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