Mario Dion was the cocker spaniel-poodle mix who could. He found his way from Missouri into the arms of his doting mother, Janine Dion. His four soft barks announce incoming calls on her cellphone, and he inspired the creation of an organization that labels itself "the voice of Long Island pets."
His legacy is Pet Peeves, a Woodbury-based nonprofit that makes grants ranging from $500 to $25,000 each year, and totaling an average of $100,000 annually, to 15 to 20 other Long Island nonprofits, "the most qualified and deserving groups," according to Dion.
Since its founding 13 years ago, the organization has raised more than $1 million to assist struggling animal shelters and rescue groups on Long Island, support pet therapy in hospitals and provide humane education in schools.
"We believe it is our moral and community responsibility to protect and improve the lives of abused, abandoned and homeless pets, including horses, birds, potbellied pigs, wildlife, cats, dogs and neglected farm animals," Dion said.
The money is raised from two fundraisers a year held at Crest Hollow Country Club, where Dion is director of sales and marketing: the "Dog Days of Summer" in August and the "March Gala." The 2014 gala is scheduled for March 27.
Mario, an apricot-colored pooch, was a surprise Christmas gift from Dion's husband, Tom, in 2000. Mario was one of the first dogs Dion, 52, who lives in Setauket, could have. When she was growing up in Carle Place, her family owned cats, dogs and horses, and they rescued stray cats, birds, rabbits and squirrels. "Whatever was injured or sick," she recalled. But from age 2 to 14, Dion wasn't allowed to have pets because of severe allergies. But, she said, "After years of weekly allergy shots and tests, I was given the green light to try tolerating a dog."
Mario prepared Dion -- who has three cats and a black poodle mix -- for far more than toleration. Though he was purchased from a pet store when he was 10 weeks old, Mario developed chronic illnesses that convinced Dion he had been bred at a puppy mill.
"We gave him a lot of love and a lot of care, and he became a strong little companion," she said. Mario died in July at age 14, but he'd already become an inspiration.
"I called it Pet Peeves because a pet peeve, as we know it, is a complaint," Dion said. "Through the Mario experience I realized the voicelessness and the vulnerability of not only pets but children and the elderly. They have the same limitations. We seek to save the lives of thousands of homeless animals and give them food, medical care and a warm place to sleep until foster homes can be found, and we will raise awareness and educate the public about the positive impact that animals can have on our lives," Dion said.
To help her launch Pet Peeves, Dion recruited volunteers among people she knew. A 10-member "working" board and a 20-member volunteer team includes corporations, business professionals, veterinarians, students and others from all walks of life who Dion said "share one common emotion: compassion for all living creatures."
Cindy Aronstam, 36, a licensed real estate saleswoman, is a founding member of Pet Peeves, a board member and coordinator of the volunteers.
"I started volunteering at the gala fundraisers," Aronstam, of Sound Beach, said. "I helped with registration, sold tickets, and on the night of the event, whatever was needed. Now I oversee the volunteers, coordinate their meetings to discuss the upcoming gala and assign positions."
She said Pet Peeves is always looking for more volunteers. "We have one common goal, and that is to help the animals."
The late Joseph Monti, who was chief executive of Crest Hollow, and his son and successor, Richard, enthusiastically allowed Dion to run the organization from her office.
Another early volunteer was Steven Stern, an elder-law attorney whose firm, Davidow Davidow Siegel & Stern, worked pro bono to file the paperwork for Pet Peeves' nonprofit status and tax exemption.
"She has a deep passion and is very, very concerned about animals we all love," he said.
Arthur Sanders, a retired partner of Israeloff Trattner & Co., certified public accountants and financial consultants with offices in Garden City and Manhattan, is a board member.
"I've been there from the beginning," said Sanders, a Woodbury resident who donates his services as Pet Peeves' accountant. "She asked for volunteers, and I put my hand up and said I would be the treasurer. I pay the bills, make the deposits, do the financial statements and prepare the tax returns."
Diane Levitan, veterinarian adviser on the Pet Peeves board and owner of Peace Love Pets in Commack, understands Dion's vision. "What is life about if not having the opportunity to make a difference?" she said.
Dion said she is amazed by the support she receives
"I'm inspired by our volunteers," she said, "so many who ask nothing and do everything for others. Pet Peeves has exposed me to the world of volunteering and made me a part of it. It's a great family to belong to. It makes me want to come to work every day."
Mission may be unique
The concept of raising funds for groups that are on the front lines of rescue and healing is unique to Pet Peeves, Dion said.
"We do all the research, including site visits and financial investigation into all those that request a grant," she noted. "The mission of an applicant must be pure, and their intentions must be for those that benefit from their services, not for salaries or administration."
One grant recipient is the Animal Lovers League in Glen Cove, which spays and neuters, among other services, and is also the city's rescue and adoption shelter. Pet Peeves' grants help fund the league's Safe Haven Healing unit, which provides medical care other shelters can't for animals that would be put down. "No adoptable animal is ever euthanized," said the group's director, Joan Phillips.
A certified humane educator brings pet-therapy animals to senior citizens and schools, she said, adding that grants from Pet Peeves "enabled us to expand our programs. They're a special group of people. With their support we were able to reach out more. They have helped so much all over Long Island. It's done good things for the animals and the people who care for the animals."
The league also houses pets separated from their owners by disasters, such as superstorm Sandy, or hospitalization, until reunion is possible, and it helps give abused animals a second chance. It rescued and rehabilitated a pit bull, Braveheart, whose front shins had been shattered by a metal bar.
"Our grants are for stories like these," Dion said.
Besides love and shelter, animals also need to be fed. At Pet Peeves' August fundraiser, guests brought in more than 50,000 pounds of pet food for the Pet Pantry at Long Island Cares -- The Harry Chapin Food Bank, in Hauppauge, for families who can't afford to feed their pets. After superstorm Sandy, Pet Peeves organized food drives to feed hungry animals and replaced cages, medical supplies and basic equipment for shelters that were flooded.
"I feel blessed that I'm in a position to have the opportunity to help people and animals while still conducting business," Dion said. "So many people say, 'You do such great work.' I say, it takes a litter. I know I could never accomplish any of it alone."