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Innovative animal-rescue groups offer foster, hospice, and respite

Picture a giant playpen filled with frisky felines being wheeled into a nursing home. The residents are then given poles to “fish for kitties,” explains Juli Cialone, founder of Rock N’ Rescue, which is based in South Salem, but depends on its network of foster families to house animals until they find homes. “Therapeutically, the fishing poles help the seniors with motor control, but most important—it makes them laugh.” Cialone’s team swaddle the cats in blankets—“purrittos,” if you will—and walk around individually greeting the residents, an occasional paw wriggling out for a spontaneous high five. During one visit, a kitten selected her human right off the bat, jumping onto the lap of the wheelchair-bound gentleman, and settled in, purring contentedly. “Of course, I made him happy,” the usually reticent man said. “He’s my best friend.”

The playpens are also used at “Cuddle Fests” around the county, where potential adopters can climb in and curl up with assorted furry creatures. A recent event at Mahopac Ford found homes for 27 cats, five dogs, and two bunnies. Upping the cuteness quotient, Rock N’ Rescue sponsors Kitty Yoga sessions at SoSa Yoga in South Salem: cat pose anyone?

Many of the cats come from Kentucky, where a fellow rescuer chooses them based on personality, selecting the ones most likely to fit into family homes or a therapeutic setting. “We have 200 to 300 cats being fostered down south with another 40 fosters locally,” she says. “Last year, we placed more than 900 cats, which is close to Briarcliff’s SPCA in numbers. I know we can’t save them all. But the happy endings help balance out the sad reality that so many animals are unnecessarily euthanized.”

A New Chance Animal Rescue also operates on a foster home model, drawing from 80 to 100 local families to take animals in as needed. “We have between 25 and 30 homes actively fostering at any one time,” says Sophia Silverman, who founded the Bedford-based organization in 2011. “Some take one or two dogs a year, others take one in as soon as another one leaves. Foster families get to know the dogs and their insight makes it much easier to find the perfect match. It is especially rewarding when you take in a dog that was going to be euthanized and discover that it has special abilities. One of our rescues was trained to be a diabetes alert dog. Instead of being put down, he was able to help save someone else’s life.” Putting ailing senior dogs in long-term foster homes as a type of hospice is another innovative service the rescue offers. “Some of these dogs have never received love, and we want to make the end of their life as nice as possible.”

When Penny Smith-Berk purchased Northwind Kennels in Bedford 13 years ago, she was already running a rescue business out of her house—finding homes for 150 to 200 cats a year. Because the huge facility was only used for boarding, it was empty a good part of each year, and she decided to dedicate part of it for animals in need. She founded Rescue Right four years ago, ultimately folding Community Cats into the operation. Now, some 500 dogs and cats a year are adopted out. Most dogs are local surrenders, but Smith-Berk also takes in some international dogs from Chinese rescue organizations. “In many cases, these are family pets that have been stolen and sold to slaughterhouses where they are killed for food. If the original owners can’t be found, we will take them,” she says, noting she recently brought eight Golden Retrievers over to find new homes in the United States.

“Animal rescue is about family—giving abandoned pets a new family or keeping an existing family together,” Smith-Berk believes. That is why Rescue Right also offers no-charge boarding for people in difficult situations—they have lost their jobs, or homes, or have moved into shelters where pets are not allowed. “These people love their pets but need a temporary place for them to stay. We heard about a woman who was living with her eight little dogs in her car. We are keeping the dogs for her until she is back on her feet again, and she can visit them any time. This type of service is very much needed—a safe way-station for animals until they can be reunited with their families.”

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