Kroger food market in downtown Atlanta.

"No shelter would take me and that dog," she said. She eventually turned to King's organization, which paid a week's motel bills, plus Giorgio's food and medicine.

"I now have a job lined up with another Insurance company," as well a prospective apartment for rent, noted Turner. But she still must find a way to pay a $350 deposit.

"If I can't, me and Giorgio will be back in front of that Kroger's."

Turner's story is not unusual, noted King, whose group currently works with about 500 other food banks nationwide.

She also partners with corporations such Del Monte and Mars, as well as the Halo Pet Foundation, headed by comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Since 2008, King's organization has swelled to more than 30 volunteers. And through corporate and private donors, it's shelled out more than a million pounds of pet food, trucking and mailing the donations to thousands of down-on-their-luck families.

Nationwide networks, such as Rescue Bank -- with which King is affiliated -- have helped to connect the efforts of like-minded organizations.

"Rescue Bank is doing for pets what the food bank network has successfully done for people in this country for more than 40 years," said Debra Fair, vice president at Mars Petcare US. "This partnership is the perfect way to give much-needed support to the shelter and rescue communities and change the lives of homeless pets everywhere."

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