Secret Lives

Sean Casey, Pet Rescuer

A Brooklyn-born animal lover is on a lifelong mission to save every stray, from the canine to the cold-blooded, that roam our city’s streets.

Sean Casey, Pet Rescuer

I arrived at Sean Casey’s shelter on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in April. The pet store comprising one-half of the building was packed. As I waited outside for room to open up in the rescue’s narrow entryway, I found myself next to a woman on a bench with a small, white, patchy-bald terrier mix perched on her lap. The dog jutted his nose out into the air between us, sniffed it, and then slipped his tongue out to give my hand a surreptitious lick.

“Hiiii,” I cooed to him. I extended my hand to pat his head, but he swiftly ducked away shyly.

The volunteer holding the dog grinned. “Want to walk him?” she asked, already holding out his leash toward me. The woman smiled happily as I reached for it.

All it took was one walk around the block and some persuasion from the shelter’s earnest, passionate employees—“He loves you! He’s perfect for you!”—and my boyfriend and I decided to adopt the dog. We settled on a name: Otis. As Alex and I filled out the adoption paperwork, Sean Casey walked into the shelter.

I wouldn’t have realized who Casey was at that moment had it not been for Otis’s reaction. When Casey came in, he stopped trying to slip out of his collar and became still. He padded up to Casey and delicately perched his right front paw on Casey’s knee, angling his face and wide brown eyes upward. Casey smiled almost imperceptibly and bent down to pet his head. Otis wagged his tail and pushed his head contentedly into Casey’s open palm. The chaos of the packed shelter—the ear-splitting screeches of the parrots; the quieter but constant mews of the feral kittens—whirled around the Francis of Assisi-like tableau: abandoned animal paying homage to his first human benefactor. This, despite the fact that Otis had only been in the shelter for five days at that point and was one of more than one hundred dogs currently in the rescue’s possession.

Sean Casey stands with the legendary “ghost dog of Prospect Park.” He rescued the dog after tracking his habits over the course of several years.
Sean Casey stands with the legendary “ghost dog of Prospect Park.” He rescued the dog after tracking his habits over the course of several years.

In a city where dogs and cats are euthanized by the tens of thousands, Casey founded one of the largest and most successful independent rescues in New York. He is known among New York City animal rescues for taking in the toughest cases, and as of 2011, his Sean Casey Animal Rescue took in the most animals of any private rescue in the city. Casey can quickly and easily recite a litany of terrible abuses he’s seen: dogs that have been starved, shot, stabbed, or used for bait in dog fights. He takes in all kinds: a monitor lizard whose owner was displaced by Hurricane Sandy; the legendary “ghost dog of Prospect Park,” a bull mastiff who was periodically spotted by morning joggers and dog walkers over the course of four years; a swan that had somehow entrapped itself in a Brooklyn backyard; a gaggle of giant tortoises that grew to be, unfortunately, too giant for their apartment-dwelling owners.

The puzzle for someone like Casey, whose goal is to save a neglected, abused and abandoned animal population, is to trust strangers to provide good homes for these animals even while witnessing, on a daily basis, the excruciating level of cruelty that humans dole out to them. In a benevolent act of cognitive dissonance, Casey trusts people.

About 5’9” and thirty-two years old, Casey is an unassuming figure. He walks with a slight slouch and dresses in shades of gray, black and navy blue, trading a t-shirt for a hoodie in cooler months. In conversation, he tends to avoid eye contact. His short brown hair lies flat against his scalp. He holds his face in a perpetual neutral expression. Casey’s impenetrability can read as social awkwardness, or aloofness. He seems, almost, too quiet.

Yet when the subject of rescues comes up, he is enthusiastic. The rescuer is adamant that everyone—human and animal—deserves a chance, and unlike other shelters, he is relaxed about who gets to adopt.

