We Shelter Chic: The underdogs are top dogs

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Shelter Chic’s co-founder and Executive Director, Brittany Feldman. The rescue has found forever homes for approximately 250 cats and dogs since its inception in 2015. “The goal is not to adopt that animal out for the next three years. The goal is to adopt that animal out for life,” declares Brittany. Just take a look at their beautiful success stories. When Brittany is not pulling high risk animals from high kill municipal shelters, she teaches children with special needs. The rescue is staffed entirely by volunteers. 100% of the proceeds go towards rescuing animals.

News got you down lately? Are current events stressing you out? Then read on for the story below about a different type of animal rescue group is sure to put a smile on your face, perhaps even restore your faith in humanity.

Special ed teacher and life-long animal lover, Brittany Feldman, was working at a New York City animal shelter when she became inspired to start her own animal rescue. One day, she took one of the dogs in her care – a three-legged Yorkshire Terrier – for a walk. With its matted fur, the dog elicited sympathetic stares and nothing more. So, Brittany decided to conduct an experiment: wash and groom the Yorkie and put her in a cute skirt before her next outing.

The following day, the transformed terrier was the star of the sidewalk. People paused to take photos, ask questions and pet the pooch. The heightened engagement resulted in an “aha” moment: “A few people will stop for the sad-looking dog or cat and want to help and may even give money, but they don’t really want to own that animal. They don’t want to make it a part of their family,” reveals the Manhattan native. “However, if you take a three-legged dog who’s matted and you brush it and wash it and put it in a fancy tutu, all of a sudden, it raises its value and people are stopping.”

Shelter Chic’s co-founder and Finance & Accounting Director, Amanda Folk. The business school graduate incorporated the rescue, obtained 501(c)(3) status and is responsible for the fiscal aspects of running the nonprofit.

Thus armed with the idea of starting a shelter “that didn’t feel like a shelter,” Brittany reached out to her friend, business-school graduate Amanda Folk. In short order, Amanda incorporated the venture, obtained 501(c)(3) status and in early 2015, Shelter Chic was officially born. Another friend, Nicola Dugdale, has since joined the team, helping on the administrative end. None of the ladies are paid. They are all volunteers. “100 percent of money raised goes towards the animals,” says Brittany.

Shelter Chic’s Administrative Director Nicola Dugdale takes care of the rescue’s day to day managerial requirements.

The objective with Shelter Chic is to put a different spin on animal adoption.  “The rescue world is associated with sad advertising and heartbreaking stereotypes and we wanted to make it more appealing to those people who go to breeders and pet stores and pay thousands of dollars for dogs that they think are better quality than those that you find in the rescue world,” says Brittany, never mind that mixed breeds – aka mutts – are generally healthier, in the co-founder’s experience.

The fact of the matter is that not every shelter animal is a mutt. A considerable number – some 25% – of them are actually purebreds according to Brittany. In other words, one doesn’t have to go to a breeder to get a full breed dog. “You can go to a shelter and save a life instead,” says Carol Alt, adoptive mom to one of Shelter Chic’s charges, a one-eyed black cat named Joey.

Supermodel Carol Alt, with Joey, the adult cat she adopted from Shelter Chic. Joey is blind in one eye, but that doesn’t stop her from living a full life. Shelter Chic will often pull black cats from city shelters as these cats (undeservedly!) tend to be less popular than the patterned ones.

The first thing that Carol noticed when she walked into Shelter Chic’s former Chambers Street location two years ago was how spotless it was:  “The place was immaculate. I didn’t smell a scent. The volunteers cleaned everything and it smelled amazing,” recalls the supermodel. Then she saw how all the cages were open, allowing the cats and dogs to roam freely and socialize, appreciating that she could watch Joey, pet her and see how she reacted to the other animals and to her.

There was also the funny, racy merchandise. On offer were T shirts that said things like “Be kind to animals or I’ll kill you” and underwear with cats on them. “It was in your face without being a sad commercial,” says Brittany. All the revenue went to running the shelter.

Joey standing (or sitting) by some true words.

Perhaps most notable was the fact that the focus was (and is) on high risk animals – i.e. those less desirable ones in the city shelters – the older or infirm ones. Yes, Shelter Chic finds forever homes for puppies and kittens and will help you locate a coveted breed, but the attention is primarily on those animals that will not be readily pulled from high kill municipal shelters like the Associated Humane Society in Newark, NJ or Animal Care Centers of NYC.

“I’ve been to a lot of city shelters and I know that there are three other adoption centers fighting for this one puppy or kitten,” says Brittany, recounting how one kitten at Shelter Chic had received some 15 applications for her adoption. “And I see the older senior in the corner and the chances of it getting out are basically none, so we’ve been focusing on the underdogs.” The advantages to adopting an older animal are many.

Brittany and Amanda with Patti and Dorothy at their annual fundraiser this past spring at Tao Downtown. The shelter lost the space it had occupied in TriBeCa and is now a foster-based rescue group. The founders’ goal is to have a brick and mortar adoption center where they can house animals and sell awareness-raising merchandise as they did in their previous space. Those considering fostering an animal should know that Shelter Chic covers 100% of the costs of the upkeep of the cats and dogs it places into foster care. The nonprofit pays for food, veterinarian bills, everything.

