LONGWOOD — If only his mom would let him, Zach Wilson would let all the shelter dogs in central Florida live at his house.
Instead, Zach, 9, and his mom are working to keep pets out of shelters. They started the Central Florida Animal Pantry, the region's first pet-food giveaway program, so families with financial troubles won't have to give up their animals for lack of money to feed them.
So far, the Wilsons have accumulated about 1,000 pounds of dog and cat food in their garage, mostly from Wekiva Elementary School, where Zach attends third grade.
Zach, who could never imagine giving up his German shepherd-Labrador mix, Brandi, said he was compelled to do something after he visited several area shelters in search of a second dog and saw so many dogs in cages. The shelter workers told him that many of the older dogs had belonged to owners who lost their homes or jobs and couldn't afford to keep their pets. He and his mom couldn't stop thinking about the animals and the families that missed them.
The next morning, Zach told his mom, "We need to feed the dogs."
"From there, we just sat down and tried to figure out how we could help the situation," mom Erica Wilson said.
Wilson could find no charity offering free pet food to local families in need. Senior citizens receiving Meals on Wheels can get pet food, and Second Harvest of Central Florida occasionally accepts pet-food donations from corporate donors, which the agency then gives to local shelters.
Since they began to publicize the project a few weeks ago, Zach has received several offers of help, as well as some pleas for assistance. A single mother supporting two children, two grandchildren, three dogs and two cats wrote: "I am having financial difficulties and would never get rid of my animals but could use some help with food."
Zach advised her to come over.
Last year, as the economy imploded, Orange County's shelter saw a 6 percent increase in the number of abandoned and owner-surrendered animals. In recent months, shelters say, the economy-related surrenders have subsided, but the need for help remains. Seminole County Animal Services has seen a fourfold increase in sick or emaciated pets because their owners couldn't afford to feed or take them to the vet, program coordinator Diane Gagliano said.
Food represents a small portion of a pet owner's responsibilities, and a change in pet-food brands can disrupt the animal's digestive system in some cases, said Jake White, senior vice president at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Central Florida.
The Wilsons know that giving away biscuits and jerky strips is only part of the answer. So their program also has a medical fund.
"We are finding most of the people who ask for food need vaccines too," Erica Wilson said.
Sometimes, even just a temporary financial setback can affect the family pet, said Marjorie Boyd, director of animal services for Lake County.
"All it takes is just one thing to happen in our lives, like the car breaks down," Boyd said. "If they (a pet owner) can get dog food to be able to feed the dog for the next month while they're scraping to get the car fixed and then they get back on their feet, it's a great thing."