Cookie flirted with the man at the front counter with the swagger of a born charmer. She tilted her head, fixed him with a knowing look, and leaned forward on two meaty paws.
"Here Mama, this is the one you like," the man, Fernando Cruz, cooed as he slipped her a bacon-flavored treat, not for the first time. "You want more? I got you."
Cookie, a snow-white pit bull with light gray spots, knows the hand that feeds her. She has become a regular visitor at a new pet food pantry in the Bronx that sends free Costco-size bags of kibble home with owners who may not have enough money to feed themselves, let alone their animals.
Animal Care Centers of NYC, a nonprofit that runs the city's animal shelters, opened this pet food pantry in December, and in the first month alone, the pantry gave out more than 2,000 pounds of food for 71 dogs and 50 cats.
Across the country, the pet food pantry is the latest addition to the food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters that serve as a lifeline for people living paycheck to paycheck, if they are employed at all. A small but growing number of dedicated pantries have sprung up, often in response to pleas from people who see their pets as family and spend their last dollar on a can of Purina, even if it means going hungry themselves.
"Pets and people simply belong together," said Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president for research and development at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, adding that pet food pantries help create a safety net for pets and their owners. "Just because somebody can't afford a specific aspect of care doesn't mean they don't belong together."
The pantries have become part of a broader movement among animal welfare organizations, pet lovers and others that aims to reduce the population of animals in shelters by assisting pet owners before they resort to giving up their companions. The ASPCA has awarded $400,000 in grants since 2010 to 121 organizations nationwide to support pantries, food banks and other programs that distribute free food for pets.
But some critics have questioned whether such efforts are misdirected. Joel Berg, executive director of Hunger Free America, a nonprofit that was formerly called the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said he could not support the idea of pet food pantries when so many people were going hungry.
"I understand why this is important, but half the food pantries in New York City don't have enough food to meet human needs," Berg said, noting that he was a cat owner. "We should have fully stocked pantries for humans before we feed pets."
Supporters of the pantries counter that they are, in fact, helping people by helping their pets, citing research that shows pets can help lower stress and blood pressure, improve moods, and provide emotional comfort to their owners.
"That bond is still the same, no matter what your checkbook looks like," said Stacey Coleman, executive director of the Animal Farm Foundation, a nonprofit that provided a $12,000 grant to the Bronx pet food pantry.