When three pit bulls were rescued from a two-alarm fire a few months ago, they had somewhere to go because of Jen Leary.
“It’s something we’ve always done. We were just born that way,” Leary said of the caring efforts of her and twin sister, Marion. “We’re just into helping animals and nonprofits. Even when we were little, we’d do stuff with Greenpeace or help the animals.”
Leary, who lives at 20th and Carpenter streets, began Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, an animal-care service that is called to the scene of fires when animals need rescuing, treatment or a place to go.
“Essentially, I just felt helpless as a firefighter,” Leary said. “At a fire with the Red Cross, I couldn’t do anything for the animals. Especially with the Red Cross, we would be assisting the people and giving them shelter and food, everything they need but leaving them stranded as far as the animals. Other volunteers felt the same way and would do stuff when they could.”
Starting as a volunteer with the Red Cross, Leary transitioned to firefighter duty full-time and felt at the same loss when a family’s home was devastated and there was no system to get care for the animals. Her answer was to form Red Paw, a response system that arrives at the scene and makes sure the animals are given the care they need and deserve.
“If we come across an animal that needs medical care, we put a call out to an emergency call list with volunteer vets on it,” the 34-year-old said. “There are lot of Penn vet students and we put that call out and they’ll meet us on scene if [the animals] need to be evaluated ASAP.”
Leary then brings most of the rescued animals to her home, which serves as the temporary shelter while the extent of the aid needed is assessed. Animals are then returned to the families or given to foster homes.
“The American Red Cross calls us or the Salvation Army called us a few times; PAWS [Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society] and ACCT [Animal Care and Control Team] people have called when people showed up there from fires trying to surrender pets,” she said. “Individuals have called us — who found us on Facebook or our website. I get calls and e-mails every day from people needing assistance with domestic violence, being evicted, deployed or whatever.
“We’re just so new and it falls outside our mission statement, but we’re getting out there so people are knowing who to call.”
Despite responding to all fire calls herself, Leary has been able to manage the workload in addition to her full-time job. And the results have been very rewarding.
“We had rescued three pit bulls and a cat in a two-alarm fire in West Philly a couple months ago. Their owners, they lost everything and they have nothing and we still haven’t found a place for the dogs and cat,” she said. “One dog, DeeDee, had complications from smoke inhalation and she was rushed to the hospital and had to have very expensive medical treatment … and we didn’t have the funds to assist.
“I put a thing on Facebook about it and within hours we had enough money to cover everything.”
Leary grew up in Northeast Philly, where she and Marion spent hours helping people and animals alike.
“Right after high school, my sister and I moved to Center City when we were 17,” Leary said. “We were working for HIV/AIDS nonprofits doing special events. We did that for five years for a couple different organizations.”
The sisters, who were both vegetarians since the age of 13, always loved animals.
“It was pretty much wanting to help people and I wasn’t really sure how else to do it,” Leary said of her newest venture. “I’ve always been more of a leader than a follower — get out and start doing something, just do it.”
Soon enough Leary decided to try for a job with the Philadelphia Fire Department. While she waited for approval of her application, she volunteered with the American Red Cross. Six years later, she is still doing that among her other commitments.
“I was the Saturday coordinator for the disaster action team. I respond when people are displaced by fires,” she said. “Then I was a disaster instructor and trainer, a whole bunch of stuff.”
Leary now holds regular hours with the Fire Department yet finds time to continue her Red Cross work, as well as her new Red Paw duties. Despite all of the obligations, since her nonprofit’s summer launch, there has only been one time that Red Paw was needed during Leary’s firefighter work hours.
“The Red Cross calls me and tells me they are on the scene and there are animals involved. They give me all the info they have and then I talk to the clients and then go out to the scene in my car,” she said. “I evaluate the animals and either bring them home or get them care.”
This method means that in addition to her own pets — which include two dogs, five cats, turtles and some fish — Leary is often housing multiple foster pets during their transitional period. Current fundraising efforts are focused on getting a temporary home for all of the displaced animals.
“The next step is getting a space. We had two calls [last week], one at 10 [p.m. Jan. 9] to 12:30 [a.m. Jan. 10] and another at 5 [a.m. Jan. 10],” Leary, whose partner, Lori, has been very accepting of their flow of boarders, said. “It’s just the constant in and out of the house, bringing animals in and cleaning and it’s becoming too much on our animals, too much on the house.”
Leary is confident the generosity shown so far will continue and make Red Paw’s mission all that much more doable.
“If anything stands out to me, it’s the willingness of people to help so quickly for a dog that they’ll never meet. They fell in love with DeeDee,” Leary said. “It’s amazing having that connection with people and have them support us and DeeDee. The owner was in tears, she was just so overjoyed people she never met were saving her dog’s life because she would have died without that medical care.
“That is why Red Paw was created: To save these dogs’ lives.” SPR
For more information or to donate, like Red Paw Emergency Relief Team on Facebook.
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