Three volunteers, the ASPCA’s volunteer coordinator and I hopped in a pet taxi from the shelter with Nena, an energetic pit bull mix; Brandon, a howling beagle; Jake, a cool, calm pit bull everyone adored; and my charge, Lily, a blind shih tzu.
As soon as the dogs entered the hotel, the energy in the room changed immediately. Proper doormen, who would be qualified for service as one of Buckingham Palace’s unflappable guards, cracked a smile and scratched the dogs behind the ears. We took some photos with the humane law enforcement, firefighters and other award winners (see below). Jake was the star of the show. That is, until the ladies who lunch arrived.
Aside from the honorees, the guest list at the luncheon was a who’s who of New York City philanthropy. These folks, mostly women, were the cornerstone of the rich and fabulous. One woman wore a broche on her lapel that easily cost more than I make in a year. At one time I might have engaged in thinly veiled jabs, but the truth is, the money is theirs to do with as they please. They don’t have to give thousands upon thousands to allow Nena to have open heart surgery or buy an animal CSI van to bust dog fighting rings, but they do, and that’s enough for me.
Then the women saw Lily. In that special voice women reserve for infants, toy breed dogs and kittens, they cooed and gurgled, oohed and awwed. I was surrounded. They wanted to pet her and stroke her. They told her how beautiful she was. They gasped when I told them that she was blind – the reason her pupils were cloudy. They wanted her story. Hoarders? they asked. Backyard breeder? they asked. No, she was born blind, I said. Her owner surrended her, I said. What? they gasped. How terrible! they exclaimed. How could someone do that?
Cut to the ride back to the shelter. The volunteer coordinator called a woman who was surrendering her black pug. I had seen the woman in the lobby when I had arrived at the ASPCA that morning. Now I heard her crying on the other end of the line. Turned out that she had run into a string of bad luck and finally had no choice but to go to a homeless shelter for several days. They didn’t allow dogs normally, but the workers had looked the other way. The pug was very well behaved; it was a therapy dog. But then another worker refused to look the other way. The woman couldn’t come back with the dog. The volunteer coordinator promised she would try to help. In the meantime, if the pug stayed at the ASPCA he would surely be adopted. She made another phone call to a volunteer who she knew loved pugs. Before the coordinator could even ask, the volunteer offered, “Why don’t I just foster the dog until the owner gets back on her feet? It’s no problem.”
And that’s partly why I volunteer. It’s more than working with the cats and dogs. In the space of a few hours, I was reminded that generosity comes in many different forms and the old adage about not judging unless you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes.
Now, without further ado, the 2009 Humane Award winners:
ASPCA Dog of the Year
A true four-legged hero, Archie is an eight-year-old black Labrador retriever, who serves as an assistance dog and social lifeline for Sergeant Clay Rankin. Sgt. Rankin suffered spinal injuries while serving in Iraq, and Archie is his primary caregiver and social safety net. Archie’s loyalty and perseverance in helping Sgt. Rankin accomplish his daily tasks has allowed the veteran to regain his confidence and independence, move forward with his life and continue serving the country he loves.
ASPCA Cat of the Year
When Betsy Alexander and Burnell Yow visited an animal shelter in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, they never imagined they would adopt a feline prodigy. Nora is a five-year-old gray tabby, whose special piano-playing skills quickly became a YouTube sensation, drawing more than 15 million page views and inspiring a Lithuanian composer to arrange a symphony in her honor. Nora is a talented example of how shelter pets—far from being castoffs—often make the best animal companions.
ASPCA “Tommy Monahan” Kid of the Year
This award is dedicated to Tommy Monahan, a 9-year-old Staten Island boy who perished in 2007 trying to save his pet from a house fire. Eleven-year-old Monica Plumb in Powhatan County, Virginia, decided to make a real difference after seeing a news story about a pet that was saved from a house fire due to the use of an oxygen pet mask. Monica launched PetMask.com to collect online donations to purchase pet masks for fire departments, and has since purchased more than 50 mask kits for fire stations in nine different states. Monica is truly an inspiration for other young people and a beacon for those who cannot speak for themselves.
ASPCA Firefighter of the Year
Deputy Chief Mark Duff and the Hingham Fire Department are renowned for their bravery and commitment to saving the lives of animals. In February 2009, they participated in the rescue of a two-year-old black Labrador retriever named Ollie, who fell through thin ice into the frigid waters of Hingham Harbor. Firefighter Jim Sheard was one of the heroes on the scene. He donned a coldwater rescue suit to attach himself to the suffering canine, while his fellow firefighters pulled the two of them to safety on shore. Ollie was transported to a nearby animal hospital, and thanks to the noble efforts of the Hingham Fire Department, now has a second lease on life.
ASPCA Law Enforcement Officers of the Year
On July 8, 2009, the ASPCA participated in a massive dog fighting raid, the largest federal crackdown on dog fighting in U.S. history. The raid spanned eight states, including Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska and Mississippi, which resulted in the rescue of more than 400 dogs and nearly 30 arrests. The success of the raid was largely due to the efforts of Tim Rickey and Kyle Held of the Humane Society of Missouri (HSMO) and undercover agents Sergeant Terry Mills and Sergeant Jeffrey Heath of the Missouri Highway Patrol. The bravery and tenacity of these four individuals not only means a second chance for countless dogs, but also serves as a giant step forward in the effort to end animal cruelty nationwide.
ASPCA Henry Bergh Award
Steve Smith and Alayne Marker founded the Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Ovando, Montana, in December 2000. The couple left their corporate jobs in Seattle and relocated to Montana fulltime to devote themselves to animal rescue. Their mission was to turn 160 acres of open grassland and cottonwoods into a sanctuary for animals with special needs—those pets who are least likely to be adopted and most likely to be euthanized in traditional shelters. The animal sanctuary is now home to approximately 70 animals, nearly two-thirds of whom are blind.
ASPCA Lifetime Achievement Award
Richard O’Barry has been exposed to both sides of the dolphin world. In the 1960s, he trained dolphins for the popular American TV series Flipper. During the course of spending day and night with these sensitive mammals, O’Barry had a life-altering change of heart and his about-face led to a lifelong crusade to free dolphins and educate the world about the plight of dolphins in captivity. In 1970, O’Barry founded the Dolphin Project and launched a campaign against the multi-billion dollar dolphin industry. He has rescued and released more than 25 captive dolphins in Haiti, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Bahamas and the United States. O’Barry is currently the subject of an award-winning documentary, The Cove, which chronicles an effort to expose the truth about dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan.