East Hampton’s Save A Dog A Day Finds Homes For Dogs, Friends for Humans

Caroline Whelan and Ollie in Sag Harbor Tuesday, July 15. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.
Caroline Whelan and Ollie in Sag Harbor Tuesday, July 15. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

By Tessa Raebeck

If no one had rescued Ollie from the cardboard box advertising “free puppies” he and his siblings were sharing at a yard sale in South Carolina, he would have been thrown into a river and drowned.

Instead, thanks to a network of volunteers dedicated to saving dogs from abuse, neglect and euthanasia, on New Year’s Day 2011, Ollie came to Sag Harbor and met Caroline Whelan.

Ollie, a “fourth-generation mutt,” according to Ms. Whelan, was brought up north and given a second chance by the Save A Dog A Day organization, a non-profit group based in East Hampton that rescues and finds new homes for dogs in danger of euthanasia.

“He just has the biggest heart and we’ve bonded since that first day,” Ms. Whelan said Tuesday, adding, “I think that’s one of the special things about rescue dogs; they have this knowing that they escaped something that could have been really ugly and scary, so he always seems so appreciative of the little things.”

Started by Colleen Fennell, a retired employee of the East Hampton School District, Save A Dog A Day has grown from a 2004 pipe dream to a national organization with 50 volunteers that rescues over 500 dogs annually—passing their goal of saving at least a dog a day.

The organization is hosting a fundraiser Sunday, July 20, at 230 Elm in Southampton. A two-hour open bar cocktail party will be followed by a comedy show with Carmen Lynch and Andy Pitz, who both performed on the Late Show with David Letterman.

During a visit to Puerto Rico, Ms. Fennell fell in love with the stray dogs there and realized she wanted—and needed—to do something to unite destitute animals across the United States with permanent homes. According to Ms. Fennell, over four million healthy animals are killed each year in the United States.

“She just wanted to do something, so she started the organization,” said Liz Miller of Springs, who has volunteered at Ms. Fennell’s side since the beginning, when she was only 15.

They connected with friends down south, establishing a secondary base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, “’cause there are so many kill shelters down there,” Ms. Miller said.

Lethal injection is the most humane method by which dogs are killed, but in many shelters in the United States—and the South, in particular—dogs are gassed or administered a heart stick, a practice that injects a burning, acid-like substance through the chests of conscious dogs that is not only illegal, but also an extremely painful way to die.

“Part of our challenge,” Ms. Fennell writes on the organization’s website, saveadogaday.net, “is to eradicate these cruel practices, while still maintaining a working relationship with these shelters.”

Caroline Whelan and Ollie on the day they met, January 1, 2011.
Caroline Whelan and Ollie on the day they met, January 1, 2011.

After a dog is recognized, a volunteer “pulls” it from the shelter. Puppies are quarantined, usually in a vet’s office, for two weeks to ensure they’re healthy. During that period, the dog is advertised via the website, email blasts and Facebook for potential foster and adoptive parents.

“The kill shelters are really bad for a billion reasons,” said Ms. Miller, “but another reason a lot of the rescues need fostering time is because they need to be re-acclimated to what it’s like to be in a normal environment. In kill shelters, 24/7 the dogs are stressed out. They feel the hate coming from the humans; there’s no affection, there’s no love there…It’s like death row for dogs.”

Once the dogs are cleared, the Pilots N Paws rescue service, “really great people who volunteer,” according to Ms. Miller, transports them on small planes.

Save A Dog A Day’s volunteers in the south bring the rescued dogs to the pilots, who fly them to small airports up north, usually in Wainscott, Brookhaven, Farmingdale or Connecticut. Once the dogs arrive, they are picked up and brought to foster parents.

“Fosters are the most crucial part,” said Ms. Miller. “The more fosters we have, the more dogs we can pull out.”

If the dogs aren’t flown by plane, an email chain gets sent out that says when a transport needs to happen. People sign up for two- to four-hour increments, driving the dog a portion of the way and handing them over to the next driver at a highway rest stop.

“It’s like a domino and they’ll just keep switching the dogs from car to car until they get to their destination,” Ms. Miller said. “There are a lot of good people who do that.”

After the dogs are distributed to their foster parents, Save A Dog A Day keeps advertising until they are adopted into a forever home. When an adoptive parent comes forward, a home visit is done to ensure it’s a safe and fitting environment for the dog’s needs and personality.

No one at Save A Dog A Day accepts a salary, and much of the non-profit’s funding comes from the pockets of Ms. Fennell and her volunteer network.

“The reason we do fundraisers is to pay for the vetting,” Ms. Miller said of the July 20 event. “We pay for a little transportation, but a lot the pilots donate. Most of the money Colleen [Fennell] pays out of her pocket.”

In addition to the regular shots and quarantine period, some expenses are unforeseen.

“A lot of times with a lot of dogs they have health issues because they’ve been kept in such horrible conditions,” Ms. Miller said.

A Rottweiler mix had a limp at the kill shelter. Once he was pulled out, they realized the limp was due to three bullets lodged in his hind leg, which cost the non-profit an unexpected $3,000 to remove.

Although a lot of sad stories come out of Save A Dog A Day’s daily work, the plight of the dogs often brings out the compassion in people.

Ms. Whelan picked out Ollie, fresh off a plane from South Carolina, with the intention of fostering him for two weeks. Three and a half years later, he’s her best friend.

“Ollie’s been with me through good times, bad times, break-ups, and he is that one constant in my life that I really cherish,” Ms. Whelan said.

If you’re interested in fostering or adopting a pet, please email Liz Miller at saveadogadayny@gmail.com. To purchase tickets to Sunday’s fundraiser, click hereFor more information on Save A Dog A Day, visit saveadogaday.net.