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Nonprofit Aims to Keep Animals Out of Shelters By Addressing Root Causes of Surrenders

When a pet is surrendered, it’s often a matter of finances, says Kenzie Whalen-Dunn, founder and executive director of the new Wilmington Animal Food Pantry. Fully 33% of people who surrender their animals cite finances as one of, or the primary, reason.

“After years of volunteering in dog rescue, I realized there were a lot of common issues that shelters and rescues faced,” said Whalen-Dunn. In response, she created Rescue Allies, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides tools and solutions for rescue organizations and shelters. 

“I started consulting and spent a lot of time helping optimize operations for shelters and providing them with materials to increase their live release rate — animals being adopted versus being euthanized,” she said. But while this helped, no amount of optimization would solve the core problem: The number of animals that find themselves in a shelter. 

In New England, there are fewer stray animals than in other areas of the country, but there are still plenty of dogs, cats and other former pets that find themselves separated from their people.

“The animals that wind up in the shelter are often owner surrenders,” said Whalen-Dunn. “So, we did some research and determined the top three primary reasons animals are surrendered: finances, behavior and housing.” 

While there will always be situations where people have no choice, she realized that many surrenders are preventable. 

“These animals aren’t being surrendered because they aren’t loved or cared for,” said Whalen-Dunn. “They’re being surrendered because their family is going through a temporary hardship.”

That was the impetus to create the Wilmington Animal Food Pantry, which currently provides food and supplies to families in Tewksbury, Wilmington and surrounding towns.

“We have big plans to expand,” she said. “We want to hit all the reasons families need to surrender their animals.”

More Help on the Way

While the pantry currently provides only food and supplies, there are three other major areas Whalen-Dunn would like to address: 

1. Provide discounted or fully covered vet visits so animals in the community can receive the medical care they need. 

2. Pay for dog walkers and animal sitters for people who work long hours so their animals are cared for while they’re gone. 

3. Pay for trainers to assist with families struggling to keep their dogs for manageable behavior issues. 

She’s also looking to help cover the deposits and fees that apply when families need to move unexpectedly. All are coming soon, says Whalen-Dunn.

“While the overwhelming response from the community has been positive, there are always people who will say ‘people who can’t afford their animals don’t deserve them,’” she said. “From what we have seen, this could not be further from the truth. Life happens, and when people are faced with financial hardship, the last thing they should think about is if they can provide the quality of life they want to provide for their animals. We take those worries off their plates while they get through whatever challenge they are facing. Our community is stronger when we take care of all members, both two- and four-legged.” 

She’s also sensitive to the needs of pet owners facing difficulties. Whalen-Dunn is the only one who sees incoming requests, and she delivers all items. 

“We never ask for proof of need because we never want an animal to go without because their family is worried to ask for help,” she said. 

Like any new nonprofit, the pantry is focused on establishing its financial foundation and gratefully welcomes any business or individual who would like to assist. 

“We really couldn’t do any of this without such a supportive community, and we are so grateful for all the support and love we have received,” said Whalen-Dunn.

About the Wilmington Animal Food Pantry

Q. What’s the mission?

The mission of the Wilmington Animal Food Pantry is to provide food and supplies to families struggling to care for their animals in an effort to keep loved animals out of overflowing shelters. 

Q. Who do you help? 

In addition to helping animals, our programs also greatly benefit the people of our community. Losing an animal can be devastating, and for many people struggling to keep up with the bills, their animal is often the last thing they have. Most of the people we serve are on a fixed income or have gone through a major life event that has impacted their ability to provide for their animals. 

Q. How can the community help? 

Anyone can check out the group’s Amazon Wish List here.

There are a few ways that businesses in Wilmington and Tewksbury can help us in our mission: 

1. Set up a donation bin. Currently, Tewksbury’s Open Space Gift Shop & Creative Studio has a bin. Whalen-Dunn will provide all supplies and pick up donations as often as needed. 

2. Put up a flier or set up a donation jar at checkout. She will bring a flier or jar by. 

3. Co-host a fundraising event to bring awareness to both of our organizations. 

Residents of Tewksbury and surrounding communities who wish to make a donation of money or supplies or who need help can follow this link to donate, learn more or request assistance.

“We are grateful to be part of such a wonderful community,” said Whalen-Dunn.

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.


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