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ARF Celebrates 40 Years of Protecting Man’s Best Friend

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ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick gets a kiss from Pretty Girl, a pit bull mix rescued from a dog fighting ring. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick gets a kiss from Pretty Girl, a pit bull mix rescued from a dog-fighting ring. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

By Tessa Raebeck

Forty years ago, Sag Harbor Village was overrun with strays, cat colonies had overtaken the East Hampton Town dump and feral dogs roamed the Northwest Woods in wild packs.

The commonplace conversion of house pets to wild animals seems unbelievable on the East End today—and that change is in large part thanks to the efforts of ARF, the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary this Saturday.

People have been encouraged to bring their dogs on leashes and their cats in carriers to the celebration, which includes dog agility courses and contests, free pet microchipping and rabies vaccines, an “Ask the Vet” booth with Dr. Sarah Alward, music, fresh food for both humans and pets, and proclamations from elected officials and the Humane Society.

“We’re celebrating 280 years in dog years,” said Executive Director Sara Davison, noting that guests can also visit the shelter and view pets for adoption.

“A lot has changed since ARF was founded and we’re very, very proud of the role we’ve played in helping to make the East End a no-kill community—and by that I mean that no animal now in most of the East End towns is euthanized for lack of space,” she said.

“Through ARF’s work of advocating for spay and neuter, the numbers of unwanted litters of kittens and puppies are way, way down and we’re able to take all the animals that are healthy or can be rehabilitated and we get them homes,” Ms. Davison added.

ARF Executive Director Sara Davison poses with cats at the Wainscott adoption center. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

ARF Executive Director Sara Davison poses with cats at the Wainscott adoption center. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

When ARF was founded in 1974, “People were abandoning animals left and right…. There were huge tracts of woodlands where there were feral dogs, a lot of suffering, a lot of animals abandoned—and that’s all changed,” she said.

In 1973, the late Cleveland Amory, an American author who devoted his life to promoting animal rights, brought three local women together for a meeting at what was then the Paradise Restaurant in Sag Harbor.

Mr. Amory contacted the women—Barbara Posener, Sony Schotland and Dorothy Wahl—because of their respective contributions to animal welfare on the East End.

The late Ms. Posener had made flyers calling on summer residents to leave their house, not their dog, when they left the area in the fall. Ms. Wahl had reached out to Mr. Amory to notify him of someone who was illegally selling leopards and other wildlife. Mr. Amory approached Ms. Schotland, the owner of a shop on Main Street at the time, because she had raised money to buy a fence for the Hampton Animal Shelter, a shelter on Brick Kiln Road with a bad reputation.

“I constantly tried to help them, but it was to no avail,” she recounted.

After Ms. Schotland raised funds for a fence, the shelter owner took the money but applied it elsewhere, she said, rather than using it to enclose the cats and dogs in her care. Claiming to take in strays, the shelter actually perpetuated the problem, said Ms. Schotland, as its animals would wander from Brick Kiln Road into Sag Harbor.

“The warden in Southampton told me, ‘I have never been to any place where I pick up so many strays, I pick up an average of 30 strays a month out of just Sag Harbor,” Ms. Schotland said.

Mr. Amory, “the god of the animal world in those days,” according to Ms. Schotland, brought the women together, approaching the shelter to offer their help.

When the group’s offer was rejected, ARF was born.

“If she had not rejected us, ARF would never have been,” Ms. Schotland said.

The trio founded the new shelter “with little more than a passion for animal welfare, a backyard and indomitable determination,” according to ARF board president Lisa McCarthy.

“We had no clue what to do and it felt like having an elephant by the tail, but then, little by little, it worked,” Ms. Schotland said.

In the beginning, the founders boarded animals in their homes, in the back of Ms. Schotland’s shop, and at local animal hospitals, vets and friends’ places.

It is it’s required that found animals first be taken to a designated shelter, Southampton Animal Shelter in Southampton or the East Hampton Veterinary Group in East Hampton, to be held for a period of time, so there is a standard place for an owner to look for their pet.

In the early 1980s, ARF, still a fledgling organization, brought a four-month old black lab, “adorable” according to Ms. Schotland, to Southampton Town as mandated.

“That was terrible,” she recalled. “By the next weekend, when the people came back to look for it, it had been destroyed, it had been euthanized.”

Following the incident, Ms. Schotland, Helena Curtis and ARF successfully lobbied the town to increase the mandatory holding time for stray dogs from five to 10 days.

