In a twist worthy of a Disney dog movie, today's animal rescuers may not be plucking stray dogs from the street or puppy mill, but from NYC's own Animal Care & Control center.
The euthanasia rate at the ACC has plunged from 31,701 animals killed in 2003 to only 10,188 killed in 2011.
That reduction is due to lots of factors, including the ASPCA's aggressive spaying and neutering efforts and the new trend of trapping and neutering feral cats. But much of the drop can be attributed to citizen rescuers who pluck death row cats and dogs from the shelter's "euth list," foster and get them medical care. Rescuers then market the animals to potential adopters via word of mouth and increasingly sophisticated social networking sites that sport irresistible pics and compelling bios.
"It's the rescuers who are getting them homes," said Esther Koslow, a former ACC volunteer who now helps lead the Shelter Reform Action Committee. Rescue "takes a great emotional and financial toll," on many of those compelled to save animal lives, said Koslow. And rescuers are left holding the proverbial cat (or dog) in the bag if homes can't be secured, Koslow continued. "They sometimes over extend themselves," and wind up with dozens of animals, she said.
More than 150 groups in the Mayor's Alliance for Animals are approved to pull animals from the shelter. The rescuers who work with the ACC and rescue animals on their own survive on donations, by selling t-shirts, leashes and other branded merch and the good will of kindly veterinarians, who often provide volume discounts for the neglected and abused animals they bring in for care.
Here are three of their stories:
Jomay Ng, Flushing
Insurance agent Jomay Ng didn't grow up with animals. When she reluctantly accepted a kitten while living in Manhattan in 2009, she didn't even know it needed a litter box.
She started volunteering at Anjellicle Cats Rescue to learn how to care for her new pet and received an abrupt introduction to the stunning overpopulation of New York City felines. "You have no idea how many cats there are everywhere," exclaimed Ng. Indeed: The ACC alone took in a stunning 20,134 unwanted cats last year, down 6,486 from 2003.
Ng, who has since moved to Flushing, soon found herself involved in "TNR" (Trap, Neuter, Release) - the practice of trapping, neutering (or spaying) street cats and then releasing them back to where they were found.
The practice may seem cold-hearted, but there are just not enough human homes for the hordes of feral kitties roaming NYC. Sterilizing them, at least, helps stem the incoming tide of suffering. Returning them to the streets at least beats the fate of the 6,663 cats euthanized at the ACC last year.
"I did the TNR of 200 cats last year, mostly by myself. But no matter how much I do, there are just so many of them," said Ng.
As a certified TNR volunteer, Ng gets animals spayed or neutered by the ASPCA for a nominal fee, but extra medical services - and almost all street cats need other medical care - costs more. "$5 for spaying and neutering seems cheap, but everything costs money. You have to buy them food, and get cleaning supplies. Every three months I need a new vacuum. With all the trappings and feedings, I spend $1,500 a month on cats. I have so much credit card debt from these cats!"
The toughest part of her mission is locating "holding spaces," or places to keep street cats for several days after their sterilization surgeries, Ng explained. "When there is no holding space, you can't do anything," said Ng, who is now working out of a garage in Forest Hills.
That's not the worst of it. Some of the cats can't be released back to the streets because they are too young or need ongoing medical care. When homes can't be found, guess where they wind up?
"I have 40 now," said Ng, when asked how many cats she keeps in her one-bedroom apartment.
She does not invite friends over for dinner. She would love to give the cats away, "but it's very hard to find homes for them. No one wants them because they're mostly feral. I can't pet them, I can't pick them up. They're copy cats, so if a new kitten comes in, it sees the older cats run away and they run away, too.
Ng believes that TNR has been successful in reducing the number of cats euthanized in NYC and applauds the city for working with non-profit groups and volunteers, but she wants the city to do more education around the need for neutering. She's begging you to neuter your pets, as well as any you find on the street, "so I can stop! I don't want to have to do this anymore! I have no life. I'm very exhausted, very tired."
Michelle Marlowe, Tribeca
The plight of NYC's pit bulls and American Staffordshire terriers got a lot worse in 2009 after NYCHA banned pit bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers and dogs more than 25 pounds from public housing, forcing many New Yorkers to choose between their homes and what were often loving, doting companion animals, said Michelle Marlowe, the self described "passionate about pit bulls" executive director of Mighty Mutts.
"I've dealt with a lot of abuse issues in my own life path," which, she hazards, is the reason she identifies with the much maligned and abused breed. "I've gone into crack dens to buy pit bulls from guys were going to sell them to fight rings," said Marlowe, and retrieved dogs who turned out to become great pets. But not every story has a happy ending. "Last year I pulled three different dogs from the city shelter that tried to kill me. I sent them to a rehabber, but they're still not home-able," she sighed.
Mighty Mutts, an all-volunteer, no-kill organization, has about 55 dogs now awaiting adoption in boarding, rehab facilities and foster homes. Volunteers for the all-volunteer, no-kill group host adoption fairs each Saturday at Union Square.
"Breed banning is a huge problem," said Marlowe, who wishes there were no such thing as no-pet policies and rules prohibiting pets of a certain size or breed. Also on her wish list are spaying and neutering laws. With so many animals needing homes, "there is never a reason to go to a puppy mill or a pet store for an animal. Adopt!" she exhorts.
Animal rescue, "has taken up so much of my life," said Marlowe, a vegetarian whose musician boyfriend is also an animal lover. "But I weigh that against how many animals lives I've changed."
Fran Grimaldi, Bay Terrace, SI
A lot of people were amused when Fran Grimaldi, 34, an assistant human resources director for the NYC Dept. of Buildings, established "Anarchy Animal Rescue" two years ago.
Her boss "told me I might get in trouble with a name like that," but the name seemed apt in that "we break the rules and try to take the dogs nobody wants," explained Grimaldi. "We're getting a dog today who is blind in one eye. If we don't take her, she'll get euthanized."
There are a lot of dogs nobody wants. The number of dogs accepted by Animal Care and Control has decreased from 19,567 in 2003 to 12,191 in 2011, but the flood of fur is still so overwhelming that many rescuers like Grimaldi find they have to create a self-imposed guide to make the Sophie's choices they do off the ACC's "euth lists."
Grimaldi, who owns two Shih Tzus and is now fostering two other dogs, specializes in small, senior dogs, dogs with medical issues and the "worn out dogs that make the puppies for the pet stores," that breeders are tossing out.
Rescue provides the first chance for many of the puppy mill dogs to be inside a home. "They've been outside their whole lives in two by two cages. The minute they come in, they hide. It takes about a week before they'll even walk around the house. You have to housetrain them, show them how to walk on a leash," and take care of their medical needs before they are eligible for adoption, said Grimaldi. Other dogs need behavioral training "and a lot of patience and a lot of love" to work through "trust issues, food and toy guarding," and habits that make them unappealing to potential adopters.
People who buy puppies from pet stores "don't know all these puppies come from puppy mills. I don't advocate for breeding: Eveyone should spay and neuter their dogs. We don't adopt out any dogs unless they're spayed and neutered," she said. "We need more spay and neuter options in this city, more ASPCA vans. If the city offers more programs, maybe we can really become a no-kill city," she sighed.
If you, too, want to volunteer to help save animals in your area, adopt or foster a deserving dog or cat you can go to animalalliancenyc.org to find one in your neighborhood, or check out any of these links: