Emelinda Narvaez, an animal rescue advocate working in both Manhattan and the Bronx, has become a familiar face to people visiting the city’s pet stores. She calls her rescues “earth angels,” and fittingly, that is also the name of her animal-rescue group. Narvaez Emelinda, who says she’s rescued over more than 10,000 animals over a span of 45 + years, was a nurse in a Bronx hospital. Until she retired about 15 years ago, she (and her late husband, who helped her) devoted evenings and weekends to animal rescue. Since then, it’s become her fulltime occupation.
A long-time admirer, I always dropped something in the donation box when I saw her in front of one of lower Manhattan’s pet stores. Then one day, I sat down and asked her to tell me more about herself and her work. That particular day, she had a terrier-mix puppy and an adult Poodle, as well as an elderly Chihuahua and a Shih Tzu who were not available for adoption; she felt the two seniors were too fragile to weather a big change, so she was caring for them herself. As we talked, she continued to work, answering my questions as well as those asked by passersby interested in her “angels.”
Catherine Johnson: I understand that you were born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and raised in the South Bronx. Where did you get your gift?
Emelinda Narvaez: My connection with animals came from my parents; they both loved all animals. My father was very dedicated to rescue work and would take us to the ASPCA to volunteer at very young age. We cleaned cages and learned to handle both cats and dogs.
CJ: Did you have any favorite animals growing up?
EM: I can’t say I had a favorite. We had so many—we were always taking in animals. My mother had a rule that we would not have more than 15 at a time. The whole family helped her take care of them. She had a lot of help!
We lived across from St. Ignatius church in the Bronx, and every Sunday at the end of the mass, the priest would recognize my family’s work with animals. He would also let the congregation know they could adopt one from us, which is how we found homes for many of our animals.
When I was around 15, I realized that we needed to be more formal about these adoptions. So we started having the person adopting fill out an application. We developed a screening process—that was my idea.
CJ: What were your early years working in rescue like?
EM: It was a very different time. Of course, there have always been animals who are neglected because of people’s ignorance or lack of education as to how to care for a pet. People losing their job and not being able to afford their pets has always been a problem, and will continue to be a problem. But cruelty cases were rare. Today, our ugly culture of violence has also affected the way people treat their animals. The stuff you see in NYC regularly is hard to understand. It really is.
CJ: What do you consider to have been the worst crisis period in the city’s history?
EM: It is now. Here’s why. Rules to protect animals and people living in apartments have been established, but those rules are too broad and not always reasonable. The public housing law that doesn’t allow pets over 25 pounds and certain breeds is ridiculous. A dog who is considered unsafe by tenants should be evaluated. A gentle dog who is considered too large thrown out of a project? That is inhumane and cruel to both the owner and the dog. The big-dog law banning big dogs from housing? This has created an unnecessary crisis.
[In 2009, the public housing authority prohibited residents from keeping purebred or mixed-breed Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers, as well as any dog (with the exception of service dogs) expected to weigh more than 25 pounds when full grown. This ban affected residents of approximately 178,000 public-housing units.]
Dogs should be fairly assessed. Behavior has nothing to do with a dog’s weight. Of course, there is no place for a vicious dog in any apartment situation. But a policy for evaluation on a case-by-case basis needs to be put into place.
CJ: How could our state government help city shelters?
EM: The top priority should be a more thorough and fair assessment of whether an animal is fit for adoption. You cannot fairly assess a dog who has just been brought in from an abusive situation and is hungry, cold and traumatized. Rescued animals should be allowed to sleep, eat and heal. And then be evaluated. I don’t think money is the answer. I think policy and procedure need to change. The rules are random and arbitrary. That has been my experience (and my opinion).
I also think they should be more proactive in letting people know they can foster an animal. Most people don’t know that’s an option.
The best thing the government has done within the last 10 years for the rights of people and their pets was the law that allowed owners to keep their pets after three months, regardless of what the lease states.
[Section 27-2009.1 of the NYC Housing Maintenance Code essentially says that if the owner of a multiunit rental has a lease prohibiting pets but doesn’t object to the presence of a tenant’s pet within three months, the lease provision is considered to have been waived.]
CJ: Where do Earth Angels’ animals come from?
EM: People know me and know what I do. I work directly with my community. People call me or drop off pets. What about your own life?
I have cancer, which is in remission, and lupus, but I think my work heals me and gives my life meaning and purpose. I truly believe that. And I have a son and a godson whom I adopted and raised. They are both homicide detectives and I am so proud of them. My family of animals and my sons keep me going.
CJ: Do you have one particularly memorable story from your rescue work?
EM: About 20 years ago, my husband and I were caring for and feeding Pit Bulls who were living in the garage of an elderly man who was ill. One night, during a blinding snowstorm, I went to feed them and accidentally locked the door behind me. I was locked in, and I was freezing. The cold was intense. The dogs huddled around me and kept me warm. I kept yelling until someone heard me; I asked them to go the precinct where my son was working and send him to help me. I was stuck in there for hours, but the dogs kept me from freezing.
CJ: What keeps you going?
EM: I love knowing that I saved an animal from a kill shelter or from harm or starving in the street. I love what I do, and I believe it is my gift. I couldn’t do this alone, however; I have foster homes and volunteers who help. For a $200 to $250 adoption fee, my animals receive all their necessary shots and are neutered or spayed; a few vets help by donating their services.
Also, the angels that I have had in my life: my mother, father, sister, brother and husband. I had a strong family. And I could not have done this work without a woman who helps me, Judy Ross. When I am no longer alive, I hope to still be of help; my will states that my house will be given to an animal rescue group working in the Bronx.
CJ: How would you describe the bond between a rescued animal and the person who takes that animal in?
EM: That bond is very strong—a magical connection. They know what you have done, and are grateful. And if you doubt me, rescue an animal and you will see!
Editor's Note: There is going to be an adoption event and fundraiser for Emelinda this Sunday, June 2 from noon to 3 pm at one of NYC's finest dog parks, Stuyvesant Square Park. Her friends and admirers are hoping to raise enough money to buy her a new van to replace the very old one she uses to transport the animals. If you are in NYC, do try to attend. See their flyer for this event.