Independent animal rescues have a reputation for putting potential adopters under such strict scrutiny that they’re eventually discouraged from adopting at all. Last year, Emily Yoffe wrote for Slate about the gauntlet she and other would-be rescuers faced when trying to adopt a shelter dog. “Applicants are sometimes subjected to an interrogation that would befit Michael Vick,” wrote Yoffe. “After receiving this hostile treatment, several would-be pet owners told me, they got offended and gave up.” Other independent animal rescues I’d dealt with had stymied my attempts to adopt by their insistence on a vet’s and a dog groomer’s assurance that we were responsible pet owners (which was impossible for any vet or groomer to say about us, since we’d never owned our own pet), in addition to their policy that shelter volunteers inspect our apartment both before and after we’d adopted.

An employee talks with visitors outside the shelter.
An employee talks with visitors outside the shelter.

Casey takes a more pragmatic approach. When I asked him about his comparatively lax policies, he countered, “When New York City is euthanizing tens of thousands of dogs a year, you get those dogs in homes.”

On a Sunday afternoon last October I discussed the shelter’s open-door policy with a woman from Bay Ridge who brought her children and their friends to the shelter each weekend to volunteer. “When I first walked in,” she told me, “someone just handed me a dog—like, ‘Here’s a dog!’ Really?”

To adopt Otis, we were required to fill out a short form and provide two references along with a $250 adoption fee. One of our references reported that after he’d satisfactorily answered Casey’s perfunctory questions about us—“Would they be good dog owners?” and “Can they afford the vet?”—Casey asked him, “You want a dog?”

Sean Casey Animal Rescue is situated near the easternmost border of Windsor Terrace, a quiet neighborhood sandwiched between the green expanses of Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. The area is ungentrified and largely residential, dotted with elegant Victorian houses. Casey grew up and lives there still, just a few blocks from the shelter, with his fiancé and one-year-old son.

The rescue’s storefront in Windsor Terrace doubles as a pet store. Its narrow, cramped shelves are surrounded on all sides by stacks of crates and aquariums housing cats, birds, and all manner of reptiles. The rest of the store accosts the steady crowd of volunteers and potential adopters with brightly colored treats, toys and dangling leashes.

A bird in Sean Casey’s Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, animal rescue.
A bird in Sean Casey’s Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, animal rescue.

To walk into the rescue on a weekend is to be overwhelmed by a crowd, which is usually comprised of neighborhood visitors. The “place doubles as a community center,” Casey says. Each day, about twenty to thirty people stop by just to walk a dog.

The rescue officially opens its doors at 11 a.m. but Casey gets calls at all hours. “I don’t give out my cell phone number, but somehow people get it,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s not an emergency.” Casey always answers, though, because in the event of a real emergency, he is adamant that he handles it personally. “If I get a call about a vicious dog tied up somewhere, I can’t send an intern to go get it,” he says. This past summer, Casey opened a second location in Sunset Park.

During the day, Casey juggles intakes, adoptions, vet visits and various other errands. Intakes come in from a range of places: some from the city’s Animal Care & Control, some from strangers on the street, some from sick or otherwise down-on-their-luck owners. The animals are in varying states of health. Most often they’re not doing well. I watched a man carry in a kitten with a grotesquely swollen back leg. He lamented that he couldn’t catch the rest of the feral kittens that had been abandoned, crying in his backyard. Another man, on a different day, arrived cradling a five-week-old female pit bull puppy wrapped in a dirty white t-shirt. When he unrolled the t-shirt, he revealed a wide, necrotic wound in the puppy’s neck; it stank of decay and infection, and exposed the puppy’s quivering, pink salivary glands. The man, a neighbor and former adopter, told us that he’d found her in a nearby park. Casey, taking the puppy, estimated that the wound was at least five days old. Whoever had owned her had dumped her when she got hurt.

During the short drive to the vet, Casey cradled the shivering puppy in his lap. He suspected she was in shock, but as we turned the corner to the vet’s street she softly began nudging her nose up Casey’s chest, then clambering to reach his face, licking his chin. “Hey, girl,” Casey murmured, rubbing her head gently. “We think alike,” he said. “I speak their language.”

