Emotional Rescue

photo: Glen Glasser

Imagine this: Your house is on fire. And while you and your family have escaped and firefighters are working to extinguish the blaze, your beloved pets are still inside. You feel heartsick, anxious, helpless.

However, if you live in the city of Philadelphia, you and your pets are in luck, because Philly is home to Jen Leary of Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, the nonprofit she established to reunite pets with families after a fire or other disaster. Run by firefighters, Red Paw works in conjunction with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, the Philadelphia Fire Department, the American Red Cross and numerous other disaster relief organizations to provide emergency assistance to pets and their families. Everything the Red Cross does for people, Red Paw does for their pets.

A City Girl with a Big Heart
Philly born-and-bred, Jen says she’s a lifelong animal lover. “I had dogs, hamsters, a rabbit and fish growing up, and I always wanted to be a firefighter or veterinarian. Firefighter won out, but I have dogs, cats and a turtle at home.” No wonder Jen relates well to pet owners during a fire.

“It’s easy to talk them off the ledge when you’ve seen a zillion fires and can explain and say, ‘I’m a pet owner, and trust me, I’d feel the same way you do, but I promise your dog will be ok, because the smoke was on the other side of the building.’”

While the work is emotionally and physically demanding, it is also inspiring. “Who inspires me? First, the clients…and of course, the firefighters. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Firefighters are the brothers I never had. They don’t always understand why we do this. They say, ‘I’m sure the cat ran out’ or ‘the dog couldn’t have survived.’ But once they see us prove them wrong, they’re more receptive to what we do.”

A Menagerie of Victims
Every scene is different, Jen says. “In a standard house fire, you search until you find the dog or cat. We get some crazy animals…snakes, pot-bellied pig, prairie dogs, horses, baby crocodiles, lizards, birds, fish, rabbits…we even took a tarantula to the ER for smoke inhalation.”

Some situations seem almost miraculous. Jen recalls a fire several years ago in northeast Philadelphia. “We had been on scene for three days waiting for the fire marshal and L&I to let us in to search for the pets in the building. Everyone kept saying there was no way anything survived, but we kept waiting. We found three or four cats still alive and pulled them out for the owners. The cats were perfectly fine. And the very next day they demolished the building. That kind of stuff happens every day.”

Recognizing a Need
Red Paw came about when Jen saw a need and was determined to fill it. Working as a Philadelphia firefighter and American Red Cross responder, she found herself frustrated going to each scene and seeing no one to take care of pets. “I felt we were leaving without fully assisting, that it was a major void in the emergency response cycle,” she says. “In Philly alone there are, on average, five to ten fires a day, not counting other displacements of people from their homes. And when you think about residential disasters all over the country, that’s so many pets being left for dead.”

In 2008, while continuing to work as a firefighter and American Red Cross responder, she became the coordinator of the Philadelphia County Animal Response team, an organization that responds to large-scale county disasters – like floods and hurricanes. “But there was no precedent for handling everyday disasters,” she explains. “So after a few years of being frustrated that we had a team in place but couldn’t do anything, I decided to do it myself.”

Bonding with the Bureaucracy
Finally, in 2011, she succeeded in establishing Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, but the task of integrating her organization into the city of Philadelphia’s
Emergency Response Plan was daunting. It took time for procedures to be aligned and for the fire department to be comfortable with Red Paw responding on the scene. At last, by 2013, through the relationships she had built and the respect she’d cultivated for her organization, Red Paw was added to the City of Philadelphia’s Emergency Response plan.

A Partner’s Support
A steady source of encouragement is Jen’s partner of 16 years, Lori Albright, who serves as COO and Treasurer of Red Paw. “She’s been our fundraiser, writing grants and getting sponsors. She’s the backbone of the organization.”

For the first year and a half, most of the animals were going back to Jen and Lori’s urban house to live. “It was madness,” Jen recalls. “Lots of dogs and cats, turtles and lizards. Now we have established places for them to go.”

Next Step
What keeps her going? “Knowing that if we don’t do it, nobody else will be there to save these pets,” Jen says. What’s next would be to expand the organization nationally. “There’s such a void in the emergency response system. We have a great model for other cities to follow, one that’s working here. That will help us significantly when we decide to expand to another city. We just need to find someone else who gets it, so other cities can provide the same service.”

To do so, she observes, will require substantial funding. “Responding is the easy part,” Jen says. “Funding is the hard part. But we have a great social media following, and if we keep putting it out there, keep our reputation with the fire department and emergency management, someone will recognize it and have us come start it in their city.”