Their personalities are fully formed, so you know what you’re getting. “People think they want puppies. They go to a pet store or a breeder and get a puppy and half of them after a few weeks are given up or re-homed,” laments Brittany. “The craze is the ‘oodles’ now – like the labradoodles. I can’t tell you how many ‘oodle’-type dogs people have bought from breeders and it turns out around the age of three or four, they’re not good with their kids or they’re not good with other pets. We posted about them and a million people ask and we help re-home them. But, if you had just gone and met an adult dog that you knew was good with kids or with other animals, you could have saved a life.”

Muriel Alt with her three daughters and granddaughter.
Muriel’s faithful sidekick, Riley. The senior kitty likes to sit on Muriel’s lap while she knits. Riley’s age upon adoption: “Holy cow that’s an old cat!” in the veterinarian’s words. Riley’s calm companionship, according to Muriel’s daughter Carol, has indisputably improved the quality of her mother’s life.
The great life of Riley.

Older cats and dogs also make great companions for seniors. “One of the selling points to my mother who’s 85 was ‘I don’t want to outlive an animal,’ says Carol. “So, it was good that I could bring her an older animal that she can share her life with. It improved the quality of her life because she would sit and knit and the cat would sit on her lap because it was an older animal that was calm, more relaxed and it was a better relationship.”

Brittany with Juliet the day the pit bull was rescued from the Associated Humane Society in Newark, NJ. Juliet has since been adopted. “Pit bulls are the most misunderstood breed of dog,” informs Brittany. “I’ve run this rescue for three years and the only dog I’ve ever been bitten by was a Chihuahua. Of course, the reality of having a pit bull is you need to be a smart owner. You need to do training, to socialize them. But everyone I know who’s met a pit bull – their minds are changed.”

In addition to older animals, Shelter Chic also focuses on the less desirable breeds like pit bulls – “the most misunderstood type of dog” in Brittany’s estimation. If you’re an active person looking for an active dog, “a pit bull is the best dog that you can ever get,” she says. “They have energy, they are wonderful. I have a pit bull who I adopted and I have a 12-year-old Havanese I bought from a pet store for thousands of dollars when I was in college.

“I didn’t know 12 years ago. I love her and I’ll take care of her forever, but she’s not good with kids. She’s bitten so many people, I used to have to walk her with a muzzle. She’s also had a lot of health problems. She doesn’t like skateboards. The list goes on. And then my pit bull that I recently adopted is perfect. She was raised in a cage. She was a breeding dog, left in Newark, horribly treated. But, I put in a lot of training with her and now she’s the best dog.”

Brittany’s own pit bull mix Kiki, adopted through Shelter Chic. “We’re trying to show that the stereotypical underdogs of the rescue world are actually top dogs,” says Brittany.

Shelter Chic also focuses on terminally ill animals for their Fospice (foster+hospice) program. Fospice care is a relatively short term commitment that provides a lucky dog or cat with the opportunity to live out its last days in comfort in a loving home, explains Brittany, citing the recent example of a 14-year-old Labrador whose owner had abandoned him at a shelter.

Barely able to walk, Drake lasted a mere 24 hours in hospice care – but what a happy 24 hours it was. On his last day, he enjoyed time outdoors, ate some chicken and passed away peacefully in his foster mom’s arms, but not before covering her face with hearty kisses. “Fospice care requires a very special person,” acknowledges Brittany. There are two dogs with cancer that she would like to put into this program at the moment, but is hampered by the absence of a physical shelter, relying on a foster parent to step up instead.

This 14-year-old Labrador Retriever, Drake, had just 24 hours to live when he was put into fospice care by Shelter Chic. He spent the last day of his life enjoying the outdoors, eating chicken and being loved. He died peacefully in his foster mother’s arms.

Shelter Chic is currently a foster-based shelter. For a while, the adoption center  occupied a donated ground floor space in TriBeCa. That space is no longer available, so the nonprofit is reliant on a small network of foster parents. Fostering an animal, as Brittany points out, is a win win for all parties concerned because not only does it save a life, but it also allows people considering getting a pet to see how they would fare with one and it gives the shelter the opportunity to assess the animal’s personality.

An added benefit to the foster parent is that Shelter Chic picks up the costs for everything – veterinarian bills, food, everything. All a foster parent has to do, Carol observes, is to be loving. Still, the objective for Shelter Chic is to have an adoption center and boutique as they had on Chambers Street as this would allow the nonprofit to rescue more animals and raise awareness (and some funds too) through the sale of merchandise.

The truth is that when you adopt an animal, you save two lives – the one you just took home and the one you just made room for at the shelter. “And sometimes you save your own life,” Carol points out. There are several ways to support Shelter Chic: donating, fostering and sponsoring. Sponsoring an animal through Shelter Chic’s Big Brother & Big Sister program is a great way for people who can’t adopt or foster to get involved. To find out how you can help, click here.

Below are some of Shelter Chic’s rescues currently looking for forever homes:

Greysha is 10 years old. She was rescued the night before she was scheduled to be euthanized.
At 15 years old, Patti LaBelle is not going to live another 15 years, but the poodle is in great health, according to Brittany. She’s house-trained, she loves to travel, often getting on a plane with her foster mom. She’s good with people, kids, cats and other dogs too.
When 13-year-old Bosco’s owner passed away, he was left in a city shelter.
Rockette is 10 years old. The German Shepherd is special needs – she has Cushing’s Disease.
Dorothy is a nine-year-old Beagle whose adoption is pending.
Beautiful Freddy Mercury is about a year old.

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