While Casey’s business was incorporated in 2004, he’s been doing “rescue” his whole life. He helped his mother take in feral cats, having them spayed or neutered and then released, during his childhood in the 1980s.

Reptiles have always been his favorite animals. Growing up in Windsor Terrace, by fourteen he was a regular face at the monthly meetings of the now-disbanded New York Herpetological Society—a coterie of reptile enthusiasts. The adult members were apparently so taken by him and his interest in their work—“I could keep up with everyone at the meetings,” Casey said with a shrug—that they began giving him snakes. Soon enough he had too many, and, in a premonition of his adult life’s work, asked a club member to adopt one from him. Eventually the club allowed him to set up a booth at their meetings, where he regularly took in and adopted out snakes each month. “I became their adoption person,” Casey told me.

As a result of his adoption work at the Herpetological Society meetings, Casey was keenly aware of the dearth of animal shelters that would take in “exotics.” It’s a vague category which generally implies wild animals from foreign climates. But in New York City, which has unusually strict laws, “exotic” is, according to Casey, defined as “basically anything that’s not a cat or a dog.” The city’s website lists a Noah’s ark of forbidden fauna: goats, pigs, bees, hawks, geese, llamas, cobras, chameleons, boa constrictors, monkeys, foxes, ferrets, and on and on. Casey decided to take on the exotic rescue work himself. He soon discovered that there was a good reason there were no exotic animal rescues: the heavy fines that the city levies against the possession of exotic animals also apply to their would-be rescuers.

A turtle rests on the floor at the Sean Casey Animal Shelter.
A turtle rests on the floor at the Sean Casey Animal Shelter.

Casey operates in a legal gray area with many of the exotic species in his care. In the early days, he operated entirely “underground,” out of his apartment, by word of mouth. Things have progressed since then, and now even the city relies on his work: the AC&C regularly calls him to take exotics off their hands. The team at the shelter is close, and Casey’s employees emphasize how much they depend on him. Each night, the team splits up to go on “rescues”—to take care of strangers’ calls about stray animals. A rescue could involve grabbing a net and a cage to capture a parakeet circling a building’s courtyard, or sneaking into an abandoned row house late at night in East New York to save pit bulls from a dog-fighting ring. Casey is always the leader. Anna Pasieka, Casey’s employee of four years, told me, “We all go crazy when he’s not here.” And so Casey rarely leaves.

A boy peruses the cats in Sean Casey’s Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, shelter.
A boy peruses the cats in Sean Casey’s Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, shelter.

Cats and dogs are the bread and butter of animal rescue. Taking in an injured hawk or a giant tortoise also means forgoing the adoption fee that a kitten would generate. “People want to donate to cute little kittens and puppies,” says Casey. “They don’t want to donate to snakes and frogs.” Previously, Casey had focused on exotics because he thought the need was greater. New York’s multiplying number of independent rescues would take care of the stray cats and dogs, he’d assumed, while he’d tackle the rogue alligator population. But when he went to Animal Care & Control to pick up a lizard or snake, he’d pass by the rows and rows of dogs on “death row.” These dogs were not being saved. “Dogs that were four months old were being euthanized,” Casey said, with an unusual note of anger in his voice. He decided to expand his rescue’s operation. Today, Casey takes in “everything”—all animals that are brought to him—so long as he has room.

In the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by the successes of the civil rights movement, an animal rights movement began to take hold on the fringes of leftist circles in the U.S. and Britain. Inspired by thinkers such as Peter Singer, whose 1975 treatise Animal Liberation popularized terms such as “speciesism”, the animal rights advocacy of the 1970s and 1980s led to the vigilantism of organizations such as PETA and to the smaller, grassroots efforts by volunteer groups around the U.S. who worked to combat local governments’ euthanization of shelter animals by forming their own, private “no-kill” shelters.

