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.