Unemployed Pet Owner Helps Others in Need
Jill Borriss, pictured above in her Upper West Side apartment with Skylar the pigeon and Hope the cat. (ZT Pet News Photo by Amy Lieberman)
NEW YORK -- Laid off nearly nine months ago, Jill Borriss has seen her savings all but dry up, leaving her with only unemployment checks to cover her Upper West Side apartment's rent and daily needs.
But no matter what happens, she says, her two cats and one pigeon will not be affected by her hardship.
"I will never give them up," Borris said. "To me they are like my children and they will always come first, no matter what. Like any parent I am worried, but you know, I would sacrifice myself first, selling this or that. I will find a way."
While Borris -- a former ballet dancer who later began a career in journalism -- is struggling with her own finances, she is also reaching out to other unemployed New York pet owners, volunteering once a week with Safety Net.
The volunteer program, run by NYC's Animal Care and Control, is designed to catch desperate pet owners when they fall under financial constraints.
Borriss has been logging four hours a week, for the past seven months, talking to these New Yorkers on the phone and proposing low-cost veterinary or foster options that could alleviate their stress.
She says her personal experience grants her a deeper connection to Safety Net's callers.
"I can honestly sympathize with them," Borriss said.
Borriss, who declined to reveal her age, citing her "youthful nature at heart," has had a total of 17 animals over the years, including cats, dogs and hamsters. Almost all were rescues, or animals Borriss picked up off the street; sixteen of them are now buried in the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, in Hartsdale, N.Y.
Now, she owns Skylar, a pigeon she rescued from an abuse case nearly 14 years ago. On Friday afternoon, the gray bird, whose neck feathers are speckled with drops of green and purple, cooed peacefully in his 4-foot cage. Borriss cooed back at the bird, who obliged in having his neck scratched and his wings pulled gently away from his body.
He also gets along well with Borriss' two tabbies, Hope and Emily, who manages life with only three legs. Borriss adopted her while she was working for the ASPCA in 1999. She worked as an editor for the organization's publications, but met Emily, who is also known as Miss Hissy Fitts, when she was treated for abuse. Emily's left back leg had to be amputated, and once her surgery wounds had healed, she was placed up for adoption.
Yet Borriss didn't want to see her go.
"They brought her down to put up for adoption and there were just tears running down my face, like, 'You can't take her and give her up, no one is going to love her like I do.' "
Her other cat, Hope, a rotund 2-year-old, came up to Borriss on a Hartsdale road as a stray. Borriss was visiting the New York City suburb to bury her cat, Audrey, in its pet cemetery, the oldest one in the U.S.
"Hope was 6- or 7-months-old at the time, and she was a stray and just came right up to me and looked at me and seemed to say, 'Take me home,' " Borriss recalled.
Though Borriss says she doesn't believe in reincarnation, she was struck by a similar female tabby's random appearance, on the same day Audrey was laid to rest.
When Borriss was laid off from her editorial position with The New York Post in June, she immediately began to apply for other jobs, but also sought ways to occupy her free time.
Safety Net's pro-pet initiative fit the bill, she said.
"I really just wanted to continue to help animals in any way I could," Borriss explained.
As the economy has worsened over the past few months, an increasing number of New York pets -- and their owners -- have needed that help, according to Safety Net's numbers.
In January 2008, 115 pet owners called seeking assistance; in November 2008, 240 people turned to Safety Net for help.
"Surrenders are up and adoptions are down," Jenny Olsen, one of Safety Net's co-organizers, previously told Zootoo Pet News.
"People come in and we talk to them. We say, 'If we could help you solve your problem, whatever your problem is, would you want to keep your pet?'
Safety Net, established two years ago, helps by handing out collected pet food, and offering legal assistance, boarding and foster homes, low-cost veterinary options and animal training -- basically, any item or service that could make someone reconsider giving up his or her pet.
The majority of the callers Borriss speaks with complain of insurmountable veterinary costs and housing issues. Some squabble with landlords over pet policies, while other people get evicted, and are unable to take their animals along to city housing projects, or to a friend's house.
Borriss especially understands those who face high vet bills; she has had to cover two $500 vet invoices in the past few months, after Emily became ill. She paid the money, but it was, as she said, "a lot of money to pay."
"Vets just aren't always sensitive to the fact that it can be hard for a lot of people, not just low-income people, to pay this kind of money every time their cat gets a little sick," she said.
Not all callers who initially seek help will wind up following through, Borriss said, which is always a disappointment. Then, applying Olsen's training, Borriss will be sure not to "mince words" by informing pet owners of their deserted animals' likely unhappy fates.
"Jenny told me, 'You don't say that these animals are going to be euthanized,' " Borriss recalled. "You say, 'They are going to be killed.' "
Though Borriss says she is scared for the future and her lack of job opportunities, her pets, she say, will never have to pay for her own lack of investments over the years.
"Cat litter, cat food, certainly that adds up," Borriss began. "But it's the apartment, the rent that is the problem!"
If a worst case scenario, Borriss says that someone would take her cats in, but she worries about Skylar, despite his friendly disposition.
He is, after all, a regular New York City pigeon -- but the cleanest one to be found in the metro area, Borriss maintains.
Regardless of whether things begin to look up sooner or later, Borriss will continue to help other pet owners in need, advertising the very services she knows might soon come in handy.
Amy Lieberman is a staff reporter for Zootoo Pet News. She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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