Today, most independent rescues in New York are even smaller than Casey’s, and run by overwhelmed volunteers working out-of-pocket, and often at a loss. Casey’s shelter is part of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a network of more than 150 private no-kill rescues that work with Animal Care & Control to find adopters for the city shelter’s animals. While the connection between the small rescues is often strong—pictures of lost pets, dogs and cats in dire straits, and animals on AC&C’s “death row” list are circulated with speed among the rescues’ social media feeds—the relationship between the smaller rescue operations and the AC&C is sometimes awkward, if not downright hostile. Many rescues strafe against the perceived impenetrability of the AC&C’s bureaucracy and its dependence on independent rescues for adopting out animals, and they also vocally object to the volume of animals that it euthanizes. (Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, supported by the ASPCA and many smaller groups, recently released a scathing report of AC&C’s conditions, practices, and what Stringer called its “shocking failures” as an organization.) But despite contention, the Alliance’s coordination between rescues and the city shelter has inarguably improved the survival rates of shelter animals in the city: 68% fewer dogs and cats were euthanized in 2011 than in 2003, the year the Alliance was founded.

A dog stands in its cage at Sean Casey's Sunset Park, Brooklyn, shelter.
A dog stands in its cage at Sean Casey’s Sunset Park, Brooklyn, shelter.

Many shelters are desperate for more support because the costs of animal rescue are staggering. Many no-kill shelters around the country are forced to limit what animals they take in to the healthiest and most adoptable because of how expensive medical care can be. Those costs can be impossible to recoup, particularly for older animals or maligned breeds—such as pit bulls or black cats—that are more difficult to adopt out. The costs of operations like Casey’s are substantial: Last year he estimated that his medical costs alone averaged $15,000 a month.

“None of us make a lot of money,” he said emphatically, “If you do this, you’re not here to get rich.”

Theresa Labianca, Casey’s first employee, told me that when she first arrived at the shelter, she hesitated to go in. The pathetic state of the animals inside made her feel like crying. “You can’t take them all home,” Casey told her then, “but you can go in there and make that part of their day better.” As she told her story, Labianca’s voice wobbled, and she began to cry. She paused to gather herself. “So I came back,” she said, “and I never left.”

Each day, dogs and turtles and mice and birds stream out in a flurry of excited adoptions. The rescue boasts a whole community of devotees: adopters often become volunteers, who then donate other parts of their lives to his shelter. One regular volunteer, Charlie Spickler, is a documentarian who has spent the last year working on a film about Casey titled Rescue! Brooklyn. Casey’s neighbors Virginia Cahill and Daniel Smith, who together run Strike Three Press, recently culled together funds through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to publish a book of illustrated portraits of Casey’s animals called Brooklyn’s Rescued Bestiary. The project’s Kickstarter page declares, “Sean doesn’t sing his own praises, but we can.”

“Rescue people have a tendency to love animals, hate people,” says Casey. “But you have to care about people. That’s the basis of this rescue.” He gave a half smile, and concluded, “We want to take the crazy cat lady out of the rescue.”

Each Halloween weekend, Casey’s effort to engage the community is on fullest display. The shelter’s annual “Howlloween” block party features face painting, pony rides, live music and costume contests for children, adults and, of course, animals. Last year, the party took place on the eve of Hurricane Sandy. Despite the ominous sky and strong winds, the neighborhood turned out in force.

A dog peers out of its cage at the shelter in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
A dog peers out of its cage at the shelter in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.

When I arrived, the master of ceremonies was rushing through the costume contest decisions—“We gotta beat this rain, folks”—and Casey seemed to be everywhere all at once. Donning a haphazard Popeye costume, he manned the phone, rang up purchases, directed volunteers to move a fat cat’s crate and asked an employee to complete the cat’s adoption—all while shrieking children in glittering costumes streamed in and out of the small space. And I realized that whether it’s a cause or effect of his life’s work, Casey’s stoic personality suits it: every day, all day, he has no control over what the next moment will bring. He can only rise to meet it.