Last March, when Animal Care & Control of New York City took in 14 Pit Bulls (including a mother and four newborn puppies) who had been found in alive in a burned-out Bronx apartment, the dogs’ prospects weren’t great. “It’s 99 percent Pit Bulls that are being put down every day,” says Emily Tanen, at the time a coordinator for ACC’s New Hope program, which helps get animals out of the shelter by placing them with rescue groups. “There are more Pit Bulls coming in [than other breeds] and fewer people wanting them, because of the image surrounding them.” Plus, the Bronx Fire Pit Bulls, as advocates dubbed them (facebook.com/BronxFirePitBulls), faced another challenge: they were under police hold, so New Hope had to find rescues willing to foster them without actually assuming ownership. “Not many groups want to do that, because [then] they are just housing the dogs for us,” Tanen says. “We could take them back at any time, and if the dog has any medical problems, we’re probably not going to pay for that, because we have no money.” Tanen worried particularly about the puppies going into the shelter environment and getting sick. “I spent hours trying to place the mom and the puppies that night before I left work, and [finally] Dog Habitat took them.”
Tanen singles out the two-year-old Brooklyn rescue facility—which cared for the five Pit Bulls for “a really long time” before ACC could officially transfer ownership—both for being among a shortlist of outfits willing to accept Pit Bulls at all and for the obvious care they take with the dogs they do rescue. “They were really open about how the dogs were, and they sent us update pictures,” she says. “Not a lot of groups do that, and when you are working in such a stressful environment like a shelter, it’s really nice to see that the work that you put into saving a dog paid off.”
Tanen may have realized that Dog Habitat (doghabitat.org) stood out from the crowd, but her under-siege post at ACC didn’t allow her the luxury of seeing just how special an operation it really is. Dog Habitat shares space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with Unleash, a daycare-and-boarding business (unleashbrooklyn.blogspot.com), and its rescue dogs live just like the pampered “clients” they romp with during the day. At night, rescues and boarders alike stay in their own four-by-four-foot pens, checked on by a staff member who sleeps on-site. They dine on organic food supplied by sponsor Stella & Chewy’s. “There is no reason a rescue dog should be treated as lesser than any other,” says Rob Maher, who got the idea to start a rescue after his and wife Bea Boado’s pet-supply shop, District Dog, became a magnet for dogs found in the neighborhood.
Once the plan took root, the couple recruited Jay Lombard, an educational fundraiser and customer with a Lab/Border Collie mix named Skyler, to serve as director of the operation. “My dog passed away the month we opened,” says Lombard, who has Skyler’s name permanently inked on his shoulder above a tattoo of the heart-shaped Dog Habitat logo. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in Greenpoint—I had to find an apartment that had a backyard—and I wouldn’t have met Rob and Bea. Because of him, I wanted to have a rescue.”
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.”
So far, Dog Habitat has found homes for about 200 rescues. While the focus is on New York City, the group does take in rescues from elsewhere, such as the 32 small-breed dogs that the Humane Society pulled from a puppy mill in Virginia last winter. “It was the perfect time,” Maher says. “Had it been any other month than January, I don’t think we could have done it. There are fewer dogs boarding after the holidays.” On an average day, Unleash hosts 70 dogs, a combination of daycare, boarders and rescues. “We try and stay at around 12 rescues so that we can focus on them, but we fluctuate,” Maher says.
Dog Habitat’s most recent initiative, the Nanny Dog Project, puts Pit Bull pups through a year’s worth of basic-obedience classes with no less an agenda than restoring the breed’s good name. Maher plans to train exceptionally calm pups as special-needs dogs to be placed with children and adults with disabilities. To date, there have been eight Nanny Dog Project graduates, including the Bronx fire puppies—Stavros, Notty, Squishy and Nugget—who’ve all been adopted. Mom Phoenix, who Lombard says “still smelled like smoke” that first night when she stayed at his apartment, was waiting to find her home at press time.
“These have been the best two years of my professional life,” Lombard says. “I’ve worked every day, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I’ve never had so much fun in my life. And I’ve never been so tired, but there’s an intrinsic value. Knowing that a dog who was on the euthanasia list now has a doorman … that’s really gratifying.”