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She started an animal food bank. Now this Chippewa teen is pitching to win $25K

Since childhood, Zhawanoogbiik Danielle Riley has dreamed of having her own place to care for animals. It has led the 16-year-old from Chippewas of the Thames to become a youth semifinalist in an Indigenous pitch competition, with a chance to win $25,000 to grow her business. 

In July, Riley Ranch On Three Fires gave out 120 bags of dog food

Sixteen-year-old Zhawanoogbiik Danielle Riley opened an animal food bank in Chippewas of the Thames near St. Thomas, Ont., after noticing a growing need for pet food and animal care. She's a semifinalist in the Pow Wow Pitch competition from more than 2,400 applicants across North America. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Since childhood, Zhawanoogbiik Danielle Riley has dreamed of having her own place to care for animals.

It has led the 16-year-old from Chippewas of the Thames, an Anishinaabe First Nations band government just west of St. Thomas, Ont., to become a youth semifinalist in an Indigenous startup competition, with a chance to win $25,000 to grow her business.

Now, she provides free pet food and supplies to those in Chippewas of the Thames, Munsee-Delaware Nation and Oneida Nation of the Thames communities who need it — all while taking care of her ducks, chickens, rabbits, horses, cats and geese at the family's Riley Ranch On Three Fires, on the property where they also have their home. 

Her pitch was selected from more than 2,400 Pow Wow Pitch applicants from across North America after submitting a one-minute video about her project. Winners will be announced during a digitally broadcast awards presentation on Nov. 3.

Need is growing

Riley noticed it was getting harder for people to access pet food and care for their animals during the pandemic, so she decided to do something about it. 

Riley Ranch On Three Fires works with corporate partners to give out slightly damaged pet supplies and keep them out of landfills. (Michelle Both/CBC)

"People can come and talk to us, say, if they need services such as surgery for spay and neuter or some other health issues. We're also able to get them those resources that they need."

People can stop by with their pets to ask questions, pick up supplies and get connected to other supports. 

The need is only growing, said Riley. The shelves are usually stocked in the first half of the month and empty by the end. In July, 120 bags of dog food were distributed. They saw 60 people in 48 hours on the busiest days. 

She also works with corporate partners to give out slightly damaged items that can't be sold in stores — keeping things like leashes, crates, treats and animal clothes out of landfills and into the paws of the pets who need them. 

The pet food bank has seen an increasing need for pet food. Nearing the end of the months, the food bank shelves start to empty. In July, 120 bags of dog food were given out. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Riley is getting mentorship from industry leaders before pitching to a panel of judges for the Pow Wow Pitch semifinals in the fall. If she wins, she'd get $1,000 and an opportunity to go to the finals to win $25,000. 

Building a larger area for donations and a space to run wellness clinics would be priorities if she wins. Dog houses for outdoor pets to keep warm in the winter months are also on her wish list, she said. 

Caring for animals as healing

"I think having that ability to care for an animal is a big part of healing and being able to find peace with being able to care for an animal, and have that mutual respect and relationship that comes from it," Riley said. 

Riley's father is from Chippewa and Munsee and her mom has ties to Naicatchewenin First Nation. In her experience, animals play an important role in processing intergenerational trauma, especially surrounding residential schools.

"That companionship is very important to people. It's an essential part of their mental health. So having this food bank has been a place where they've been able to come and get that support that they need without feeling ashamed of their financial situation." 

Zhawanoogbiik Danielle Riley cares for three horses on the ranch, including Reba, a miniature horse. She says caring for animals is a big part of healing and finding peace. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Riley grew her love of animals, horseback riding as a child and learning to care for chickens, through her grandma. She started volunteering at animal wellness clinics, and is building bridges with organizations to bring more supports to her community. 

Building bridges

"The driving ambition that she has is like nothing that I've seen," said Jodi Tuckett, a dog trainer who has volunteered with the teen at animal wellness clinics with ARF Ontario and East Village Animal Hospital. 

After high school, Riley hopes to one day attend Ontario Veterinary College and open an at-cost veterinarian clinic at the ranch. Right now, there is no veterinarian on the reserve, she said. (Michelle Both/CBC)

"She just wants to get things done; she does it in a happy and positive way," said Tuckett. "It's very impressive." 

Tuckett credits Riley for spreading knowledge about animal care and support in her community. She has a "really great way of building bridges" and building trust between communities, Tuckett said. 

"The volunteers see how great she is and then people in the community see what great work she does. She deserves it. It's not surprising at all. She worked very, very hard ... I'm so proud of her." 

'Just the beginning'

For Riley's mom Jennifer, it's been incredible to watch the journey unfold. 

"Dani has always been an exceptional young lady," she said. "She's bright, she's caring and she's every parent's dream."

Her dreams don't stop there. Riley hopes to become a veterinarian, and open the first clinic on the reserve and offer at-cost care to her community.

"This is probably just the beginning for Dani," said Jennifer. 

For now, Riley is busy caring for the animals that come her way. 

"I do believe that there is a necessity on reserve to be able to have this," she said. "And my hope is that doing this now, nobody is going to be left out. Everybody's going to be able to come and get the resources that they need."

Riley Ranch On Three Fires hopes to expand space for donations and running clinics to support even more animals if they win the Pow Wow Pitch. (Michelle Both/CBC)
CBC's Michelle Both takes a visit to a new animal food bank that just started on Chippewa of The Thames First Nation. Zhawanoogbiik Danielle Riley explains why she started the service.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Both is a reporter for CBC London. She holds a master's degree in journalism and communication from Western University. You can reach her at michelle.both@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @michellelboth.

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