Brent Adams understands people. That’s why he likes animals better.

“You get to know how bad people are as you get older,” said Adams, 48, who lives with seven cats and dogs in Grays Ferry. “But animals improve any day.”

A part-time baker with no partner or progeny, Adams describes himself as low-income with little cash on hand. “My money goes to the animals,” he said. “They give so much love.”

Like a lot people in or near poverty, Adams makes room in his heart and limited budget for animals. Of the estimated 165 million pets in the United States, 23 million live with their owners in poverty, according to data from the ASPCA and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

As much as low-income people love their pets, however, many discover that they are not able to look after them. For years, animals from impoverished homes have been taken to shelters or released to the streets because their owners couldn’t afford care. Many of those sheltered animals have been destroyed.

But things are changing — here in the Philadelphia area, as well as around the country. Veterinarians and animal-welfare advocates are developing what has been described as a new paradigm in which pets are kept in low-income homes thanks to a new, vigorous outreach to provide pet food and low-cost veterinary services. The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), for example, helped Adams’ cat, Smoke, which needed a leg amputated because of an infection.

“We are striving for a humane city, a no-kill city, so pets aren’t dying in shelters because owners can’t afford them,” said Melissa Levy, executive director of PAWS.

It’s part of a nationwide movement, born of a longtime omission.

“We are trying to do what the veterinary profession has not done,” said Michael Blackwell, a veterinarian at the University of Tennessee. “We are building a formal way of reaching lower-economic people."

Often, people who can’t afford care for pets relinquish them, Blackwell said. It doesn’t always end well. "I’ve had to perform euthanasia on some of those animals.

“There’s been a lot of carnage. And we can do better.”

Some progress is already being reported. The number of animals that entered the city’s main shelter on Hunting Park Avenue, run by the Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia (ACCT), has decreased from 30,000 in 2011 to 18,000 in 2018, according to Susan Russell, executive director of ACCT.

ACCT figures show that the number of shelter-performed euthanasias declined dramatically from around 12,000 in 2012 to 3,400 last year. Adoptions also help save animals, experts say.

It’s common to see more stray animals in low-income neighborhoods, said Samantha Holbrook, president of Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia. The nonprofit runs a help desk within ACCT that offers assistance to people looking to give up their animals because they can’t afford care.

ACCT figures for 2018 show that while the agency took in seven strays from well-off Chestnut Hill and six from Old City, it collected 272 from North Philadelphia and 240 from Kensington.

In low-income areas, many owners don’t fully understand the importance of spaying and neutering animals, or can’t afford to, Holbrook said. Also, impoverished areas are “veterinary deserts,” experts say, often devoid of pet care. Many people wind up evicted and can’t find a place for their animals. And, experts say, some owners believe that if they can’t look after their animals, it’s better to let them loose in the neighborhoods, where they reproduce.

To help, Citizens for a No-Kill Philadelphia sends representatives to different low-income neighborhoods, distributing free and low-cost items, including pet food and kitty litter. The group also educates residents about the importance of pet sterilization, and identifies places with low-cost vet services.

Similar work is being done by Humane Society of the United States’ program called Pets for Life, which has a local affiliate here. The group, with a particular focus on spaying and neutering, has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Brent Adams walks Jasmine and Polo in the park near his home.

Gold standard

Perhaps the gold standard of helping pets in poverty is being undertaken by Humane Pennsylvania in Reading, where the agency is using a $3 million grant to create a unique health-care delivery model: sterilization, food resources, insertion of microchip identification into dogs and cats, and basic vaccinations.

CEO Karel Minor said that “no place in the country is doing this at this scale.” His plan is to have his staff of 77 “meet and touch” all 20,000 cats and dogs in Reading within three years. “Animal care in America has been white, wealthy, and primarily suburban for 100 years,” he said. “That’s ending.”

When it comes to people in poverty and their pets, there is an “elephant in the room,” according to Blackwell of Tennessee. “People say, ‘If you can’t afford vet care, you probably shouldn’t have a pet.’”

But, he added, the pets are already in homes, and there’s no going back. Also, said Mandy Hood, a manager at Pennsylvania SPCA, “Pets are part of our families and everyone has the right to have the family they want.” And, said Catherine Malkemes, CEO of Women’s Animal Center in Bensalem, “We all have that same emotional need to be loved and to care for something else, regardless of income.”

Antihunger advocates are aware of pet ardor, and many human food pantries stock pet food. Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America in New York, noted that people “with so little in life, rely on pets for emotional support.” Still, he added, while pets are important, “we shouldn’t place more emphasis on feeding Fido than Grandma.”

Caring for her cat, Grace, is paramount for Maryann Carbone, 73, living on Social Security in an Advanced Living Communities residence in Lansdale. These days, Carbone is scrambling to come up with $150 for cat vaccines. She said she’ll find a way, because Grace is the “only therapist” Carbone can afford.

“I pour my heart out to her about my grandson, who died of a drug overdose,” Carbone said. “She listens and knows when I’m sad. Grace is always by my side.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.