As ARF’s reputation grew through such efforts, bigger names signed on.

ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick plays with Pretty Girl. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick plays with Pretty Girl. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

“Little by little, we formed a board and we got more organized,” Ms. Schotland said.

With help from philanthropists Edward and Susan Yawney, ARF celebrated its 10th anniversary with the purchase of 22 acres on Daniels Hole Road in Wainscott.

Today, ARF has 27 professional employees, hundreds of volunteers and an annual budget of $2.5 million—and plenty of stories supporting its initial mission to protect homeless and abandoned cats and dogs.

“They all have a story,” said Jamie Berger, director of marketing and communications. “Some we know, some we don’t.”

A year ago, a pit bull mix was found lying close to death on the floor of a dog-fighting ring in North Hempstead.

“She’s pretty well chewed up from what they did to her,” said Matthew Posnick, ARF’s trainer who is in the process of rehabilitating the dog, now affectionately called Pretty Girl.

ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick shows the scars on Pretty Girl's face from her days in a North Hempstead dog-fighting ring. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

ARF Trainer Matthew Posnick shows the scars on Pretty Girl’s face from her days in a North Hempstead dog-fighting ring. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Within about 10 weeks, Pretty Girl was out of a muzzle and socializing with other dogs. She was on the pier at HarborFest, playing with dogs and kids and although she isn’t up for adoption quite yet, the shelter is hopeful she will be ready for a home soon.

“Of all the things I’ve done here in four years, I’m most proud of that,” Mr. Posnick said, as Pretty Girl licked his face. “She’s a really happy dog.”

Nancy Butts, who has worked at ARF for 21 years—topped only by Debbie Downes’s 28 years—was never allowed to have an animal growing up.

“My father used to say to me, when you get married you can have all the dogs you want,” said Ms. Butts, who now has four. “I got married on a Saturday and got an animal on a Monday.”

Snuggled below her desk was Patrick, a Pomeranian who looks like a puppy but is actually 7. Rescued from a puppy mill in Ohio, Patrick is patiently awaiting a home.

With an extremely high release rate—the rate of how many animals come into the shelter versus how many leave alive—ARF has adopted out 20,000 animals to date.

Longtime ARF employee Nancy Butts with Patrick, a seven-year-old Pomeranian rescued from a puppy mill. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Longtime ARF employee Nancy Butts with Patrick, a seven-year-old Pomeranian rescued from a puppy mill. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Ms. McCarthy’s personal goal is to adopt out 2,000 animals yearly by 2017.

“We’re very proud of the community,” Ms. Davison said. “We’re thankful for the support that we’ve gotten through the years from the community, and it’s enabled us to create one of the leading shelters in our country.”

“Not every shelter can afford to do the kinds of surgeries and rehabilitative care that we provide, but once we admit an animal into our doors, we really make a pledge to them that we’re going to do everything we can to get them healthy and get them adopted,” she added.

ARF’s 40th Anniversary Celebration is Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the ARF Adoption Center, 90 Daniels Hole Road in Wainscott. For more information or to RSVP, email tdix@arfhamptons.org or call 537-0400.

The Serious Side of Pet Adoption

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By Claire Walla

“Do not buy the rabbits! Do not buy the chickens!”

Just about this time of year, when baby animals are born and images of fluffy white bunnies mark the onset of Easter, East Hampton resident Pat Lillis gets extra upset.

“I know, ‘they’re sooo cute,”’ Lillis mocked with a strained, high-pitched inflection. “But, who’s going to take care of them?”

If you’ve ever met Lillis, then you know this dialogue, written as it is, does little to capture the full spectrum of her husky, Irish, curse-word-ridden speech. And it does nothing to convey the passion she has for this issue.

Wearing Ugg boots, ripped cargo shorts and a t-shirt with the phrase “Defend human rights today, prevent tragedy tomorrow” — a year-round look for the 61-year-old — Lillis tended to the animals in her home as she railed against a segment of the population she has many issues with: “animal lovers.”

“There’s a reason why these cats are here,” she continued, referring to the posse of felines lounging in her kitchen. “It’s because people ‘fell in love’ with them.”

Twelve years ago, Lillis founded a non-profit organization called Elsa’s Ark, which raises funds to care for injured or abandoned animals. The organization is run out of her home in Springs, and can best be described by a hand-made sign she has hung on a bulletin board in her garage: Only one question allowed, how can I help?

