Volume 21, Number 17 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Sept. 5 - 11, 2008

Downtown Express photo by Shoshanna Bettencourt

Robert Shapiro with some of the many cats he has up for adoption at Social Tees Animal Rescue Foundation on E. Fourth St.

Placing cats and critters is his lifelong pet project

By Lesley Sussman

Three young cats restlessly paced the floor searching for who knows what. A bearded dragon lizard lazily soaked up the sun in the window, while an older cat sat on a counter curiously watching Robert Shapiro making and taking calls at his Social Tees Animal Rescue Foundation, at 124 E. Fourth St.

This is only part of the pet action at Social Tees, an animal rescue and adoption agency where there are currently 75 orphaned cats and an assortment of other critters — from snakes and lizards to turtles — waiting for someone to take them home.

Since 2001, Shapiro and a small band of dedicated volunteers have been helping to rescue and place orphaned animals. In the years ahead, the 51-year-old East Village writer, who founded the organization out of his love of animals, would like to see his efforts expanded.

Shapiro is proud of his mission but feels much more can be done.

“We rescue, rehabilitate and place more than 1,500 cats and dogs a year” he said. “It sounds great. But if you think about it, it only adds up to four adoptions a day. In city shelters they kill 150 pets a day. We’re trying to do more adoptions each year so that we can rescue more animals.” 

The East Village resident said that every day he receives phone calls and e-mails from the A.S.P.C.A., The Humane Society, city zoos and even the Police and Fire Departments asking if he can help out with an abandoned pet — especially those in shelters that are on the euthanasia list.

“I say yes every day that I can,” he said. “If I do 20 adoptions, I take 20 more.”

Shapiro’s love of animals is a lifelong one.

“Some kids go and play basketball, and some kids see a stray on the street and chase the stray and try to take it home. That was me,” he said. “It was interesting. My brother was a jock and I was this little nerd animal lover.”

Even later on in life, Shapiro would bring home animals from city shelters that were facing death, and then try to find them permanent homes.

Before launching his pet-adoption organization, Shapiro ran a successful mail-order business, in which he sold custom-designed “social T-shirts” to schools and charitable organizations nationally to help them with their fundraising efforts. The T-shirts display messages speaking out against drugs, racism and bigotry, such as “Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Buddha — Five Famous Non-Racists.”

“It got to a point where I could have expanded the business and made a lot of money, but it was becoming a little boring,” he said. “I needed a better reason to go to work other than just a monetary one.

“So I decided to open a place where I could do animal rescue,” he continued. “I had a store across the street at the time and when this space became available I grabbed it. I kept the name Social Tees Animal Rescue because the name and T-shirts are nationally known. I still sell them. It’s what has paid the rent here for so many years.”

Although the front room of the agency, which Shapiro uses as his office, seems a bit crowded with cages filled with frolicking kittens, the appearance is deceptive.

“This place is humongous,” he said. “There’s 3,000 square feet, two basements, a back yard, another studio and a few rooms in the back. We have room for 75 cats here.

“Sure, it costs a lot of money. But I’m able to do it. It’s a grassroots place, a local community-based organization with volunteers coming in and helping out. I’m not losing any money.”

Most of the funding for the foundation comes from the T-shirt business.

“There are businesses and organizations who’ve done business with me over the years,” he said, “and they purchase the ‘social tees’ as a way of donating to the shelter.”

Another source of revenue to run the operation comes from foster parents who pay between $50 and $75 for a cat and $100 for dogs. Cats that have special needs are given away for adoption free of charge.

“It’s a much better deal than getting a free cat or dog,” Shaprio explained. “The animals come with $300 to $400 worth of medical care. They’re all spayed or fixed, de-wormed, have all their vaccinations. They’re tested for feline AIDS or leukemia and are checked for rabies. You’re taking home a very healthy pet.”

Reptiles are another animal population that Shapiro has crawling all over the place.

“There’s a lot of people out there who don’t know how to take care of their reptiles properly,” he explained. “They bring them in here half-dead. But there are a lot of great Web sites now that allow you to contact people who are experts. And that’s where these reptiles go. I rehabilitate them and then ship them out to reptile lovers all over the country.”

Cats, however, are his primary homeless clientele at this time, Shapiro said.

“There are many, many more cats than dogs up for adoption in the city. In Manhattan, it’s easier to own cats because most people have small apartments. Dogs you have to walk. I think that’s the main reason why people prefer cats.” 

Over the years, Shapiro said he has placed a variety of other of God’s creatures.

“Before they became illegal to purchase, I used to get a lot of anacondas and crocodiles,” he said.

“Somebody once even brought in a beautiful, nine-month-old female mountain lion that they had bought online and kept Upstate. It was a humongous cat and the friendliest thing I’d ever seen.

“I placed it with a guy who walked in here with a baboon.” Shapiro laughed at the memory. “He brought the baboon to show me that he had a ranch Upstate with a bunch of baboons on it.”

What irks Shapiro the most are people who abandon their pets at his organization’s doorstep after-hours without leaving any information about the animal.

“I don’t know if the dog they leave tied up outside bites children or if the cats I find in boxes have AIDS or leukemia,” he said. “So, I have to call the city to pick up the pet, evaluate it and then call me back. It’s just not fair to the animals.

“But I can’t place an animal that some dumb coward leaves and then runs away,” he continued. “What if the dog bit a child? I’d feel terrible. If the people had come in and asked me to help them, I would have gladly helped them.”

Over all, however, Shapiro believes that the problem of pet abandonment in the United States is improving.

“When you and I were in school, they didn’t talk about this stuff,” he said. “Now children are learning to have their animals spayed or neutered, to go to a rescue place instead of a pet shop, and there are exposés about puppy mills. It’s all about educating the next generation.”

The pet rescuer said that anyone interested in adopting one of his boarders must first fill out a detailed application. Shapiro then tries as best as he can to carefully evaluate the person’s character.

“I try to make sure they know something about taking care of pets, and that they love animals, or they’re not going to get one from me,” he explained. “If they just want a cat because they have mice, they’re in the wrong place.”

Looking ahead, Shapiro hopes to someday have someone else run the day-to-day operation of the agency because he wants to spend more time writing.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I have a couple of volunteers who would like to do this for a living,” he said. “I’m thinking about that. I don’t believe in retiring, but I would like to move on. I’d never close this place down because if I did, that’s thousands of animals who would never get a home.”




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