Gimme Shelter

Before there was Saturday Night Fever, there was John Contino. Born and raised in Coney Island, Contino won a dance prize at a Bay Ridge club the year before Travolta made the neighborhood a legend. He raced cars at local tracks. He played bass with Sister Sledge (“I was the white guy,” he says). By day, he worked as a telephone repairman.

Driving around in his phone-company van in the early seventies, Contino occasionally picked up stray dogs and cats and found homes for them with friends and neighbors. He had no intention of keeping an animal for himself – until one evening in ‘74. “I’d found this dog who’d been run over on the highway, brought her to an animal hospital, and ended up taking her home,” Contino recalls. One night soon after, he had a date with “this gorgeous girl.” He was so excited about it he’d bought a new suit. “It was a Wednesday, my only night off,” he remembers, “and we were going to the Bijou in Farmingdale.” But the dog was crying as he left the house. “Halfway to the club, I turned the car around, called the girl up, and tried to explain to her about the dog,” he says.

“She said, ‘Do me a favor, throw my number away,’ and hung up.”

He spent the night in bed with the dog’s head on his shoulder.

So ended Contino’s career as a disco king – and began his new incarnation as king of the strays. Shortly thereafter, he quit the band, retired on disability – a neck injury – and traded in his race car for a red bus that he christened the Mighty Mutt Mobile. In 1994, after years as a lone-wolf rescuer, the intense, controversial, but indisputably dedicated Contino officially founded Mighty Mutts, a no-kill animal-rescue organization known to most Manhattanites as “those people at Union Square.” Every Saturday, Contino, now 54, drives a selected group of formerly stray dogs and cats in the Mighty Mutt Mobile to 14th Street, where loyal volunteers spend the whole day sitting on the sidewalk, collecting donations and hoping to entice just the right kind of people into sharing their apartments and their lives with wet-nosed friends.

But it isn’t exactly easy to become an adoptive parent through Mighty Mutts. In fact, it can be as difficult as getting a child into Trinity or Dalton. Contino estimates proudly that Mighty Mutts turns down nine out of ten applicants.

“John’s a dramatic person,” says Holly Staver, president of City Critters, a Manhattan-based grassroots cat-adoption group. “He’s larger than life – and thinner than life. He doesn’t eat. But he takes care of the animals, you can’t deny that.”

Over the past three decades, contino has rescued roughly 10,000 dogs and cats, seen three movies, and had, briefly, one wife – for six months in 1979, at the end of which he “politely asked her to leave.”

“To blame it all on the dogs would be unfair,” Contino muses about his failed marriage – though there was the issue of the basement, which was where he kept many of the animals he rescued. When his wife moved in, Contino gave her free rein to decorate the house, with the exception of the basement; she consented. But after a few months, he says, she became determined to turn the basement into a hangout for humans. The dogs, she demanded, would have to go. “She said, ‘It’s either me or the dogs,’ ” he recalls, shrugging it off as a no-brainer.

Last year, as the first step in the realization of Contino’s dream of opening a permanent sanctuary for unwanted pets – and after close to a decade of searching for the perfect site – he purchased a house and 50 acres of land bordering a youth correctional facility in rural New Jersey. If all goes as planned, Contino will sell his Coney Island house, rescue the last 50 or so stray cats he feeds each night, and move across the river, where he will live alongside the dogs and cats that – because of age or health – are unlikely to find other homes.

But all might not go as planned. Contino’s cozy two-story house, half a block from the ocean on a quiet street in Seagate, has been on the market since January, and so far no one’s made an offer. The cost of the New Jersey land and the construction of the sanctuary facilities was originally estimated at $400,000. Contino now believes it could cost closer to $650,000, due mainly to changes in the layout to give the animals more space. And then there are the neighbors: One of the homeowners on the other side from the correctional facility is attempting to block the community planning board’s approval of the construction plans. (Another neighbor who originally opposed the sanctuary has since become a volunteer.) Planning-board officials declined to comment because the hearings are ongoing; the next meeting is scheduled for late July.

The New Jersey project is the largest Contino has ever attempted, and the pressure is visible. On a warm spring afternoon, he sits slumped in a chair at home, barefoot in faded red sweatpants, clutching a red guitar in his lap like a safety blanket. The phone will not stop ringing. It is three in the afternoon, but he has not yet eaten. I suggest that he might have more energy if he made a habit of eating breakfast. He mulls this as though it has never occurred to him, despite the fact that he would never let an animal go without a meal. The phone rings again.

“No, we don’t sell dogs,” he says patiently into the receiver, rolling his eyes. Pause. “No, we don’t have any puppies,” he lies, his voice rising slightly. “Because we’re a rescue organization,” he says, now exasperated. “We rescue animals.” He lets the receiver slide from his fingers back into its base and shakes his head.

On this particular morning, a puppy – one of four Contino rescued from an abandoned warehouse – was featured on Good Day New York, and now Contino is being inundated with calls. Unfortunately, none are from animal-lovers wanting to donate money or supplies, and most are from “the wrong kind of people.” Which often means, in Contino’s lexicon, people in it for the novelty of having a cute fuzzy toy rather than being committed to forming a lasting bond with a pet.

“Yes, we’re always looking for volunteers,” Contino tells the next caller, sounding hopeful. “Come out to Union Square on Saturday. We’re there all day.” Pause. “No. No, you can’t.” Pause. You can see the anger flashing in his eyes. “Because that’s not good for the dogs,” he says, icily, slamming down the phone. The caller has offered to help out by taking a dog home – for a weekend.

When the phone stops ringing long enough for him to think, Contino calls out to Clint, a fawn-colored pit bull who’s been sleeping on the air mattress in the upstairs bedroom. Clint prances down the stairs; Contino scoops him up and carries him in his arms across the living room and out the sliding glass doors to the backyard near his van – the vehicle he drives when he’s not in the Mighty Mutt Mobile. The van is a mess, filled with bags of dog and cat food, old blankets, leashes, collars, and a large metal cage used to hold new animals.

His house, in striking contrast, is immaculate. Visitors must remove their shoes on the threshold. In his quest to sell the Coney Island home, Contino has spent $40,000 on renovations, and now fears messing it up before he finds a buyer. (Hence the fact that even Clint, who accompanies Contino everywhere, is not allowed to walk on the newly redone wood floors.) Contino’s living room contains neatly arranged artifacts that seem left over from an era when he had the time for a social life. In the center of the room is a pool table – blond wood and mauve felt and pockets now packed with potpourri. In one corner, an electric Fender bass rests on a stand next to a Wurlitzer jukebox; the walls are lined with photos of Contino in front of various cars from his racing days, and several large photos of dogs.

After leaving Clint to sniff around the backyard for a moment, Contino heads down to the basement and returns with a plastic carrying kennel containing a plump meowing cat. He loads her into the van, herds Clint from the backyard and loads him in as well, and comes back into the house one final time. “Now comes the hard part,” he says. “We can’t make one wrong move or he’ll bolt.” He is Tommy, a new dog who’s sleeping like a baby in a large kennel in the bedroom, a foil dish beside him holding the remaining crumbs of some meatballs. Tommy, who lived as a stray for three years, has been living with Contino for four days.

“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
(718) 946-1074

Gimme Shelter