LINCOLN SQUARE — It starts with one cat.
"And you want to get them a buddy. And then you have a family," said Alysha Bojovic. "They're my babies."
The owner of four felines, Bojovic was among last week's visitors to Lincoln Square's Friendship Pet Food Pantry at 2733 W. Lawrence Ave.
The pantry's free food, cat litter and chew toys "helps when you run short" of money "or have expenses coming up," said Bojovic.
The pantry operates from 3-5 p.m. the third Friday of every month and has served a steadily growing clientele — the vast majority of whom own multiple pets — since opening in October. The most recent distribution provided food for 52 cats and 35 dogs.
Cynthia Jamie shopped for a menagerie that includes two dogs, three cats, a cockatoo and a pair of love birds. She had agreed to care for two of the cats, along with the birds, for a friend who had fallen on hard times.
"That was three years ago," said Jamie. "If I'm going to keep them, I'm going to do the best I can."
A first-time visitor to the pantry, Jamie declared it "wonderful."
"This will really help me," she said.
Clients like Jamie — folks struggling to make ends meet — are precisely the people Dara Salk, a staff member in the 47th Ward office, had in mind when she spearheaded the pantry's creation.
"There's a young woman who comes in here sometimes in her McDonald's uniform, which is right out of the news — what they're talking about today, with minimum wage," said Salk. "This woman works for McDonald's full-time. How do you stretch your money?"
In such circumstances, people are often forced to give up a pet that "may be their last friend in the whole world" or to choose between feeding themselves or their pet, she said.
"I know how I would feel if I didn't have enough money to feed my animals, and it would be heartbreaking," said Salk, a cat owner.
There are no income requirements or other qualifications people need to meet in order to obtain food for their pets.
"Anybody can come in," said Salk. "We treat everyone as if they're coming to my home or to a retail store. You know, like you want their business."
Clients range from young singles like Bojovic to families, like the teenager and her grandparents who brought their mutt Choo Choo along with them to the pantry.
A rescued stray, Choo Choo had husky and German shepherd siblings at home. "It's hard feeding three dogs," said the teen, who chose not to give her name.
It's hard for the pantry, too.
Salk shared the largesse with three other pet food pantries and has already gone through nearly half the allotment she set aside for Lincoln Square's Friendship Pantry. In March, because it lacked enough supplies, the pantry had to turn away people looking for cat food.
There's no equivalent in the pet world to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, no consistent stream of food, according to Salk.
Volunteer Mary Kiley has come on board to help drum up donations, create collection drop-off points and negotiate with retailers. "Maybe we could even create an adopt-a-family program," she said.
Salk has been cheered by the number of neighbors like Kiley who have turned out to help the pantry.
"You know, there but for the grace of god goes everybody," she said. "What are we gonna say at the end of our lives? I was too selfish to think about other people? The children, the animals, the old folks, people need us."
The next dates for the pet food pantry are April 18, May 16 and June 20. Donations of pet food — dry cat food would be particularly welcome — can be left at the pantry on distribution days or any day during the week at the 47th Ward office, 4243 N. Lincoln Ave.