Since 2016, a Lafayette pet food store has been helping area residents feed their furry family members and avoid owner surrender, a service that has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic and after recent natural disasters.
The idea came to Emily Hamner, founder and operator of the pantry, while working with FoodNet, the food bank arm of Catholic Charities in Acadiana. Hamner notes that elderly people use their food to feed their companion pets after spending their tight budgets or that single parents struggle to feed their pet while trying to cover the electric bill.
She found that no one was serving exclusively the nutritional needs of pets in the community.
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Hamner, who leads her family’s nonprofit Pinhook, decided to launch a pet store to help families keep their pets while navigating economically challenging areas. Two months later, the 2016 floods swept through the community and the store shifted from its role to helping 250 families keep their pets after damage to their homes, she said.
Hamner is an animal lover. She has four rescue cats in the house—Brody, Leo, Maeve, and Theodore—and her dad’s two golden retrievers, Rusty and Ruby, and a group of cats that attract visitors to the store, located inside a home used as office space at 200 University Street W.
“Seeing a pet hungry – it breaks my heart. If you can help someone whose pet is the only source for someone to talk to or if they feel the only satisfaction they get out of the day… Feeding that pet makes them happy is all we want At the end of the day, “We want everyone to be happy and healthy in our community,” Hamner said.
“I don’t want to see more pets euthanized because their families can’t feed them,” she said.
The store operates through a combination of personal donations from community members and corporate partnerships with companies like PetSmart and Chewy, who typically send donations on an 18-wheeler once every three months. She said other partners, such as Acadiana Animal Aid and SpayNation, move food when possible, and other companies act as drop-off points.
Hamner maintains a spreadsheet that tracks each family or resident actively introduced through the store, logging their name, phone number, address, pets, and any food restrictions or sensitivities. They usually receive food once a month or every two months.
During the pandemic, Hamner implemented a “laissez-faire” approach. On pickup days, food needed for the family is marked and placed outside on the back drawer of the pantry for collection, she said.
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The epidemic and the disruption it caused to many families had a clear impact on people’s ability to buy food for their pets. Hamner said that while families in the past may have needed a month of food to get them back on their feet, more people needed extended assistance before reaching stability again.
As of mid-October, the store was serving 211 people, she said.
For people who have pets, animals are another member of the family, Hamner said. Keeping them together relieves stress on the family and the pets themselves, which may withdraw or be under undue stress if taken to a shelter or rescue, she said.
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“For them to come out, either a dog with a cold, wet nose that spurs you to pat them or a cat that comes up and says, ‘Hey, do you want to talk to me?’” ‘This can make a difference to people.’ It’s the ‘Oh, the world isn’t that bad’ moment, Hamner said.
Pet stocking has also been intensified during natural disasters, first after the 2016 floods and more recently after Hurricane Ida, the Category 4 hurricane that rocked southeastern Louisiana in August, especially areas in the Bayou area such as the parishes of LaForce and Terbonne.
In the aftermath of the storm, Humner first received a call from a Larousse resident looking for horse feed and dog and cat food. Next came a call from a hurricane recovery group that was on the ground providing rapid response services to residents and saw the need for pet food. Hamner was the only one who answered their calls.
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She and her husband loaded a truck with food in stock and spent five days helping local communities in Los Angeles. It has since become a conduit for local and national donations, partnering with local organizers and recovery groups who deliver shipments to the area to get food in the right hands.
“It’s all about partners. Your friends are your biggest resource,” she said.
Hamner said each bag or package of canned foods carries the store’s information so families can call if they need extra help.
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The Hummer Depot served a similar purpose to help residents in the Lake Charles area after the area was hit by Hurricane Laura and Delta in 2020. She said some Lake Charles area residents and rural residents affected by the storm continue to drive to the depot every few months for help because they are still out of place. Stable after more than a year.
“We are very fortunate that this did not happen with Lafayette, but because our community is strong, we need to help those who need help,” Hamner said.