The venue is a disused nightschool in the former communist east Berlin where the smell of straw, dry food and wet dog lingers in the air as a Jack Russell in a checkered coat waddles past on its way to the kibbles line for biscuits.
Pensioners and those on the dole qualify for the free pet food buffet which opened in the district of Treptow in mid-October, allowing those with no disposable income the chance to hold on to their beloved dogs and cats.
“We’ve already signed up nearly 400 people. And our stocks are dwindling fast. Today cat owners are just getting a single tin each,” said Julia Raasch, who heads the capital’s sole animal soup kitchen, run by Tiertafel (Animal Dining Table), a pet welfare association.
Berlin, where unemployment hovers around 13 percent, has some 100,000 registered dogs, many of them owned by pensioners. The soup kitchen also caters to other pets – including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and budgerigars. Twelve volunteers hand out food and advice, while keeping an eye on the animals’ health.
Food rations, donated by individuals and food companies alike, will normally cover the animal’s needs for four to five days.
Tiertafel, launched two years ago, now runs 19 soup kitchens across down the country. With the looming prospect of the longest and deepest recession in Germany since World War II, the group is planning on opening 30 more.
Claudia Hollm, who owns three dogs herself, said she came up with the idea of pet soup kitchens after seeing a television report about a family having to give their dog away to an animal rescue centre after the father was made redundant.
“The dog didn’t understand what was going on; all the family was upset, and we just thought – it just can’t be that for the sake of €30 or €40 ($42 or $56) they’ve got to turn their pet out,” she said.
“Everyday we see people who can’t keep their pets anymore because of the cost,” according to Evamarie Koenig, spokeswoman for Berlin’s central animal rescue centre.
The facility takes in more than 10,000 animals each year, with one in three handed over by owners who say they can no longer look after them, she added. At the Treptow soup kitchen, animal owners – known as “customers” – must initially turn up with the animal in order to register. And they must show proof the pet has been vaccinated. They must also prove financial need by showing their welfare papers, unemployment registration or pension card.
“It’s easy for someone to go from middle-income wage earner to someone on Hartz IV,” Hollm said, referring to the state allocation granted to people on long-term welfare which is worth about €350 a month. And poverty further isolates people who sometimes must rely on their pet for their sole company, she added.
“Half our customers are old people for whom a cat or dog is their last social link,” she said.
It also quickly became obvious that people needed more than just a tin of animal food, Hollm said, pointing to the need to make sure pets stay healthy.
Amid the holiday season, the association is calling for extra donations so that volunteers can lay out bones, pigs’ ears, toy mice and scratching posts under the Christmas trees set up in each of its soup kitchens.