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Volunteer band of retrievers is a stray dog's best friend

12/26/00

BY CHRISTINE V. BAIRD  

It's 6 a.m., and Maxine Feimer, a suburban mother from a quiet Shore town, is  prowling the streets of Newark, past the abandoned houses on Clinton Avenue,  peering intently through her windshield. Suddenly she spies what she is  looking for: a stray German shepherd, mangy and hungry.

Where others see a junkyard dog, Feimer sees potential. She sees Molly (or  Barney or Charisse), an abandoned animal who should be a pet. Moments later,  lured by a piece of bologna, the dog is in the back of Feimer's Honda sedan,  sitting next to her daughter's empty child seat, slobbering, headed for a new  life.

Until recently, animal rescue was the province of the ASPCA and humane  societies, organizations faced with limited funds and often forced to fall  back on euthanasia to handle a growing population of strays. Last year in New  Jersey alone, 52,000 dogs were impounded, and "unadoptables" -- including  many inner-city dogs like Molly -- were put to death.

Enter the lone rangers: individuals like Feimer who are unaffiliated with  animal groups but -- connected by word of mouth or the Internet -- are, one  by one, becoming links in a formidable network. Across New Jersey and the  nation, they are tackling a problem traditional organizations can't handle:  saving hopeless dogs.

"I am nobody," said Feimer, who commutes from Monmouth County to Newark. "I  am a frazzled working mother, and I just can't drive by this anymore."

They come from all walks of life and help in whatever way possible. Some act  as modern-day dogcatchers, while others provide foster homes and medication.  Some set up adoptions, posting the animals' pictures on Web sites, while  others screen the homes of prospective adopters or bring the dogs to their  new owners. Each pays expenses out of pocket.

"Some people say we're crazy," said Feimer, who seems unfazed by the  dangerous aspects of the work. "I guess we are."

Others, however, are thankful. "God bless them," said Karen Powell of the  Associated Humane Society in Newark, a shelter organization that provides  animal control for more than 50 towns in North Jersey. "It's wonderful if  they can find these dogs homes."

The AHS has a waiting list for purebreds, but mutts -- particularly those  from urban areas -- are not in demand. This upsets Feimer.

"I guess you feel the same way about feeding starving children in a Third  World nation," she said. "It's the same mentality."

Often the dogs she finds are former pets with collars that must be cut out of  their fur. She catches only animals she is convinced are strays.

Feimer's odyssey from mommy to animal rescuer started last year when her  employer, Eagle Global Logistics, moved from Newark International Airport  closer to the Port of Newark, where many strays roam.

"I tried every route to avoid looking at them," she said. "You know: out of  sight, out of mind. But I'd always see one."

Within weeks, she had a trunk full of dog food and was calling the humane  society to pick up strays. She knew, however, that if the animals weren't  adopted in seven days, death awaited. According to Christine Gage of the New  Jersey Department of Health, the state euthanized 15,485 dogs last year.

So Feimer took things into her own hands, and the Port of Newark network was  born. The local diner provided temporary housing and meals, the auto-parts  place offered junked cars for beds, and Feimer's co-workers have adopted many  of the animals. Eagle's receptionist even announces "Dog alert!" whenever a  stray wanders by.

"My company has been good enough to allow this merriment to go on," Feimer  said. "There are paw prints on our front carpet."

Feimer's husband Tom, who owns CTC Trucking in Newark, is known as "The Dog  Catcher." She calls him if a dog is too big for the Honda. If he's busy, he  pays his drivers to help. "He says he doesn't know whether to shake me or if  it's the thing he admires," said Feimer, who spends $60 a month on dog food  alone.

Overwhelmed by the number of strays, Feimer found hope and help on the Web.

"There is an underground on the Internet," said Nella Cicchino-Ardanz, owner  of Landmark catering in Union, who shows up on Mondays with a carload of  prime rib left over from weekend weddings. She's temporarily caring for  Barney, a Lab mix that Feimer rescued. "He was my smelliest," said Feimer. "I  love that dog."

Cicchino-Ardanz has spent more than $2,000 nursing Barney back from an  ulcerated stomach. Shiny and healthy, he's ready for adoption.

"A lot of people that do the hands-on rescue do it on their own because they  don't want to deal with the politics" of animal-rights organizations, said  Linda Gentille, who heads the Cape May County-based Animal Guardian Angels.  "What they do is unbelievable."

Gentille, a classical pianist, came across Feimer's postings on the Web. She  and her boyfriend, Jan Knepper, wanted to help these "dogs with no options."  They've driven to Newark numerous times to take animals such as Charisse, a  pit bull with a wounded leg.

Today, Charisse is recovering among Gentille's 15 other dogs on 2.5 acres of  wooded land, where each dog has its own house. "It's doggie Disneyland  compared to where they have been," she said.

Rescuers often spend hours online arranging adoptions. A dog's history --  behavioral and medical -- is spelled out in detail. "The Internet has really  helped animals a lot," Gentille said.

Wagner, a shepherd mix rescued from an East Orange cemetery, is one  beneficiary.

Captured by Darlene Dynega, a skin care specialist from Bayonne, but abused  by a new owner, the dog was rescued again by Dynega and driven to Eagle.  Feimer, Gentille, Knepper and Cicchino-Ardanz came to help.

Unable to coax the dog out of the car -- Feimer suggested luring him with  steak, while Gentille, a vegan, recommended an English muffin -- Dynega had  to drive him to a vet, missing a job interview. There, the dog was befriended  by another stray who had been slashed by a bottle.

Together, the animals made the trip with Gentille to Cape May, where they  were renamed Mendelssohn and Stravinsky and remain inseparable. When healed,  they will be put up for adoption as a pair.

Some dogs have landed as far away as Winston-Salem, N.C. Lisa Wallace, a solo  rescuer, spotted one of Feimer's postings and was willing to take a Newark  dog.

"I don't have any preconceived notions about them," she said. "My concern is  that New Jersey is freezing." The dogs were driven by volunteers to a  roadside restaurant in Virginia, where Wallace picked them up.

Gentille warns untrained individuals against catching stray dogs, as does  Newark's Animal Control Board, but it's being done. Often these animals have  severe medical and socialization problems. Many suffer from skin rashes and  worms.

Because the dogs must be tested by a vet immediately, rescuers are always on  the lookout for doctors who will vaccinate strays or provide free check-ups  and reduced-cost medication.

 Feimer has rescued nearly 20 dogs without incident, but her husband still  worries.

 "He says, 'Something horrible is going to happen to you,' and I say, 'I don't  believe that. I believe that what goes around comes around.' It's all what  you believe."


PLEASE USE CAUTION when finding a home for an animal on the internet. Vet references, adoption contracts, home-checks, and follow-ups are necessary to ensure the safety of the animal. DO NOT let a stranger pick up the animal!