Time is up for a Philly animal disaster relief program that actually works. So of course the city is dragging its feet to save it | Helen Ubiñas
In a city that routinely supports and funds programs it hasn’t a clue are effective, it's apparently cool with letting Red Paw Emergency Relief go.
We don’t have a lot of time to waste, so let’s get to it.
In a few days – days – a program that has saved thousands of Philadelphia pets from disaster is shutting down.
Yep, in a city that routinely supports and funds programs it hasn’t a clue are effective — I’m looking at you Office of Violence Prevention! — we’re apparently cool with letting Red Paw Emergency Relief go with little more than empty accolades and tepid commitments to maybe, hopefully, save it before Oct. 1.
A little background: Red Paw was founded by Philadelphia firefighter Jennifer Leary nine years ago after she was haunted by a 2011 five-alarm fire in West Philadelphia. Cats were trapped inside during the bitter January cold, but there was no emergency-response organization to help them or their distraught owners who weren’t allowed, for liability reasons, to go in and search for their pets.
Since then, she and a skeleton crew have saved upward of 8,000 animals — from dogs and cats to snakes and spiders and everything in between — from fires, floods, and explosions.
The nonprofit has received lots of well-earned attention. What they’ve struggled to get is a commitment from the city to help them survive as it became clear that functioning as a stand-alone response model was neither replicable nor sustainable.
Lori Albright, who volunteers as the organization’s chief operating officer, said the 24/7/365 program has worked as a pilot, continuously adjusting as its leaders concluded it could be done relatively inexpensively, just by training existing firefighters.
Over the years they’ve said as much to multiple city leaders, but nothing’s come of the conversations.
In a lot of ways, the program has been a victim of its own success, as the team did whatever necessary to fill a gap, including fund-raising and giving up sleep. In August, they were forced to cut back their hours.
I had some questions for Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel about what sounds to me like a no-brainer of a save.
Positive press on a silver platter. A chance to be the hero, I planned on pointing out to him.
Except department spokesperson Kathy Matheson responded to my email asking if I could talk to him about the future of the program like so:
“Commissioner Thiel is not available ..." (Like ever? I wondered, since I didn’t include a deadline.)
“... but here is his statement about Red Paw’s decision to end operations." (Interesting choice of words since they don’t seem to have much of a choice.)
Thiel’s one-sentence statement: “We are disappointed and working with several partner organizations to find a solution before Oct. 1.”
Before we get too excited here, understand that the folks at Red Paw have been hearing some version of this since they announced they would shut down in August, even as they collected more than 8,500 signatures of support on a Change.org petition and letters from Licenses and Inspections and ACCT Philly, the city’s animal care and control team. In a letter to Thiel, all 10 Philly council members said integrating the program into the fire department or the Office of Emergency Management wouldn’t increase the budget.
But nowhere is the support greater than with grateful pet owners.
Antwanette Wyche and her family — including three dogs, two turtles, a kitten, and snake — were squeezed into a nearby hotel after a morning fire destroyed their North Philly home on Monday.
“They told me this program is going away,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Wyche recalled yelling for her animals as she and her family stood helplessly outside. Firefighters were able to rescue two of the dogs and the turtles, but another dog ran off, and she feared that her kitten and snake were lost.
Hours later, someone from Red Paw was helping her find her missing pets, including a 3-year-old pit bull, Bubby, who had been picked up and brought to a shelter. They also delivered much-needed pet supplies and paid for the animal deposit at the hotel.
“I couldn’t have imagined losing my pets on top of everything else. They’re our family. They’re my babies. What’s going to happen to other people who have their own tragedies?”
Look, I understand we have a lot going on. COVID, relentless gun violence, shrinking budgets, and a world that’s increasingly coming apart at the seams.
So it would be easy to dismiss this program as the least of our priorities.
But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how important the little things, which are actually the big things, are when all seems lost. That includes family, and to many people, including myself, that family means their beloved animals.
Letting go of a program that demonstrably works reeks of a spectacular bureaucratic lack of vision, and common sense. There’s too much of that already.
The good news is that it’s not over yet.
We just need one hero to step up.