WIDOW Bernice McTell is surviving on a single tin of soup a day - and spending £100 a month on food for her nine pet animals.
The 52-year-old from Sheffield says she barely exists on benefits of £128 a week - £25 of which she spends on dog biscuits, cat meat, bird seed and snake feed.
Disabled Bernice, who can hardly walk due to osteoarthritis and a stroke, and who endured tragedy when her husband burned to death in an arson attack in 2009, owns three dogs, two cats, three birds and a cornsnake.
She fears life will only get worse when the Government’s ‘bedroom tax’ comes into force next month, and she must give up £17 of benefits a week or move house.
Sheffield Council has offered to downsize her from her two-bed home of 16 years in Daresbury Road, Arbourthorne.
But, to move somewhere smaller, Bernice would have to give up her pets - something she says she could never think about doing.
“If I didn’t have my dogs I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I wouldn’t have a life. They keep me alive, they give me a purpose. “My arthritis means I am in constant pain. I could spend all day in bed, but those dogs give me a reason to get up in the mornings, to go downstairs and open the door.”
Two of her dogs, Maverick and Zubin, are Afghan hounds which get through large quantities of food.
She also owns Chico the chihuahua, rescue cats Tinkey and Pippin, budgies Sky and Gemma, Peter the cockatiel, and Kyla the 13-year-old cornsnake.
Nearly 30 years ago, when Bernice was 25, she suffered a sudden catastrophic stroke which left her in a coma for a staggering three years.
“A friend had come to visit, and the last thing I remember is putting on the kettle and popping upstairs,” she said.
“After half an hour my friend came to look for me, and found me collapsed behind a door.
“I was in a coma from the ages of 25 to 28.”
Then four years ago mum-of-three Bernice - now riddled with excruciating arthritis - suffered further heartbreak when husband Kane, 53, was killed in a fire.
He died alongside two other men when a blaze was started at the house where he was staying on Albert Road, Heeley, in January 2009.
A woman and two teenagers pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were locked up.
Bernice, a grandmother to two toddlers, said: “I have been through so much, and my animals have been through it with me. I depend on my dogs to keep me safe.
“People say, ‘Re-home them, you can’t afford to keep them’, but it’s not that easy. They are part of me, they are my life.
“I am eating one can of soup a day, that’s all, so I can feed my pets. That is my sacrifice, because if I didn’t have my animals I wouldn’t be here.
“I have nursed Maverick back from the brink in the past - he has been so ill I’ve fed him with a syringe.
“But just as I have saved Maverick, he has saved me. When my husband died, my animals pulled me through.
“My dogs love me regardless of how I’m feeling or how I look. How could I ever part with them?”
Have your say: What do you think of Bernice4’s choice? Do you sympathise? How will the ‘bedroom tax’ affect you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.