“I had another one, but it fell down and the cats pissed on it,” she explained.

Lillis herself has cared for rabbits and chickens over the years, and is now caring for precisely two dogs, 15 chickens and nearly three-dozen cats, only one of which — Houdini, whom she described as “a thug” — is her own.

Lillis goes through roughly 574 cans of cat food a week. She counted.

“I don’t go looking for animals,” Lillis was very quick to explain. “And I don’t buy them.”

This is one of the many talking points that flips her lid. Lillis believes nobody should ever buy an animal. And even if they have plans to adopt, she urges interested parties to think long and hard before bringing a cat, a dog or even a chicken into their home.

Every now and then, she said, a “brave soul” will knock on the window of her Volvo and ask for her help. Lillis gritted her teeth before continuing: “If I meet you and you tell me you’re going to give up your animal, you’d better be in the ready position to start the 100 meters.”

According to Ginny Frati of the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, located in Southampton, the center sees about 12 domesticated rabbits each year. It is currently caring for two baby bunnies, in fact, which, at three inches long, she estimates are about two-and-a-half weeks old. They were allegedly found in East Port.

The Center also sees its fair share of chicks and ducks. Last year, she said there were two domesticated geese found along the banks of Otter Pond right here in Sag Harbor. Rescue crews were able to secure the animals, rehabilitate them and find them new homes.

However, Franti said most are not so lucky.

“People often bring them to a pond when they don’t want them anymore,” she explained. “Usually a fox or a raccoon will get them in the first year.” And with domestic ducks, she added, “Dogs will attack them, then we get them after they’ve been attacked.”

More than two decades before Elsa’s Ark was established, three East End residents created the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons (ARF) to address the growing population of abandoned animals on the East End.

ARF’s executive director Sara Davison said the situation has improved dramatically for Hamptons cats and dogs. Now, only about 15 percent of the dogs at ARF are abandoned. However, about half the cat population at ARF is there due to “owner abandonment.”

According to Director of Operations Michele Forrester, the shelter can keep up to 160 dogs and cats at one time, and it’s almost always at capacity.

“We’re now approaching kitten season,” Forrester further explained. Around this time of year, the feral cat population has an explosion of new litters, many of which end up at ARF. She said there are hundreds of volunteers throughout the community who not only help to feed feral cat colonies, but help locate new litters of kittens and bring them to ARF to be spayed or neutered.

“We call that ‘breaking the feral cat cycle,’” Executive Director Sara Davison added.

Because of these practices, Forrester said ARF has seen a decline in the number of kittens it’s seen for the past four years. However, she added, there are still too many cats for ARF to handle on its own. Because it is a private facility, ARF is able to pick and choose which animals it keeps for adoption. There’s a waiting list for the rest.

“You can’t overwhelm the staff, we have to stay at a level we can handle,” Forrester continued.

Like ARF, Pat Lillis is a big proponent of “breaking the feral cat cycle.” Elsa’s Ark provides free spaying and neutering services for anyone wishing to sterilize their cat.

But, she acknowledges that curbing reproduction is only half the battle.

In the backyard of her home, surrounded by her chickens Charlie Brown, Bertha, Red Red, Jeanne, Aggy, Mattie and Phyllis Diller (a light brown bird with a feathery ‘fro), Lillis explained that people’s attitudes toward animals are a big part of the problem.

For example, several of Lillis’ birds came from a man in Westhampton Beach who had moved from Mastic with 11 chickens in tow. He abandoned the birds when his neighbor complained.

“People don’t think before they get animals,” Lillis railed.

The cleaning, the feeding, the going into the chicken coop at dusk with a flashlight to check every nook and cranny for threatening four-legged species with an appetite for breast meat, she said it’s all part of the job.

At the beginning of January, Lillis said two cats were left in their cat carrier with a note: “We know you will give them a home.”

Just repeating the story put Lillis on edge.

“F— that!” she roared. “I’m a spinster at 61-years-old, how much longer am I going to live?! The nerve!”

“People make the mistake of saying I love animals,” she continued. But, she she said it’s not love.

“I believe everyone should be looked after,” Lillis said. “You have to be part of this world you’re hanging out in. I pick up everything. I pick up people, I pick up animals, I pick up garbage… If you see something that has to be done, it’s your civic duty to do it. It’s just your civic duty.”