The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 8, 2013

Shelter staff panics when Mars closes; Blue Buffalo notes it will provide food

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni

JOPLIN, Mo. — On Thursday, staff members at Joplin Humane Society brought in the last of the dog food from the storage barn and wondered how they were going to continue to feed the animals in their care.

“We had two to three days’ worth of food, and then that was it,” said Lisa Boston, the shelter manager.

Each month since 2006, the shelter has relied on donations of about five pallets of dog food from Mars Pet Food’s Joplin facility to supplement operations.

When Boston read media reports on Wednesday that Mars would be closing the Joplin plant, her heart sank.

“The idea that we were going to lose that put us all into panic mode,” she said. “We started calling and emailing everyone we knew.”

It costs about $2,500 a day to keep the facility running, she said. There are 250 dogs and puppies in the shelter’s care. Because they come to the shelter often in poor condition, they receive three meals a day instead of two. Those extra costs add up when multiplied by seven days a week for weeks and months, Boston said.

“We are always still in need of small-dog and cat food, but at least we knew we could count on the food from Mars,” she said.

Administrators knew that to cover the cost of purchasing the once-donated dog food, they faced two choices: Cut programs or cut staff.

“We don’t have excess staff as it is, we have only absolutely what we need,” Boston said. “Cutting them would impact our ability to take care of the animals, and cutting programs at a time when we were just starting to catch up to the effects of 2011 with the tornado would  hurt not just us and the animals, but the community.” The shelter also serves as a pseudo-food bank for residents in need who have pets.

“They lose their job, or family move in who have pets and they don’t have food, so they come to us and we always share,” Boston said. “It was really hard this week to tell people we didn’t have any to share.”

Help has dried up after the initial flood of response after the tornado — Boston suspects because of the economy.

“If we get four 50-pound bags a week donated, we’re lucky. We just don’t see it that often any more. People are pinching their own pennies to feed their own pets. Not they don’t want to help, they just don’t have the financial ability,” she said.

Word of the shelter’s plight got out.

“I think we must have had an angel looking out for us,” Boston said.

Keith Savage, vice president of product supply with Blue Buffalo, was in town. Blue Buffalo broke ground in Joplin last fall on an $85 million plant, which is not yet finished.

“He was in town this week of all weeks, and someone reached out to him and told him about us,” Boston said. “He literally walked in the front door and said, ‘We want to feed your animals.’ I thought I was going to cry. We had a volunteer sitting there and she did cry.”

Boston isn’t sure how much Blue Buffalo will donate, and Savage could not be reached by the Globe for comment.

“Right now, we know the food will come out of Omaha, because their plant here isn’t up and running. We’ll find out later today the specifics,” Boston said Friday. “Whatever we get, I can’t tell you how grateful we are for this help. It would have such a huge, huge impact on the shelter and our ability to help the community and the local animals,” Boston said.

Friday afternoon, Boston received another bit of good news: Mars company officials spoke with her about a continued relationship they will offer for the next six months, and beyond.

“Our team had planned to get with the shelter before today but have been busy with employees,” said Judy Lawless, a Mars spokeswoman based in Tennessee. “It’s a great partnership; we definitely are committed to helping.”

Mars will continue to provide the shelter food for the next six months. “We need to have a way to transition them,” Lawless said. “It’s best for the pets. Our dry food shut down on Tuesday, but we’re still there until September on the biscuit side.”

Two other Mars plants, one in Galena, Kan., and one in Miami, Okla., will continue to provide volunteer and program support, according to Lawless.

“We’re committed to them,” she said.