Staff Writer

Jennie Boivin remembers the black cat sitting on the front steps, as if still waiting to be let into the mobile home that had been leveled by fire.

The family lost everything in the fire except for the cat, and they left her behind when they went to go make another life.

The cat walked the property, waiting for her family to return, until Boivin could not longer stand it and began feeding it over the chain-link fence that separated her property from theirs.

“Finally, she came around the fence,” Boivin said.

The cat, which Boivin dubbed Mama’s Cat, came with Boivin when she moved to Maine four years ago and when she moved to Augusta in October.

“She sleeps with me every night, cuddled right up on my arm,” Boivin said. “If I lay down in the afternoon, she usually does, too. My cats all nap in the afternoon.”

If you’ve ever loved a pet, it is easy to understand the bond Boivin has forged with Mama’s Cat and Boivin’s two other cats, Tiger and Maggy May.

They are often her only companions in her Eastern Avenue home. The cats are, in Boivin’s mind, family.

She spends much of her day telling her cats all about what she is thinking and feeling.

“I swear these ones know every word I say to them,” Boivin said. “I just feel they do because they are so knowing.”

Having a pet does something for us. The National Center for Infectious Diseases says owning a pet helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, while alleviating feelings of loneliness and opening up opportunities to socialize with others.

Pets have an emotional importance, particularly to people who do not regularly come in contact with family and friends.

“They’re part of your family,” said Joan C. Gilbert, of Augusta.

Gilbert has delivered Meals on Wheels for Spectrum Generations Cohen Community Center in Hallowell for the past six years.

During that time, she has not only brought food for the people who find it difficult to get out of the house, she also has delivered food to pets, through Spectrum’s AniMeals program.

Spectrum recently earned an achievement award from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging for developing the AniMeals program.

“I know how much these pets mean to these people,” said Lynda Johnson, who coordinates volunteers for Spectrum’s Meals on Wheels program. “Sometimes, it’s their only source of socialization.”

The Cohen Center’s AniMeals program has provided food for pets of homebound seniors who receive Meals on Wheels for the past eight years or so. The program depends on contributions of pet food and money from local businesses and individuals. The program will soon be provided in the Waterville area out of the Muskie Community Center.

The program originally was coordinated by a local veterinarian.

“She wanted to help her seniors,” Johnson said. “She found a lot of them had to give their animals away.”

Sometimes — even worse — seniors chose to go hungry over giving up their pets, Johnson said.

“We saw some of the people were feeding part of their Meals on Wheels to their pets,” she said. “We were quite worried about that.”

The Cohen Center currently helps feed about 40 pets. The food is supplemental to that purchased by the pet owners. Pet food deliveries are made once a week.

“If they don’t have enough, they use us,” Johnson said. “Some people say our food lasts the whole week.”

Gilbert, who has delivered meals for about six years, said she has grown attached to some of the people to whom she delivers, and has even formed a bond with a couple of the pets.

“There’s one dog, they bought him when he was small, she knows when I’m coming,” Gilbert said. “I have to pat her every week. You get attached to the animals and the people.”

Gilbert has heard people say that AniMeals program is extravagant.

She disagrees.

“They need it,” she said. “Those little dogs and those little cats mean a lot to those people. They’re part of the family.”

Adam Decatur understands the bond between pets and owners. That’s why Decatur, pharmacy director at Riverview, began organizing annual food drives since learning of the program a few years ago.

He found people anxious to become involved.

“I had a lot of people stop me and tell me what a wonderful program they have and how glad they are to be able to donate,” Decatur said.

Decatur said it is heartbreaking to think of someone choosing between food and the companionship of a pet. Particularly for Meals on Wheels clients, many of whom suffer from a lack of human companionship.

“I have a dog,” Decatur said. “We come from a family of animal people. When you get to help animals and help the elderly all at once, it’s kind of a no brainer.”

For more information on the AniMeals program, or to donate, contact Johnson at 626-7777 or e-mail her at [email protected]

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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