Owners of Westbury's Hurley's Heart on a mission to save bulldogs. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Summer Somer first fell in love with bulldogs nearly a decade ago, after her oldest son talked the family into buying an English bulldog, Drama, in 2016.

“We learned a very good lesson from that dog: He was sick, died young,” said Somer, 65, of Westbury.

Her passion for the squat, compact breed started then. Her mission to rescue them came soon after, with another bulldog, Winston.

“Within the first week, we had him at the emergency center. One of the girls that worked there said, ‘Oh my gosh, you should get involved in rescue.’ Then we got introduced into the rescue world from there,” she said.

Summer and Harold Somer with some of their rescue pups.

Summer and Harold Somer with some of their rescue pups. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Somer and her husband, Harold, started fostering bulldogs, earning a reputation for caring for sick and senior pups. They had fostered about 100 dogs by the time, in 2019, they founded the nonprofit Hurley’s Heart Bulldog Rescue — named for yet another dog they cared for and ultimately adopted.

Bulldogs, while popular, tend to suffer from health issues like difficulty breathing due to brachial palates, which block the dogs’ airways and disrupt airflow into their lungs. Many French bulldogs develop invertebral disc disease, requiring them to be wheelchair-bound, while some bulldogs are born with spina bifida, which can render them incontinent.

The care can be too much for some owners, who then give them up, said Summer Somer. That’s where Hurley’s Heart comes in.

“No matter how you slice it: We’re saving lives or giving some of the special-needs or the sick dogs the best life that they could possibly have until the end,” said Harold Somer, 65, a lawyer and vice president of Hurley’s Heart. “So that has a lot of special meaning just by itself.”

SPECIAL CARE WITH TENDER HEARTS

Bulldogs are “like people,” Summer Somer said. “They have the most unique personalities.”

Recently, one of the family’s dogs died, and, she said, “The bulldogs all know when something is not right. They are literally on you, wanting to comfort you in every way they can. They’re like people.”

English bulldogs typically have a life span of 8 to 10 years, she said, adding that her two bulldogs, Winston and Samson, are now 12 years old. “And that’s unheard of.”

Though they began rescuing only English bulldogs, the Somers now also rescue “Frenchies,” as French bulldogs are commonly known, and Old English bulldogs.

Rescue dog Stella getting some play time at Paws on...

Rescue dog Stella getting some play time at Paws on Park in Bay Shore. Credit: Morgan Campbell

The dogs are very expensive to care for, as the Somers neuter, rehabilitate and prepare them for re-homing. The organization relies heavily on Dr. Tomas Infernuso, veterinarian and founder of the Animal Surgical Center in Oceanside, who donates his services. Other vets around the country also offer discounts on services, Summer Somer said.

“We would never be able to keep our rescue going,” she said. “Not only does [Infernuso] donate a lot to our rescue, when a dog comes in, he’s available in an emergency at all times and has saved more lives for us than I can count.”

Infernuso, who estimates that he donates more than $200,000 worth of services annually to the organization, said he is proud to support its mission.

“Summer is a force of nature with unwavering strength to advocate for the unwanted,” Infernuso said.

FROM DOZENS TO HUNDREDS OF DOGS

A former paralegal, Somer said she wanted to leave her last position to rescue dogs full time in 2019.

“Harold made it happen,” she said. “It’s a big undertaking to leave a job, and I was making really good money, and he made it work.”

When the Somers began their rescue operation, they figured they’d be working with about 30 to 40 dogs from the region. Today, Summer Somer, president of Hurley’s Heart, said they receive about 300 bulldogs a year from all over the United States and South Korea.

“It was never really intended to be this big and this intense, but we just got well-known, because the truth is, we do really good work and we’re very, very careful with where we place our dogs,” she said, noting that adopters, who have to be at least 27 years old, can’t be away from home more than four hours a day, must own their own home and have fully fenced-in yards with no bodies of water near them. “People tell me it’s easier to adopt a child than a dog, and I want to keep it that way,” Somer said.

Hurley's Heart volunteers Melanie Hoops, left, and Crystal Croghan.

Hurley's Heart volunteers Melanie Hoops, left, and Crystal Croghan. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Working with coordinators, volunteers in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia who arrange transport runs, adoptions, veterinarian visits, pickups and drop-offs, Hurley’s Heart also partners with other animal rescue organizations.

