By Richard Gambino
A new pet dog or cat — what a great way to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah and to start the New Year! And the place to go for one is the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons (ARF).
ARF, located in Wainscott, is in its 37th year. During that time, it has saved some 18,000 homeless cats and dogs, in partnership with good people who have adopted them.
A short personal story: My wife and I most recently adopted an ARF kitten, jet-black with three white spots on her underside. Our grandkids promptly named her “Pepper.” She had lost her mother, and on the day before we first saw her, her sister had died. Pepper spent most of the time huddled in a corner of a cage, and was eating very little. To our concern, she spent the first two days in our house crouching under low furniture, or in one of its corners.
Then, she blossomed. Pepper is a happy, active, energetic, affectionate and very smart little creature. Without any training, she not only talks to us — in very expressive “meows,” when one of us talks to her — but, also without any training, when we throw one of her little stuffed toys down a corridor, she races to it, picks it up in her mouth, runs back to us, and drops it at our feet. The only feline “retriever” we’ve ever experienced.
All this was on my mind as I talked recently with Melissa Tiska, who is one of ARF’s two adoption coordinators. Ms. Tiska told me that ARF presently places 500 to 800 animals per year into adoption; about 60 percent of them are dogs, and about 40 percent are cats. She explained that, unlike times in the past, today most local dogs are neutered or spayed, so a more limited number of ARF’s animals are from this area. Some come because their owners have died, others from owners who cannot any longer keep them, e.g., because the folks have moved into apartments or are renting homes in which pets are not allowed.
Ms. Tiska said, “Ten to twenty percent of our animals come from animal surrenders and from animal control officers who find them as strays. For example, we work hand in hand with East Hampton Animal Control, which does not have a shelter of its own, and take in stray animals whose owners cannot be found.”
But ARF has partnerships with other rescue groups, for example in South Carolina, where many animals are not neutered or spayed, and as a result “they are putting down [i.e., putting to death] obscene numbers of dogs and cats, and we also obtain dogs from ‘puppy mill’ breeders.”
These latter are people who solely for profit breed large numbers of “purebred” dogs of various breeds that are eventually sold in pet stores — many at Christmas time. The relatively few mills in Suffolk County each have 50 or so dogs jammed in a basement, and when found, are raided by the ASPCA. But ARF gets large numbers of dogs from the Midwest and elsewhere where thousands of puppies are bred on large, open “puppy farms” covering many acres. Adult dogs that are not good at reproducing large litters of puppies at puppy mills, and puppies that don’t meet “purebred” standards, are considered “disposable” animals, and used to be put to death.
Now they are rescued, “no questions asked,” by ARF, through intermediary rescue groups. (One of my family’s pets today, a very loving and healthy dog, “Gemma,” was rescued as a rejected puppy from a mill breeding Ridgebacks in Oklahoma.)
ARF does not put down animals, but keeps them until each is adopted, regardless of how long it takes. (The very rare exceptions are terminally ill or injured individuals, or those with severe, uncorrectable problems making them dangerous to other animals or to humans.) ARF does and will advise people on where to obtain low-cost vaccines for their pets, and offers more information of all kinds regarding pets. (Call: 631/537-0400, ex. 202.)
Ms. Tiska told me, “Cat adoptions are a huge issue. They are harder because many cat-lovers already have three or four cats in their homes, and some people have cat allergies.” She added, “A lot of our kittens were born of feral mothers, found by good people who bring them in to us.”
Of course, the kittens have not grown up wild, so do not behave like feral cats.
“We neuter or spay them,” said Ms. Tiska. “We ‘microchip’ the kittens, socialize them, and put them up for adoption.”
Ms. Tiska added that ARF also works with volunteers who humanely capture adult feral cats, bring them to ARF where they are neutered or spayed, and then returned to the areas in which they were found. All animals adopted from ARF each have in them a microchip about the size of a grain of rice, painlessly embedded under their skin by ARF’s veterinarian, which can be electronically scanned if the pet is ever lost, found, then traced to their owners.
ARF depends very much on volunteers to “socialize” its animals, i.e., get them used to being with people, e.g., by playing with them and grooming them. Volunteers also walk ARF’s dogs on leashes, making them ready to do so with the people who adopt them. (If you don’t know how to walk a dog, one of ARF’s people will teach you.)
Volunteers, including on weekends large numbers of students from East Hampton High School and Pierson High School, also do office work, and help socialize animals, including 30 or so dogs that come to ARF from puppy mill rescues every three months, some undernourished or with other fitness problems. Many ARF volunteers are retired people, but others work during the week and come to help on weekends.
Ms. Tiska told me that many people who come to adopt a pet at ARF bring their kids with them — a good idea, she said, because kids show their preferences for individual animals, and vice-versa. We agreed that it is very good for a child to live with pets. It much enriches a kid’s life, and usually sets a pattern of kids’ wanting animals when they become adults. (I did not have pets as a child, but have learned as an adult how much better life is in exchanging love with cats and dogs.)
PBS’s Nova series has broadcast a fascinating documentary called, “De-Coding Dogs,” in which we see biologists run scientific tests on dogs that confirm what dog owners have always known. To wit, dogs have an ability to tune into humans’ thoughts and moods that is … well, uncanny, making them unmatchable companions. And after more than 40 years of having cats, which we never let out of our home, my family can tell you cats, too, have individual personalities, also making possible very personal relations with us.
ARF’s website is great to see. Just Google “ARF of the Hamptons.” To receive ARF’s quarterly newsletter in the mail, call 537-0400, ex. 202. ARF is totally dependent on financial donations from the public. People can also donate much needed old towels, bedding that animals may use, and pet toys. To donate, call: 537-0400, ext. 202. To adopt a pet from ARF or volunteer, call 537-0400, ext. 203.