A young Latino woman pushing a baby in a stroller and pulling a dog on a leash entered the Animal Care & Control shelter on East Fordham Road and Washington Avenue in the Bronx one Saturday in September. “Hi beautiful, you are so adorable,” cooed Vivian Barna, the 51-year-old volunteer and animal lover who greeted them at the door.
The mother was surprised to see that Barna was talking to her dog that she was about to abandon.
In the next half an hour, the scene at the store front shelter was repeated over and over. The woman with the stroller was followed by a young couple with a pit bull. “Are you sure you can’t keep him?” pleaded Barna, while petting the dog. “Or you don’t want to keep him?” The couple
shrank back, easing toward the door. “You do know that 95 percent of pit bulls don’t make it out don’t you?” Barna was using her best pitch, referring to the shelter’s practice of euthanasia.
Despite the intrepid volunteer’s best efforts, by 11 a.m., the cages were filled with 13 abandoned cats, two dogs and four dead dogs.
The work is heart wrenching, Barna said, but she would never miss a Saturday at the shelter she’s been working at since January of 2010. She commutes every weekend from Queens to the Bronx, after spending the week working as a real estate agent.
Ever since Animal Care & Control of New York City was founded in 1995, the organization has rescued more than 150,000 cats, dogs, rabbits and even one pig.
The shelter operates as the only open-admission shelter in the city, meaning all animals found or abandoned are taken in. If the shelter becomes too crowded, or if the animals are ill or violent, they may have to be put down. AC&C has shelters in all five boroughs, although those in Queens and the Bronx are drop off centers only.
The shelter located on Fordham Road is the only drop-off center the Bronx and it’s only open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 am to 4 pm.
Barna was drawn to animals beginning as a child, when her family cared for multiple pets. Her volunteer career in animal rescue began in 2005 when she helped save pets stranded after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
During that experience, she assisted Garo Alexanian, who in 1983 founded HelpLine, a phone line dedicated 24-hours a day to animal related calls, that is now connected to AC&C’s work.
The two animal rescuers drove in a van from Queens to New Orleans and back again, sleeping for only three hours a day for six days, and returning with 25 rescued dogs. She kept 15 of them with her until she found a home for each.
Barna started working with AC&C by managing the HelpLine, trying to convince people not to abandon their pets. But she soon realized that she could do a better job dealing with people face to face. She asked to be sent to the toughest center over six months ago, the one with most abandoned animals, and so she was sent to the Bronx.
Barna remembered how unhinged she was when in her first weeks yet another abandoned dog arrived at the door. “I had the most foul mouth, I was cursing all the time.” Barna said.
Manny Mondaca, the veterinary technician at the center in charge of euthanizing animals, said that sometimes cursing is the only way to express frustration.
Mondaca has been working at the shelter long enough to see its budget slashed from $14 million to $7 million over 14 years. And still, against the odds, the shelter is putting fewer animals to sleep every year.
He believes that the volunteer program that Barna participates in has been essential. Not only because the volunteers are the last resource, but also because the majority of the time they are educating people.
In 2001, the shelter took in 49,638 animals. That number went down by 10,000 six years later, but by 2009 it was up again to 40,529. On the other hand, adoptions have gone up 108 percent from 2001 to 2009 according to AC&C. In 2009 24,145 pets were adopted. Although the shelter is far from being a no-kill operation, it has managed to lower the euthanasia rate by 62 percent in eight years.
One hot afternoon in mid-September with a fan blowing her black hair away from her face, Barna sat at the front of the shelter welcoming people. Her table was covered with brochures on various subjects from how to take care of a kitten to low-cost neutering.
Barna barked at a man walking in the door who looked completely lost. Her voice bounced across the cold room, “Can I help you?”
“And you are telling me that your baby is allergic to this dog? That can’t be,” Barna argued with a couple that came in to drop off their second dog in less than two weeks. “Have you had your baby tested for allergies? Did the doctor say the dog had to go? I don’t get it, it makes no sense.”
Later Barna said that people lie a lot and she’s become an expert on detecting it. With words shooting out of her mouth like a machine gun, she continued, “Manny, do you know if that can be true?” she hollered. “A baby having liver problems because of dog hairs? No, right? Makes no sense.”
Barna said that it takes a lot of strength to do this type of volunteering. Behind the counter, Karina S, 20, who asked to keep her last name private, said she still cries when people drop their pets into her arms and walk away.
Karina described Barna as a safety net, someone who catches people before they reach the counter and tries to show them that they have many other options than simple abandonment. “She’s good at getting owners to keep their animals,” she said. “She gives good solutions.” Karina was grateful for Barna’s persistence. Most of the volunteers, she complained, come to the shelter twice and then give up.
Barna has become such an essential part of the rescuing chain for AC&C that Karina calls her when she thinks only Barna can convince an owner to keep their animal, regardless of whether Barna is on duty in the Bronx or not.
The biggest issue, as Barna sees it, is the lack of commitment to the animals. “People throw out animals like old stuff and want to get new ones,” she complained.
Just then, an aging Chihuahua came through the door barking. The dog’s elderly owner was apparently too sick to keep her dog, so her daughter brought it in for adoption. As the Chihuahua was being taken into he back room to be caged, she asked Barna where she could adopt a dog. “Why not keep your mother’s?” Barna asked.
“Nah, it’s too old and ugly, I want a new dog,” the woman replied as she walked out the door.