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Gimme Shelter

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"Get in the van," Contino orders me. "Do not open the windows." I do as I'm told, and, a few minutes later, he emerges from the back of the house with a skittish shepherd mix on a leash. He opens the back of the van, coaxes the dog inside, slams shut the door, runs around and jumps into the driver's seat, and lets out a heavy sigh of relief. We're off -- Contino, me, Clint, Tommy, and the cat -- to the post office, to the vet, and to pick up cat food.

For Contino, rescuing Tommy was a gut reaction, as obvious a thing to do as eating or sleeping -- more obvious, perhaps. After reading an article in the New York Times about a stray dog in Astoria whom neighbors had been feeding for several years, Contino jumped in his truck and headed east. "The story was about how great it was that everyone fed this dog," he says, horrified. "How come nobody ever tried to give him a home?" Contino found Tommy, a beautiful doe-eyed mutt, hiding in a crawl space between two buildings.

Tommy has a long way to go, but he may do okay. After only a few minutes in the van, he makes his way up to the front, where he sits at my feet, half-hiding under the dashboard. When Contino goes into the post office, Tommy rests his head on my knee and consents to have his head scratched, staying dutifully still even as Clint nibbles impishly on his left ear.

Climbing back into the driver's seat with a pile of letters -- donations, he hopes -- Contino regards Tommy with a mix of love, pity, and a father's pride. "I think this guy's gonna be a lifer," he says. Meaning, if all goes as planned, Tommy will retire with Clint and a couple hundred other dogs and cats to New Jersey (joining those already in the shelter), where they will live out their days with Contino, romping among the trees in large, fenced-in runs.

After all the errands are done and all the mail is opened -- yielding roughly $500 in donations -- and two more cats have been picked up at the vet and dropped off at a temporary home, Contino is ready to begin his cat route, a nightly four-hour trek through the grimiest neighborhoods of Coney Island to leave food for several dozen homeless cats he plans eventually to pick up. It's late, and he's tired, and he has to get up at 5 a.m. to drive to New Jersey and back before heading to Union Square the next day. His cell phone rings. It's a volunteer, calling to ask him to come to the city to pick up Rudolph, the puppy who was on TV. "Can't you keep him for the night?" Contino pleads. The answer is no.

"I've never met better people in my life," he says of his volunteers. "But they work. They work six days a week, some work seven. They just don't have any more time."

And while the volunteers can escape to other lives at the end of the day, Contino can't -- and he often seems ready to buckle under the pressure. He snaps at people -- including volunteers -- and is known for his unwillingness to compromise. "He can drive you absolutely crazy. Crazy," says Adam Cantor, who has been volunteering for Mighty Mutts for three and a half years. "But sometimes I'm amazed at what he's accomplished on sheer will and stubbornness." Cantor, a photographer who used to ride past the Union Square operation when he worked as a bike messenger, has opened his house as a foster home for five dogs over the years, four of whom got adopted and the last of whom Cantor is keeping himself.

Even the weekly Union Square appearance often seems one step away from obliteration; Parks Department officials used to issue the group a yearly permit but now require Contino or a volunteer -- usually Cantor -- to reapply for a new permit each month. And with construction in the park, Mighty Mutts has had to move from its long-standing spot at the southwest corner to a new location on the southeast corner, and Contino is no longer guaranteed a parking space for the Mutt Mobile.

Still, some days it seems that Contino thrives on surmounting obstacles, that he consumes the challenge and burns it for energy the way other people burn food.

What else can I do? I decide to foster a Rottweiler named Baker. Sleek and wiry, Baker, who is around two and a half years old, lumbers around like a puppy on oversize paws and likes to keep his tongue stuck partially out even when his mouth is closed. Contino found him half-starved outside a Coney Island bakery a year ago. I've chosen him partly because of an affection for the breed, partly because my own dog, Peso, a formerly stray boxer rescued from death row in the mid-nineties, has expressed a preference for large males, and partly, I have to admit, because of the tongue. Baker is irresistible.

Everything is fine until we get home. Then the fur starts flying. Baker is confused and scared and riled up; Peso is aghast that this beast has had the nerve to cross her threshold. They are determined to kill each other. Teeth are bared, hackles are raised, the snarling is so loud my boyfriend and I have to yell to hear each other. And this is before we've even let the dogs off their leashes. My one-bedroom apartment is not big enough for both of them. A loft wouldn't be big enough.

We stick Baker in the bedroom, leave Peso in the living room, and call Contino.

"We can't keep him," I say. "I'm so sorry. But someone's going to end up dead."

"Okay," he says dismissively. He is writing me off; he's heard it all before. I am just another letdown, a statistical inevitability. "I'll get him in the morning."

I have failed. I crash on the sofa with Peso, while Baker enjoys a night of luxury in the bed. I can't sleep; I'm consumed by guilt, distraught at having to admit that I'm one of "those people."

In the morning, I call Contino back, tell him we are going to keep trying. That night, he brings a huge kennel from New Jersey, the one Baker's been sleeping in. Contino is planning to spend the night in the Mighty Mutt Mobile, to ensure the safety of five dogs who are temporarily without homes. Seeing his unswerving commitment renews mine. I put Baker's kennel in the bedroom, sticking in a cozy blanket, and he hops right in.

For the next three days, Baker lives in the bedroom and Peso in the living room; Baker sleeps in his kennel and Peso in the bed; I walk them separately during the day, and my boyfriend and I walk them together in the evening. There are a few moments of pure domestic bliss, when we let the dogs intermingle and they sniff one another's butts, chase each other around a bit, and collapse on the floor mere feet from each other. But every time Baker comes in from a walk, Peso attacks him like she's never seen him before. Baker becomes territorial and won't let Peso venture anywhere near the bedroom; he patrols the hallway like he's on guard duty, and the fights sometimes end with blood.

There is only one solution: I send Baker to stay with a friend who has a large loft in DUMBO. My apartment becomes sadly quiet. Peso looks tiny. I am exhausted. I feel like my former life has receded from memory.

One afternoon, Contino and I eat lunch -- pasta with broccoli (he's a vegetarian, naturally) -- at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, a family-run Italian place where he is greeted like Norm at Cheers. After our meal, we walk back to the van, where Clint and Tommy are awaiting the meatballs Contino has brought them. Parked in front of the restaurant is a monstrous gold Cadillac SUV. "That's what I need," Contino says, sighing.

"A Cadillac?" I ask.

"It doesn't have to be a Cadillac," he says. "Just something I can drive away in, to where it's sunny. But it's gotta be big enough for me and all the dogs."

Contact information for Mighty Mutts
Mighty Mutts
P.O. Box 140139
Brooklyn, NY 11214-0139
members.tripod.com/MightyMutts
(718) 946-1074


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