Homelessness, Man’s Best Friend and a Hard Choice
Animal Stories from All-Creatures.org

By Emily Rueb on CityRoom.Blogs.NYTimes.com
August 2009

Tony Aponte refers to his 45-pound pit bull, Rocky, as his child. But after losing his apartment and moving into a homeless shelter, he was at a loss over how to care for him.

“It was heartbreaking,” Mr. Aponte said. “I felt like garbage because I couldn’t take care of a family member.”

Mr. Aponte, 48, lost his construction job in May of last year. When his landlord suddenly needed to take back the apartment in November, Mr. Aponte and his partner, Jenny Jimenez, did not have the time or the money to find a new apartment.

While they ended up at a shelter in the Bronx in November, pets were not allowed. So Mr. Aponte made a makeshift bed out of cushions and blankets for Rocky in his white van, where the dog slept for the first week.

“I tried to park it in front of the shelter so I could go out and check on him,” he said. “I needed a place for Rock.”

Mr. Aponte approached his brother for help, but he turned him away. Other friends, and even his mother, who lives in Florida, suggested putting Rocky to sleep.

“What are your priorities?” she asked.

“I was, like, why? What is wrong with the dog? He’s not sick,” Mr. Aponte said.

Mr. Aponte and his partner saw a television segment about Pets for Life, a rescue program run by the Humane Society of the United States, which provides pet owners access to low-cost veterinary care, food, blankets and foster care.

Jenny Olsen, an organizer for the program, answered Mr. Aponte’s call, providing extra blankets and donating coats to keep Rocky warm while she arranged temporary housing for him. The “foster father” she found, Amit Chaabra, is one of about 75 volunteer “parents” for the program. Mr. Chaabra took in the pit bull in his Midtown penthouse apartment and granted Mr. Aponte visiting rights during the almost eight months they lived apart.

Each year, more than 40,000 animals enter Animal Care & Control of NYC, said Patrick Kwan, the New York State director for the Humane Society.

“In almost all cases, it is cheaper to help people keep their animals using the free or low-cost services rather than surrender them and allow the shelter to pay for an animal’s care until they are adopted, sent to rescue groups or euthanized,” he said.

The program also provides support and information to help people find homes for stray animals instead of surrendering them to the shelter system.

After turning down three apartments, the couple eventually found housing that allowed pets, a tidy one-bedroom apartment in the Norwood section of the Bronx. And when they brought home Rocky, they took in another pit bull, Boi Boi, who was also living with Mr. Chaabra. And they hope to take in more.

Mr. Aponte is taking work where he can get it, applying his carpentry skills to cabinetry work and roofing. Ms. Jimenez plans to return to school to improve her computer skills.

“The recession is so horrible,” he said about its effects on the construction business. “I was told when you own a building it’s like going to the doctor. If you don’t take care of something you see, you don’t know how bad it’s going to be in a year.” Still, he said, clients are reluctant to pay for repairs.

For now, though, the couple are grateful to be a family again.

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