If someone surrenders a dog, the Somers will typically pick it up and drop it off at a foster home on Long Island. If the dog requires medical care, they’ll bring it to a foster volunteer who is equipped to care for it and get it ready to be adopted.

The Somers also keep several portable oxygen chambers in their Westbury home to treat very sick dogs, who they either nurse back to health or give the palliative care they need. If a dog’s suffering is too great and can’t be ameliorated, they will put it down, Summer Somer said.

An all-volunteer organization, Hurley’s Heart relies on several core people to administer applications, find fosters and transport dogs, she said.

One of those volunteers is Melanie Hoops, who runs the organization’s social media accounts and helps raise funds for the group.

Having fostered 42 dogs over the past four years, Hoops, 47, currently lives with Marvin, 4, an Old English bulldog she adopted, and Mootzie, an English bulldog she bought from a breeder.

“They’re just the cutest, squishiest, most lovable things on the planet,” said Hoops, a special education teacher from Farmingdale. “They have such amazing personalities. I’ve never had two bulldogs that are the same.”

Having cared for sick dogs in the past, she said she tends to favor them over others. “I usually like to take in the dogs that have more medical needs, because I’ve just become so familiar, because of my own dogs, too, with all the surgeries, the allergies and the upkeep of them,” she said.

A MIX OF JOY AND SORROW

One of the organization’s goals is to educate the public about bulldogs, because people often run into problems when they aren’t aware of their special needs.

In addition to educational sessions at their fundraising events, the organization recently ran a program with the Nassau County Bar Association, where Harold Somer serves as co-chair of its Animal Law Committee.

Despite the feeling of satisfaction that comes from saving dogs’ lives, Summer Somer said she often feels vanquished by the continual sickness and death in her world.

“I cry every day,” she said. “The loss is much more than feeling the reward.”

While popular, bulldogs often have medical issues that can prove...

While popular, bulldogs often have medical issues that can prove burdensome to some owners. Credit: Morgan Campbell

If she saves 10 dogs, but loses one, “That’s just more on my heart than feeling that I did something good,” she said.

And at times, the heartache really gets to her.

“There are days I shut down, but I have to keep going because this is what I do,” she said.

Recently, when one of their rescue dogs died, Somer said she didn’t want to get out of bed for several days.

“I really felt like perhaps this wasn’t really my calling, which everyone says it is,” Somer said. “It’s a really hard road to travel, and even the days that are so rewarding just don’t feel that way sometimes when you have a sick one that you’re trying to save.”

Dog rescue truly takes a team effort, and Somer credits her husband for his devotion to the cause.

“He’s on the run with me all weekend long and whenever he can be. Emergencies, he’s always there with me,” she said.

There are days I shut down, but I have to keep going because this is what I do.

-Summer Somer

Sometimes, the dogs surprise you and live longer than they’re expected to, Harold Somer said. One such dog is Brielle, who was born without a wall between the two chambers of her heart and was expected to die about a year ago. “It’s over a year and a half now and she’s as feisty as ever, which certainly, I think, helps to keep her alive. And it’s a shocker,” Harold Somer said.

Rosie, who was 16 and deaf when they got her, lived for almost one more year, just shy of her 17th birthday.

“The one thing I always wished was that she wasn’t deaf and could hear me say to her that I loved her, even though she knew it,” Harold Somer said. “But she had a great life for that nearly a year she was with us.”

Admitting that the work is often heartbreaking, he said he is motivated to help other dogs that need care and homes.

“It’s just knowing that you’re saving the next one,” he said. “It’s almost self-perpetuating. You just keep rolling on: You do what you got to do.”

HOW TO HELP

Hurley’s Heart Bulldog Rescue is supported through donations. For information on how to give, or how to foster a dog, visit hurleysheart.org or facebook.com/hurleysheart.

The group also is hosting a free adoption event from 1 to 3 p.m. March 16 at Three Dog Bakery, 2119 Bedford Ave. in Bellmore.

A fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m. April 14 at Brokerage Comedy Club, 2797 Merrick Rd. in Bellmore. Tickets are $25 each.

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