LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (AP) - Feeding Fido isn't the biggest expense in most household budgets, but keeping kibble does cost money.
When money gets tight, the $50 that it takes to feed a pet for a month can become too much, and pet owners are faced with a dilemma - either cut corners on their human needs or give up their four-legged family member.
That's a choice Tom Wargo, founder of Lawrenceville's Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen, thinks people shouldn't have to make. And he hopes to help Athens residents face that struggle as he expands his pet food bank organization here.
The Athens Area Humane Society already has started collecting pet food donations to stock the food bank, said humane society Director Crystal Schultz. The Athens branch of Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen will start distributing food in the next few months, Schultz said.
"What we're seeing now is just a lot of people who are coming to us or to animal control to surrender their dogs because they just can't afford to feed them," Schultz said. "It's horrible for them, but it affects us, too, because we're the ones who then have to house those cats or dogs. ... It would just be easier and less expensive if we can just keep those families together."
Since it opened in September, Wargo's volunteer- and donation-fueled pet food bank has distributed pet food to more than 400 families from 20 counties. Volunteers handed out 20,000 pounds of dog food from mid-November through the end of the year.
"For the most part, it's people who have just hit hard times - lost a job, lost a house," Wargo said. "I have a lot of people tell me, if a person doesn't have a job, or a house - then he doesn't need a dog.
"But that's not the point. They do have a dog, and it's not like they went out and bought a dog after they lost their house."
So many people were driving from Athens-Clarke, Jackson and Barrow counties to pick up bags of food that Wargo has set up partnerships with volunteers in Athens and Winder to open food banks on the eastern end of Georgia Highway 316.
Kathy Balsamo of Jefferson visited the Daffy's warehouse for the first time Monday. She is struggling to make ends meet after separating from her husband, and her three dogs eat up about $50 a month in food - money that's getting harder to find.
She learned about the food bank on a news Web site and was surprised, she said.
"A pet soup kitchen? I didn't even know that those existed. But thank God it does, because it's been a big help," she said.
Pet owners who turn to Daffy's are given a one-month supply for as many as two pets. They fill out a form with a little background information on their pets and financial situation, then promise to get the animals spayed or neutered once they accept the food.
Community members, pet-food manufacturers and retail shops donate thousands of pounds of food a week, and that food is redistributed to pet owners in need. Most of the volunteers who help out at the warehouse first came to Daffy's because they needed help for their own dogs or cats.
"Realistically, we're not doing anything here," Wargo said. "Somebody brings us food, and somebody else needs that food and comes and picks it up. It's really just a big transfer station."
Wargo, a contractor, has been collecting and distributing pet food for 11 years, but he wasn't able to organize a proper food bank until his contracting business slowed down this fall.
He obviously would rather have work, but he also marvels that Daffy's got off the ground just when people need the help most, he said.
Those wishing to help stock Athens Daffy's Pet Soup Kitchen can drop cans or bags of pet food off at the Athens Area Humane Society Intake Shelter on Beaverdam Road, the society's Spay and Neuter Center on Mars Hill Road in Watkinsville or at its Adoption Outreach Center at Pet Supplies Plus at the intersection of Baxter Street and Alps Road. More drop-off sites will be designated soon, Wargo said.
On the Net: www.daffyspetsoupkitchen.com.