A local organization helps struggling pet owners feed their animals. (Photo: Shannon Richards, StockSnap)

Local nonprofit 4 Paws Pantry is continuing its mission to help struggling pet owners with a temporary supply of food, as well as promote a pay-it-forward mentality.

“We try to promote being kind to everyone and being kind to animals,” board member Sandi Smith said. “Do a random act of kindness today for a stranger; it will make you feel so much better. We try to promote being positive. There’s so much negativity out there.”

As Giving Tuesday and #CHAgives Day approach this month, leaders of the small organization are working to get the word out about their work, Smith said. 

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4 Paws Pantry takes applications from area residents who need help feeding their pets. The application includes questions about the number and types of animals, as well as a request to help give back, for instance through volunteering or a small donation.

“A couple of years ago, we had a lady that was really struggling and had lost her job,” Smith said. “When she got another job, she came in and donated $2. We didn’t care [about the amount]. She was helping somebody else. That’s what we want.”

This map represents locations of the organization’s Twitter followers. If the location is unknown, they are represented by a paw sticker in the ocean on the map. (Photo: Contributed)

Betty Crawford created the organization, with Smith’s help, in 2012. Since then, it’s helped more than 3,000 pets and provided more than 1.2 million meals, Smith said.

The organization is also working to assist pet owners with low-cost spay and neuter options.

“One of our criteria that we don’t budge on is the fact that your animals have to be spayed or neutered,” Smith said. “We are a no-judgment zone, but we try to promote healthy and responsible pet ownership. We are in the process of trying to set up a fund to start helping people with low-cost spaying and neutering.”

4 Paws Pantry is funded mostly by donations, and 95 percent of that money goes back into their work helping the community, Smith said.

The leaders try to keep expenses low. They pay for a phone line and a storage unit to keep food donations. Otherwise, the money goes toward purchasing food for community members’ animals, Smith said.

“We try to be very transparent,” she said. “We want all our resources to go back out.”

4 Paws Pantry is independent and works with an array of other nonprofits and organizations in town, such as the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, which provides resources to members of the homeless population.

Some people have said they don’t believe a homeless person should have pets, but Smith said that’s not for her to judge.

“You need to be responsible and not have a bunch of animals with you, but a lot of times, that’s their companion, that’s their family,” Smith said. “How can we say you shouldn’t have that pet?”

She and Crawford take steps to make sure pet owners are being as responsible as possible. They don’t support breeders or hoarders, although they would try to help them in other ways.

But many situations are such that a person has had the pet(s) for a long time and then encountered a financial struggle that’s making it difficult to continue to support the animal.

“Especially with the elderly—most of our elderly clients, they don’t have new pets,” Smith said. “They have pets they’ve had [for a long time].”

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