Atlantic Cities

On a Mission to Help Neighborhoods With Scarce Resources for Pets

You've heard of food deserts. Kim Wolf wants you to think about what you might call pet food deserts – areas without pet stores, veterinary clinics, or any of the other resources owners need to care for their furry friends.

A social worker and animal welfare advocate living in Brooklyn, Wolf is raising funds for a project she hopes will address some of those needs. Her nascent nonprofit, Ruff Riders, will deliver free pet food to owners in the some of the borough's poorest neighborhoods – via cargo bike.

She's got the pet food donations already lined up, and she's doing an Indiegogo campaign to pay for the bike from Haley Trikes, a Philadelphia-based company that's helping to defray some of the vehicle costs. By doing her rounds on a bike, she says she’ll be better able to meet people in the area she plans to serve. "It’s important to me that it be grassroots and face-to-face," she says. "There's a tremendous need for pet owner support in neighborhoods with the highest poverty and unemployment rates."

Wolf created this map that shows how Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods are essentially empty of pet services.

She says she's already met plenty of people in need of help with their pets through Dogs of New York, a canine-centered variation on the street photography sensation Humans of New York. She expects more referrals through her contacts with animal welfare organizations. Part of her idea is to use free pet food to build relationships and connect people with other services, like vaccination clinics. "It's an entryway to connecting with other support," Wolf says. She's already raised more than a third of the modest $2,280 she needs to get started.

She knows that some people see pets as a luxury – if you can't afford to feed a dog or cat, their attitude is, you shouldn't have one. But in her work, she has seen just how important the relationships between people and other animals can be.

"You can’t put a dollar value on pet companionship," she says. "A pet can be the sole thing keeping people together. If you remove the pet from the situation, things can fall apart."


Dogs of New York: Scruffy lives in Bushwick (left); Bruno lives in East New York (right)

Sometimes, people will go without food themselves to make sure their pets have enough. "I've met people on food stamps, or getting Meals on Wheels, who are feeding the pet more than they are themselves," she says, noting that very few food banks have pet food, and none allow people to show up with animals. "It may seem crazy, but that speaks to how much the pet is valued by the family."

For some people, especially older folks, pets are the only family they have. And in the city's economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, says Wolf, many have found themselves playing Good Samaritan by taking in pets for friends or family who have had to give them up because they've been taken to the hospital, or lost their homes, or are serving time in jail.


Dogs of New York: Linds and Brandy live in Bed-Stuy.

Wolf says that once she gets the cargo bike, she wants to have it decorated by a local graffiti artist to make it more visible. She wants people to see her coming. "I want to connect with people, I want to meet the pets," she says, with a laugh. "I want it to be, 'there goes the crazy bike woman.'"

All images by Kim Wolf.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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