Pet Project
Through Red Paw, the emergency-response nonprofit she founded, Jen Leary gives help and hope to dogs, cats and other critters touched by disaster
by Bill Donahue

It used to be that Jen Leary, in her work as both a Philadelphia firefighter and an American Red Cross emergency responder, would leave too many disaster scenes with pangs of regret. Although she did as much as she could for the people affected by the trauma of seeing their possessions destroyed and homes reduced to charred shells, she remembers “feeling horrible” that she could not do more for one underserved population in particular: the family pets.

“When we would show up with the Red Cross, we could give people shelter, medication, food, mental-health assistance—almost everything they need—but we couldn’t give them any assistance with their animals,” says Leary. “Most people’s animals are their children, so we were leaving the scene not really helping the entire family. Now this person is either going to have to leave this animal behind in the burned-out building or abandon it on the street or take it to Animal Control, and none of those are happy endings.

“They’ve lost everything they had,” she continues, “and now they’re faced with this decision of losing their pets on top of it.”

Such haunting experiences urged Leary—born in Olney, now a resident of the city’s Point Breeze neighborhood—to take her work a step further. In 2011 she founded the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide emergency transport, shelter, veterinary care and other services to animals involved in residential fires and other localized disasters.  

Now two years old, Red Paw works in conjunction with the American Red Cross of Southern Pennsylvania and other disaster-relief and animal-welfare organizations, including Central Bark, an animal-daycare facility that Red Paw calls home. Leary structured Red Paw as a pilot program to serve only Philadelphia and then move into the counties later, but in its first week she received requests for help from Chester and Montgomery counties.

“I was so gung ho and happy that they were calling that I said, ‘Sure, we’ll do all five counties,’” she recalls. “I had no idea—no idea—how big the counties were when I first started this. I’m a Philly girl. … When we had a call in Chester County our first week, it took five hours from door to door, up hills and down mountains. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

Last year Red Paw responded to 164 calls in the five-county area, providing support to 299 animals, mostly dogs and cats. Leary handles the majority of responses herself, though she gets help from a small but devoted group of volunteers trained in emergency response. The core group of volunteers includes county coordinators, which have hastened response times to outlying areas. Many of the calls to which Red Paw responds are in the region’s rougher neighborhoods, thereby adding another layer of unpredictability.

“Somebody can’t stand outside in the freezing cold, waiting for one and a half hours for me to get to Bucks County or Chester County,” she says. “Emergency response isn’t for everybody. When it’s three in the morning and 10 degrees outside and raining, you do not want to get out of bed—I don’t want to get out of bed; I hate getting out of bed—but it’s my organization, and it’s my responsibility.”

Alligators and Fire Kittens
Similar to the American Red Cross, Red Paw provides all of its emergency services—veterinary care, spaying/neutering, vaccinations, overnight stays in pet-friendly hotels, etc.—at no cost to families affected by disasters. In cases of displacement, Red Paw strives to either reunite a pet with its owner or find an adoptive home. To do so, Red Paw also relies on the generosity of “foster parents.” Unsurprisingly, Leary fosters animals at her home, to go with her own full-time menagerie of two dogs, four cats and a turtle.

Leary’s prior expertise served her well in getting Red Paw off the ground. In 2006 she began working with the American Red Cross. A year later, upon graduating from the Philadelphia Fire Academy, she joined the Philadelphia County Animal Response Team (PCART), which responds to large-scale disasters that affect animals; she has since taken over as PCART coordinator.

Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, CEO of the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania, characterizes Leary as “an extraordinary human being” with remarkable sincerity, passion and commitment to the cause. Furthermore, she knows of no similar organizations nationwide that play such a critical role.

“One of the painful lessons we learned from [Hurricane] Katrina is that people will put themselves in harm’s way to save a pet,” says Hughes. “We go out three to five times a night, and many of those families have pets. We need a partner to provide for those pets and place them in an environment where the pet is safe and well cared for, which eases the transition for recovery. Our partnership with Red Paw has been a phenomenal one that is absolutely critical to what we do.”

Leary’s devotion, as well as that of Red Paw Philadelphia county coordinator Kat Nania, has helped save the lives of scores of animals—including the so-called “fire kittens.” Earlier this year Nania responded to a fire in West Philadelphia and rescued a pregnant cat named Tabitha from beneath debris in the basement. The next day the cat birthed six kittens—one of which died soon after—that have since become some of Red Paw’s most popular attractions on Facebook. They also became favorites among visitors to Red Paw’s newly opened Cat Room, which offers “adoptables” on site.

But it’s not just the warm-and-fuzzy animals that benefit from Red Paw’s help.

“The second I post that we have turtles up for foster, the phone rings off the hook,” Leary says. “We also had a 100- to 120-pound albino [python] displaced last summer, and within minutes that snake had a foster, too. It’s actually easier for us to get snakes and turtles fostered than it is to get dogs and cats fostered.”

Sometimes disasters turn up even more exotic species.

“A few months ago there was a fire in North Philly and there were three alligators,” she recalls. “That’s not something we would do; Animal Control can have that one. We do what we can, but I don’t want anybody to get hurt. I denied a couple animals [foster care] because they weren’t safe to handle. We offer other assistance; we just couldn’t take them into our house. We’ll assist them with housing and supplies and anything else they need to keep [owner and pet] together, but in the end I have to make sure my volunteers are safe.”

With growth on the horizon, Red Paw recently added Lori Albright as COO to handle essential operational and administrative issues. Although the nonprofit is now seeking grants to fund its expansion, it currently subsists solely on donations, not to mention the will and drive of its resourceful founder.

“We have had a lot of really sick and injured animals, and that drains any type of reserve we have,” Leary says. “We had a cat a couple of months ago, Patches, who was found right after a fire under the rubble by a Red Cross volunteer. She was in the hospital for a few weeks and still goes to the vet every other day; her vet bills are astronomical, and she might lose her paw. … When something like Patches happens, it really hurts our savings account.”

[Editor’s note: Patches has since been returned to her family, with all paws intact.]

Leary remains a firefighter at heart; officially, she’s on Engine 20 in Chinatown, though she’s now assigned to fire prevention at 3rd and Spring Garden while she rehabs a hand injury resulting from a dog bite. Her long-term goal, however, is to do Red Paw full time.

“Emergency response and animals are my two things that I truly love,” she says. “To be able to do that together would be a dream job. Down the line I would like to oversee this and start other chapters, maybe help other people start other chapters.

“People want Red Paw across the country,” she continues. “The plan is to take it nationally some day. … We’re going to start responding in Camden next year. If it were up to the Camden Red Cross, we’d be there already.”

Photograph by Rob Hall