What would you do if you were unable to feed your pet? What if your dog needed lifesaving surgery that you couldn’t afford—where would you turn? In the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, pet parents know exactly who to call when they’re facing hard times: Maria Ducasse, founder of East New York Dog Lovers.
Since 2018, Maria has channeled her love for dogs into organizing a community safety net, offering emergency fostering services, assistance with medical bills, dog-friendly social events and other support for her fellow East New York pet parents. It’s a simple idea, she says: When her volunteers see a dog parent who’s down on their luck, they come together to support both the pet and the parent in whatever way they need.
“Some families don’t have the help that’s required to keep an animal, so that’s where we step in,” she explains.
Maria didn’t intend to start an emergency service for dog parents when she founded East New York Dog Lovers. In fact, her original idea was to launch a social group. She had been frustrated with the lack of pet-friendly activities in East New York for her Shih Tzu-Greyhound rescue, Bella, and decided to bring together dog people in the community for fun activities like group dog walks and “yappy hours.”
Later that year, however, Maria realized she had the opportunity to make an even bigger impact. A young woman wandered into one of her events, and Maria noticed that the woman’s dog was looking skinny. When Maria inquired about the dog, the woman pulled her aside and confided in her: She had recently lost her home and struggled to afford food for herself and her son, let alone her dog.
Maria took action, sending a message to all the members of East New York Dog Lovers asking for help. Volunteers came together to provide food for the dog, as well as cover veterinary bills. When the woman was faced with relinquishing her dog so that she and her son could live in a shelter, Maria connected her with a volunteer who fostered her dog for four months, until they were back on her feet.
She was there for me and my family, and for a dog that she’s never even met.
Knowing that her dog was safe and well cared for helped to lessen the burden the woman was carrying, Maria says.
“Imagine something traumatic like losing your home. And then on top of that you have to lose your pet?” Maria says. “I can’t imagine that type of trauma, for both the pet and the parent.” After all, she points out, being separated from your family is stressful for dogs, too—especially if they’re relinquished to a shelter, where conditions are often loud and frightening for dogs who are accustomed to living at home with their loved ones.
“I know my animals wouldn’t do well in a shelter,” she says. “And it would freak me out if I had to ever separate from my pets. It’s tragic—it’s too much.”
Four months later, the woman had found stable housing and steady income. At last, it was time for her dog to return home. “Everyone cried,” Maria recalls. “At the reunion, there were tears all over—happy dog, everybody happy across the board.”
In fact, the woman was inspired to pay it forward. “She said, ‘My home is open. If you guys ever need to call me and foster an animal, I’m definitely in,’” Maria recalls. “She was so grateful for the help, and she understood the difference it can make.”
In that powerful moment, Ducasse realized she had found a way to help both pets and people: fostering emergency cases and reuniting them with families so they don’t end up in a shelter. East New York Dog Lovers has since transformed into a volunteer-driven nonprofit with over 200 members, working to ensure that pets aren’t permanently separated from their people due to medical emergencies, illnesses, domestic violence, homelessness and other hardships.
“The goal is always to reunite pets back with their owners and avoid surrendering them altogether,” she says. “It’s the cutest thing ever when they get to see each other after three or four months.”
Today, the organization has fostered and reconnected more than 50 dogs with their people. It’s a proactive effort to prevent dogs from being relinquished by parents who temporarily cannot care for them and alleviate pressure on overcrowded and thinly resourced shelters. It also prevents people experiencing hardships from being dealt the additional blow of losing their canine companions forever.
“Our biggest mission is to end pet surrendering,” Maria says. “So whatever help may be needed—food, vet care, whatever you need to keep your pet at home—we are willing to supply and help you.”
Want to Support East New York Dog Lovers?
Check out their Wish List, where you can send the pet products they need directly to the group.
Pet parents in need reach out to the group via Facebook or Instagram, or attend their monthly events in person to ask for assistance. From there, Maria shares their story on a WhatsApp chat with all of East New York Dog Lovers’ members, and the resources start pouring in right away.
“We find out who can volunteer to open up their homes, who is able to donate, who’s willing to do what, where and how,” Maria says.
We just keep getting bigger. Every time we go out there and help somebody, they’re like, ‘I’m in—how can I help?'
That swift response hasn’t just kept families together—it has also literally saved lives. Group member Melanie Bencosme recalls when her brother’s Pit Bull, Blue, became direly ill. The dog couldn’t keep food down and stopped eating entirely. A visit to the vet brought terrible news: Blue had a severe bowel obstruction and would die within a couple of days without a surgical procedure that cost several thousand dollars.
“We didn’t have the money readily available to help her, and we felt helpless,” Bencosme says.
The siblings reached out to Maria, who shared Blue’s situation with the group. The community responded with an overwhelming wave of support.
“We started getting donations for Blue, and it was really powerful because most of the people donating didn’t even know Blue, but they knew Maria,” Bencosme says. “They knew if she was posting about it, that was a dog in need, and that saved Blue’s life.”
Today, Blue is living her best, healthiest life—all thanks to Maria and East New York Dog Lovers.
“She was there for me and my family, and for a dog that she’s never even met,” Bencosme says.
Of course, that generosity comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Maria. She’s well known throughout the neighborhood as “a bubbly, energetic person who clearly loves dogs,” Bencosme says.
“Oh yeah, I’m the dog lady of East New York,” Maria laughs. “That’s how people know me. When they see me without my dogs, they say it looks weird.”
Now that she’s formed a strong community of pet lovers in her own neighborhood, Maria’s setting her sights on helping dog parents beyond Brooklyn. She’s working to build a network of people in different states to open their homes for temporary foster services—all to help pets and people alike.
“We just keep getting bigger,” Maria says. “Every time we go out there and help somebody, they’re like, ‘I’m in—how can I help?’”
Are You a Pet Parent Who Needs Support?
If you’re struggling to care for your pet, you’re not alone. Here’s where you can find assistance in your area:
- Pet food banks: Many animal organizations across the country offer pet food banks to help feed pets in hard times. Type “pet food bank near me” into your search engine of choice to bring up options closest to you.
- Financial assistance: Organizations like RedRover offer financial assistance to struggling pet parents. You can find out more about RedRover’s Relief Grants here.
- Other local resources: Animal shelters and rescues often offer free or low-cost veterinary services, spay/neuter surgeries and other programs for pet parents in need. Reach out to an organization in your area to find out what support they can provide.
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