NEW YORK — Sitting in an animal shelter’s lobby for six hours with a crossword puzzle is a good day for Jenny Olsen.
It means people aren’t surrendering their animals to the shelter — and that Olsen doesn’t have to talk them out of it.
Monday morning was relatively uneventful for the co-organizer of Safety Net, a New York City Animal Care and Control program devoted to catching desperate pet owners when they fall under financial constraints.
“Surrenders are on the rise, but adoptions are, too,” said Olsen, her eyes automatically shifting to the swiveling doors of the ACC’s 110th street shelter, scanning for hesitant owners and pets.
“People come in and we talk to them. We say, ‘If we could help you solve your problem, whatever your problem is, would you want to keep your pet?’ “
More often than not, the answer is no. Of the hundreds of people that Olsen and other Safety Net volunteers encounter in shelter lobbies each month, around 60 percent of owners still surrender their pets.
But then there are the hundreds of other New Yorkers who are willing to fight for their pets, those who pave a way through disastrous situations.
Safety Net, established two years ago, provides New York City pet owners with almost anything needed to prevent a surrender: low cost veterinary fees, food, animal behavior training, legal assistance, boarding and foster homes.
The condition for eligibility — aside from dire financial strain — is simple.
“If people don’t want to work with us, it won’t work,” Olsen said. “We can’t do it all for them.”
What Safety Net does, though, is quite a bit. With the help of 40 volunteers, it operates a seven-day-a-week hotline service, fielding calls about everything from fleas to foreclosures.
The necessity of the go-to network is clear: in January, 115 pet owners called seeking assistance. Last month, 240 people picked up the phone in the name of their pets.
Queens native Tony Aponte is one Safety Net client who certainly falls under the “trying” category. Within the past two months, both Aponte and his fiance lost their jobs. Last week, they were evicted from their studio apartment in Jackson Heights.
Aponte brushed off their ongoing stay at a local homeless shelter, focusing only on who he described as a “very, very good boy”: Rocky, his 7-year-old American Pit Bull.
“My concern was not having a place for him to be beside us. Just to lay down with us in the bed,” Aponte said.
Rocky had been living in the couple’s van for the past week, as their shelter does not allow pets. Aponte has been trying to spend as much time as he can with the dog, leaving him alone only after 11 p.m., the shelter’s curfew hour.
As Aponte described his dire situation during a phone interview, he was driving around Manhattan in the van, with Rocky snoring in the backseat.
“On Tuesday morning, we walked Rocky and put him in the van and people called the police, thinking the dog was abandoned. The police came and it was this whole big show, saying that we couldn’t be leaving him there,” Aponte said.
With the looming threat of abandoning Rocky in a shelter, Aponte called Safety Net’s hotline. Olsen, whom he dubbed an “angel from above,” sprang into action with the rest of her team, including co-organizer Joy Friedman.
Like the majority of their volunteers, Olsen and Friedman, who hold full-time jobs, consider themselves “unpaid employees,” Olsen says.
Their work led to Rocky’s recent placement in a temporary boarding center, which costs around $80 a week, with the hope that a more permanent foster home will soon become available.
Safety Net, Olsen says, is still trying to recruit additional volunteers and foster homes. For more information, visit NYCACC.org/safetynet.htm.
Read more about Safety Net at Zootoo.