Saturday, July 4, 2009

NYCHA new pet policy investigation leads to chance meeting of an unexpected history

NYCHA new pet policy investigation leads to chance meeting of an unexpected history.

Over the last couple months, I have been interviewing many people living in public housing, and whether they have pets or not, every individual I've spoken with has an opinion about the latest revision to the Housing Authority's "pet policy", which was first made public via appearing on the last page of The Housing Authority Journal, April 2009 issue.

An investigative story incorporating first hand experiences and feedback from residents in various housing developments, from East Harlem to the Lower East Side, this story has allowed me to meet people I never would have had a conversation with before, because I never would have had a reason.

Last week I happened upon a woman named Regina. A resident of the George Washington Houses, Building E, she has a 7 mo. old pit bull named Sparks, who is registered as a service dog. She also has a cat and a rabbit, but her cat just had three kittens. Disappointed to hear this, I realized she was another animal lover who did not fully understand the importance of the various housing rules, including mandatory spay/neuter. But for some reason, that was a side thought in the conversation, as she told me about how she was on the cover of National Geographic, for a piece by journalist, Jere Van Dyk, titled "Growing up in East Harlem".

The story came out in May 1990, so nearly 20 years ago. Although she now has lupus and arthritis, she still exudes a lot of energy and has very strong opinions about animals and humane treatment of them. I don't mean to sound cheesy or cliche in my remarks -- I certainly wish she would neuter her pit bull and stop her cat from having more babies. It wasn't my place, for the purpose I was trying to achieve that day, to say my opinion. It didn't matter at that point, nor did it with any of my conversations with these residents.

In fact, I asked very few questions and just listened to her, as she also told me about a cat she and other residents take care of. I don't know what this cat's name is, so I just refer to him as Survivor Kitty.

This cat was actually a stray and a victim of cruelty, when some kids -- residents of Regina's building, though they are long gone -- wrapped a lot of rubber bands around his tail, forcing the hair to fall out. The same kids, Regina told me, threw fireworks at this cat, and one exploded near his face, blowing off a part of his mouth. Although these injuries are horrific, the cat is strong, now at least 15 years old (but who's counting). Regina and others I met that day feed the cat, let it inside to the basement in the Winter, and protect him from others. Regina made it very clear to me that she would not tolerate any cruelty in her neighborhood. If she saw it, she said, she'd have to 'kick some ass', as she put it.

As I watched the cat eat some food a couple older residents opened and put out for him, Regina said she had to go to the store, and she left.

Only after this conversation did I research and finally see the cover photo -- of her cradling a puppy. It all made sense!

I looked high and low and finally tracked down a back issue I could order and have shipped to me. I plan to return to Regina's building and show her the cover. I think it would bring a smile to her face. Maybe that would be my in to talk about spaying and neutering...

The piece has become more layered than I anticipated, which is exciting. Should be out in a couple weeks. I certainly feel rewarded for having had the close interactions I did with so many different people. It's a tough economy -- and who am I to complain when I'm talking to some people who have very little. Aside from the assignment and my quest to find out not only how people feel about pets in housing, the rules or if they know what they are, and the way animals are treated by the good and not so good people, I only take interest in what is going on in their lives, because I know nothing about it but feel it matters if I am to be an informed writer and New Yorker.

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