‘No Empty Bowl’ project partners with community to help struggling pet owners

Photos provided by the "No Empty Bowl" project

RALEIGH — Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic pets have proven to be rare and reliable sources of enjoyment throughout otherwise dark and troubling times. In fact, in the very early months of the outbreak, pet adoptions in the United States reached an all-time high. According to the New York Times, animal foster applications increased 500% in some areas of the country with some shelters totally emptied out. Animal welfare experts estimate that as many as 173 million pets live in American homes. But as much joy as these furry four-legged creatures bring, they are also an added expense for their owners, often proving to be more of a financial burden on cash strapped individuals struggling to make ends meet. According to Rover.com, an online pet service the annual cost of a dog’s basic needs ranges from $610-$2,115. However a 2020 study found that half of dog owners spend closer to $3,400 per year with food being the largest single expense. 

In response, local charity ‘Friends of Wake County Animal Center’ set up a food assistance program last April in order to help pet owners working in industries that had reduced hours or eliminated their positions due to COVID-19 mandates. Through its ‘No Empty Bowl’ project the nonprofit has been able to get pet food and supplies to those in need. But according to the project’s founder Christine Becker, what initially started out as a temporary assistance program, has had real staying power as the pandemic rages on and more and more Wake County residents find themselves and their pets needing help.

“We intended this to be a short-term assistance program for pet owners but for whatever reason – maybe it was that folks didn’t get their stimulus checks in the mail or the money ran out – here we are, almost a year later, luckily still helping people,” Becker says. Although the federal government issued stimulus checks in March 2020 as part of the $2 trillion Cares Act, lower income households were likely to spend this much needed assistance straight away. The Wall Street Journal cited a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing consumers with under $100 in their bank accounts spent over 40% of their stimulus payments within the first month, while those with over $4,000 barely spent a dime. 

As for ‘No Empty Bowl’ Becker estimates that to date, the group has provided supplies to between 4,500-5,000 pets including hamsters, fish, bearded dragons, rabbits, parrots, guinea pigs, geckos, cockatiels, and of course cats and dogs. The group hosted its first distribution event last April out of a makeshift headquarters at the Massage Luxe in Raleigh. Since then, it has increased its drop off spots to include the Unleashed Cary, Lake Boone Trail, and Stonehenge locations. Pickup sites include Open Door Church, Hope Community Church, and Mama’s House in Fuquay Varina. More information can be found on the charity’s website and FWCAC accepts monetary donations to do the shopping and provide for pets with allergies or special medical dietary needs.

“A restaurant employee friend told me the other day that if it came down to it, they would feed their cats before feeding themselves. Well, we don’t want it to ever come down to that,” Becker says. “No one should bear the burden of decision like that.  And we don’t want folks to choose to surrender their furry family members because they can no longer afford to feed them. That would be excruciating for the family and devastating to the animal, too.”

FWCAC is in itself a fascinating story. It got its roots from a small group of volunteers who on July 29, 2012 decided to launch a Facebook Page to bring awareness to the animals at the Wake County Animal Center, promoting the need for pet adoption, etc. As the need within the community grew over the years, so did the volunteer organization and in August of 2016 they became a federally recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the goal of improving the quality of life for animals in the community and their human families. The ‘No Empty Bowl’ project is made possible through the generous donations of several groups including the Teddy Rox Foundation. 

Becker wants people to know that if they are struggling to feed their pets, her group is here to help. “There are so many people in need right now, the hardship is ubiquitous, and we feel like for people who need to stand in line for food for an hour for themselves….they could probably use help to feed their pets as well. We know that pet food is not the only thing on your mind or the only thing that you need, but we know that you love your pets very dearly (as we do ours). And if we can help in some small way, that’s exactly what we’d like to do. At this point, every little bit that we can do for each other helps.”