In the beginning, Unleash wasn’t even on the agenda. “As we created the nonprofit, we wondered, ‘How are we going to pay the rent? How are we going to cover the costs?’” Lombard recalls. “Our lawyer recommended the daycare and boarding [business], because our whole philosophy was having an open rescue.” It took almost a year for the group to find their 7,000-square-foot location on Franklin Street, now the neighborhood’s main cultural drag. Unleash, which provides space to Dog Habitat as a tax write-off, also has a staff of 14 handlers who can oversee all of the dogs simultaneously. (Rescues are not allowed to mingle with clients until they have been medically cleared and their behavior has been established.) The facility, which the website describes as a “holistic loft,” features weathered lumber repurposed from local factories and bright-green rubber floors made from recycled tires. Unleash offers pickup services in a hybrid SUV and purchases wind power through Con Edison. (Lombard and Maher would eventually like to install solar panels on the roof.) In fact, customers seem more familiar with Unleash’s sustainable practices than with the rescue program, at least initially. “Not a lot of people know about the rescue until they come here,” Lombard says. “Then they learn about it and feel good about their dog being part of the rehabilitation.”
And when it comes to rehabilitation, there are some distinct advantages to the Dog Habitat model. “Having a space where the animals can socialize is a real benefit, versus having an animal stuck in a cage 22 hours a day and only getting walked once or twice,” says Diane Gauld, who works for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a nonprofit network created to help New York City become a no-kill community by 2015. “The environment you’re giving them is more like what life is. That’s the real benefit to what [Dog Habitat] is able to do.” Dogs who need it also get plenty of special treatment, be it medication, human interaction or plain old leash training. “The luxury we give them here is time,” Lombard says. Maher cites a dog he and Boado pulled from ACC last year. “We didn’t even know what Sasha was, but her entire back was bald and scabby,” he says. “She was going to be put down because she had mange, which is curable, but it takes a long time, so they can’t get adopted out. When she came in, she was so nervous. It took eight months before she was ready to be adopted, to walk with people. Even then, it was another four or five months before her mange went away.” Sasha, who turned out to be a petite blue Pit Bull with enormous prick ears, is now a daycare client.
That kind of commitment is what keeps volunteer Donna Marsh coming back to walk, bathe and handle the rescues. “There’s one right now I’m very fond of, named Buddy,” she says. “He was found wandering the streets in a snowstorm and he’s very nervous. He has a scar on his side—nobody knows how he got that. We just connected on some level. I take him to the park, and I’ve had him at my house with my dog so he’ll be able to adjust more easily to a home environment. He’s having cranial-release therapy, which is something they’re doing there that I’m totally impressed with. He’s improving. He seems more mellow now, and he walks better on the leash. It just takes time, but I get as much out of it as he does.”
Eager to spread the word about pet overpopulation, Dog Habitat invites kids to come to the facility, either with parents or teachers. Last spring, Christa Flores’s eighth-grade science students at the School at Columbia University chose to explore animal welfare for their Social Action Project. The group did research about puppy mills, visited the 110th Street location of ACC (where they saw three individuals surrender their dogs in a span of 20 minutes), interviewed Lombard about what Dog Habitat does to help and attended a Mayor’s Alliance adoption event in which Dog Habitat participated. “I think it will be one of those things that sticks with them forever,” Flores says. “They’ll never be able to see a purebred or go to a puppy store and feel the same way they might have a year ago.”