Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Debbie Fierro grew up in what she describes as the “hub” of Paterson, NJ, in a house full of six kids, love, laughter and lots of animals.
“We made sure we always had food and shelter for the many strays we brought home. My father, known to be one of the kindest men in town, owned a Texaco station two blocks from our house. I guess it was as close to a sanctuary as you could find. Animals were often abandoned at the station, starving or sick, by those who knew my parents would always find room for one more.”
Fierro, a transport driver for Wheels of Hope, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, has the same philosophy. After a long and successful career owning restaurants, Debbie has devoted her life to saving animals.
She describes her work as “more sweet than bitter. I get to unlock these animals’ cages and escort them out of the shelter doors.”
The alliance, founded in 2003, transports thousands of cats and dogs from Animal Care & Control of NYC (AC&C) shelters to other Alliance Participating Organizations — shelters and rescue groups with the resources to find them new homes.
“Last year 14,000 animals were transported on Wheels of Hope vans, moving us that much closer to our goal of saving the lives of every healthy and treatable cat and dog at AC&C,” notes Jane Hoffman, President of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals.
“The vans run seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. We address the critical need of getting animals out of crowded city shelters quickly and safely,” Hoffman says.
Approximately 250 dogs and cats are moved each week. “Since the first Wheels of Hope van hit the road in 2005, almost 40,000 cats, dogs and other animals have been transported over 2 million miles on their journey to permanent new homes.
“In 2002, they were killing 74% of all cats and dogs that entered Animal Care & Control. At the end of 2011, that number has been reduced to about 30%,” Hoffman says.
Fierro, who owned Rubyfruit Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village before she started working with Wheels of Hope, says she loved the community and especially the neighborhood animals.
“It was also the beginning of my love affair with Jack Russell terriers. I owned Rubyfruit for 16 years; it was slowing down and I couldn’t [run the restaurant] anymore,” she reminisces. “My mother died, my dog died and the restaurant closed. I was paralyzed…I had no identity. I wanted to work with animals, so instead of serving dinner to people, I started working in a shelter. The animals revived my spirit and I found joy comforting them.”
For the first three years with Wheels of Hope, she used her own BMW X3 SUV and basically ran it down after driving over 300,000 miles. Soon after, the organization gave her one of their vans to use.
Fierro, who thinks nothing of working seven days a week and 14-hour days, delivers dogs from three shelters (Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island) to locations as far as Vermont, Maine and Washington, D.C.
“We work with a cooperative of 150 to 200 rescues,” explains the animal lover, who lives on Staten Island with her partner, four dogs (three Jack Russell rescues and a geriatric Chihuahua) and four cats. She also built a shelter outsider her home for feral cats and now has a colony of eight.
“It’s my life’s work,” says Fierro, who remarks that there is always room for one more.
“The most important thing on my arm is my rope. Even if I am walking my own dog and I see a stray, I bring it home,” says the runner who has finished 21 NYC marathons and trains with her energetic Jack Russells.
When Fierro is driving the van, she often lets one of the rescue dogs ride shotgun. “I strap them into the passenger seat, crack the window open and play classical music. It’s always a good ride.”
For more information or to make a donation to Wheels of Hope, call (212) 252-2350 or visit www.AnimalAllianceNYC.org.
About Big Town Big Heart
Big Town Big Heart is a series of articles showcasing organizations and vounteers who make a difference and is produced by the New York Daily News Marketing Department.