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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 537-0400.