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The ASPCA's 'top chefs'

Sibling duo dishes out creative cuisine for shelter pets

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

For brothers Jonathan (left) and Johan Aguero, caring for animals is all in the family.One of Jonathan Aguero’s more pup-ular ways of serving food includes freezing a mixture of wet and canned food in broth or water.

If the four-legged residents of the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City could talk, they’d have to admit Johan and Jonathan Aguero’s specially prepared meals make the shelter experience much more palatable.

Jonathan, a behavior counselor, and his brother Johan, an animal care technician, nurture and nourish our shelter residents, including victims of cruelty, cats from hoarding cases and quarantined canines, as well as longtime residents deserving of extra-special care and creativity.

Who knew frozen balls of kibble make such a nice addition to standard wet food? Or that, for many a finicky feline, flaked tuna mixed with baby food is nothing short of a delicacy?

“Being in a new place can make animals nervous and unsettled, and they won’t eat,” says Victoria Wells, the ASPCA’s senior manager of behavior and training. “It’s quite a transition to be in a shelter. Stress and illness can decrease appetite, and animals may need time to get used to new food.”That’s where Jonathan and Johan come in. Three years ago, Jonathan created the APSCA’s first “pup-sicle,” or frozen dog pop. It was his take on a larger treat made for otters at the Bronx Zoo, his previous employer. To make it, Jonathan fills a paper cup with dry and wet dog food, adds water or broth—and sometimes, cooked chicken—and freezes it. He gently peels back the paper before hand-delivering each one.

“The idea is to keep the dogs occupied,” says Jonathan. “Some concentrate more on the frozen treat than their food; some play with their treats before eating them. But they stay busy.”

Five feeding tips from Johan Aguero for fussy felines and picky pooches

  • Use variety, even with dry food. No one likes to eat the same thing every day.
  • Be patient. Just because they don’t eat it today doesn’t mean they won’t eat it tomorrow.
  • When all else fails, try baby food. Use as a reward or in an emergency, or to transition from one food to another.
  • Pet and play with them. They may be social eaters, meaning they won’t eat until you pet them.
  • Exercise caution. Too much of a good thing can lead to upset stomachs and diarrhea.

“The dogs get so excited when they see Jonathan coming,” adds Wells. “They look forward to that very special treat made just for them.”

Johan works in the ASPCA Animal Hospital’s intensive care and animal rehab areas. That’s where he began experimenting with combinations of cat food and baby food, with help from a finicky 5-year-old calico named Penny, a social eater who prefers one-on-one attention and petting before diving into a meal.

“It saves a lot of time if you can get them to eat, and Johan’s good at that,” says veterinarian Bonnie Wong, medical supervisor of the ASPCA Animal Hospital’s Anti-Cruelty Group. “And it can be lifesaving. Medically, it helps them recover; if they’re eating, they heal faster. It also prevents hospitalization.”

Johan, 27, has been at the ASPCA just over a year, while his brother, Jonathan, 29, has been with the organization for six years. Born to parents from the Dominican Republic, the brothers were influenced by their maternal grandmother, Hilda Cruz, who loved cooking traditional Spanish and Dominican-inspired dishes like mangú con salami (mashed plantains with salami).

The Agueros grew up in the Bronx with a houseful of pets, including four snakes, two bearded dragons, two parrots, a cat and fish. Their current house count includes a 17-year-old cockatiel, a parrot, a cat and a lizard. But they feel just as dedicated to the ASPCA animals as they do their own. Johan recalls one of his favorites—a black kitten named Oksana.

“The first day I met her I was having a bad day. I was administering [a prescription], and she’s the only one who took hers,” Johan says. “Instead of spitting it out, she came to the front of her cage and brushed against me.”

Maybe Oksana knows what many human diners already do—it’s good to be close with the chef.

About the Author

Anita Kelso Edson has been on the media and communications team at the ASPCA for eight years. She and her husband, Scott, share their apartment with two former ASPCA felines, Mary J and Dora.