The Toby Project

A committed vet tackles NYC’s pet overpopulation
By Lee Harrington, June 2009

Andy Kaplan with Griff (left) and Toby (right)

We’ve all heard that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; well, the saving of thousands of New York’s dog lives may begin with a single vet.

In 2007, according to statistics provided by New York City’s Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC), approximately 40 percent of the 44,000 dogs and cats housed in city shelters were euthanized simply because there were not enough homes for them. That’s a staggering number—about 44 animals per day—and a New York City vet, Dr. Andrew J. Kaplan, wants to put a stop to that.

“This intolerable problem exists because the city’s uncontrolled stray population reproduces naturally,” Kaplan says, “and too many pet owners allow their dogs and cats to breed without contemplating the consequences.”

To address this problem, Kaplan has founded the Toby Project, named after his beloved Wolfhound-mix, Toby. The mission of the Toby Project is quite simple, and quite ambitious: to end the killing of thousands of adoptable dogs and cats each year in New York City’s animal shelters. How? Through a well-organized, well-funded spay/neuter program.

Naysayers claim that this is impossible—that New York City simply has too many people, and too many animals. But if anyone could tackle such a problem single-handedly, Kaplan probably could. Twice voted New York City’s best vet by New York magazine, Kaplan is compassionate and magnetic, with the sort of confidence and boundless enthusiasm that inspires people to have faith in him. And to want to help him.

The concrete goal of the Toby Project is to ultimately fund the operation of five mobile surgical vans that will take education and free spay/neuter services to NYC residents who need them most— specifically, those communities that supply or surrender the most animals to municipal shelters. “By reaching out to targeted communities,” Kaplan says,“we can help prevent the breeding of the very dogs and cats whose offspring account for most of the animals relinquished to our municipal shelters, where they are often killed.”

Kaplan is absolutely certain the Toby Project can make a difference, primarily because it is being modeled after the famous STOP program (Solutions to Overpopulation Of Pets) of New Hampshire. STOP—headed by Peter Marsh, another mover and shaker— also provides educational outreach and free spay/neuter services to local communities.

“Adequately funded spay/neuter programs that focus on low-income communities have led to great success in reducing shelter populations and subsequent high death rates in cities in New Hampshire, Utah and California,” Kaplan says. “In the past six years, the STOP program has managed to reduce the shelter population in New Hampshire by 65 percent. The success of STOP proves that if you work with low-income city residents, you will decrease shelter populations.”

The project is currently in the midst of its crucial fundraising stage. One van alone costs $240,000. Kaplan estimates that it will cost another $325,000 per year to operate the van, “in terms of salaries [for the on-board vets, nurses, drivers, handlers], supplies, gas, licensing, insurance and so forth. That means for the first year, we need to raise about $565,000.”

But these numbers are not daunting to Kaplan. He speaks with the certainty of a man who knows his goals will be met. “Kathryn Beason of Animal Friendly NYC did a study in New York City and found that if the city spayed/neutered 49,000 dogs, the problem [of overpopulation and euthanasia] would be solved within five years. We can make New York a truly ‘no-kill’ city. The Toby Project wants to perform 30,000 operations in the first year.” So far, the project has received funding through private donations and grants. A team of 12 volunteers handles everything— including the marketing and the fundraising—and people are coming out of the woodwork to offer help.“Our group has a fantastic chemistry,” Kaplan says. “We are the only organization in NYC whose sole mission is to address pet overpopulation at its inception by preventing the births of unwanted dogs and cats.”

Kaplan is an ideal spokesperson—and president—for the project. Calling himself a “humaniac,” he’s the type of vet who will give out his private cell phone number to clients, and who once carried a woozy, post-treatment, 50-pound dog home from the office. He doesn’t confine himself to companion animals, though; recently, he treated an injured buck he found suffering on the side of a highway.

As a dog named Maddie inspired the multimillion-dollar Maddie’s Fund, a dog named Toby was the inspiration for this project. Kaplan wasn’t looking for another dog when he met Toby. He already had one—an assertive female who wouldn’t tolerate a second canine in the household. But fate led Kaplan to Toby, who was three months old at the time, and just happened to be inside a spay/ neuter van into which Kaplan just happened to step because his friend just happened to be working there that day. There was Toby, in a cage, with signs labeling him as “unadoptable” and “aggressive.” Kaplan knew he could help find this dog a home. “He was perfectly sweet to me, but when I tried to adopt him from the CACC, they told me he was aggressive and that they needed to put him to sleep—that very day.” After a well-reasoned conversation with the staff behaviorist, Kaplan was finally given the dog. He figured he could find a home for him using his veterinary connections. “Within a week, he was under my skin. He is the most special dog I will ever have. There’s a person inside of him. My other dog loves him. He has a magical dog-leader quality. He is the most soulful dog I have ever met.”

Toby is almost seven now, and Kaplan sees him as a “symbol of hope” for other dogs like him. “This is a passionate, pro-animal project that will succeed,” Kaplan says.

For more information and/or to make a donation or volunteer, please visit tobyproject.org.

 

Editor's Note: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: attribution for the New York City spay/neuter study to Kathryn Beason/Animal Friendly NYC in Dr. Kaplan's quote (9th paragraph).
 

Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch.