Matt Piccone maneuvers his van through the streets of Rochester, a mid-sized city in upstate New York with the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation. Beside him sits Hillary Cardin, a veterinary technician. He pulls the van to the curb in front of a beige, two-story, wood-frame house, and he and Cardin each grab an armful of straw from the back of the van. Piccone struggles to open a wooden gate obstructed by thick snow. Two Pit Bulls, Henny and Diamond, charge them.
“Hey, guys, get back in!” he shouts, hurriedly shutting the gate. As Piccone and Cardin drop the straw into two dog-houses, the dogs, tails wagging frantically, compete for attention. Henny steals a glove.
Cardin laughs at their exuberance. “Their energy level is a good sign. It means that they’re getting enough food to keep their body heat up in this weather.”
Before Piccone became a fixture in their lives, Henny and Diamond were underfed and had only a board slanted against the house for protection. The doghouses, built by apprentices in the local carpenter’s union, are doublewalled, fully insulated and raised six inches off the ground. The straw helps the dogs retain their body heat. “I climbed in a doghouse on a singledigit day and the temperature was 52 degrees,” says Piccone. The shorthaired dog nestled inside was warm to his touch.
The dogs’ owner, Anthony McBride, emerges from the house, wearing a wide smile. After some small talk, Piccone says, “Hey, Bro. Are you going to get Diamond spayed?” Henny is already neutered. The man nods, but is noncommittal as to when. “This would be a good time of year to do it,” Piccone offers, no trace of judgment in his voice.
Piccone is the founder of Providing Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) of Rochester, a fledgling animal welfare group. PAWS’ motto is “outreach, education and assistance.” By delivering doghouses and straw and providing free spay/neuter surgeries and low-cost vaccinations to city residents, PAWS has become a welcome presence in neighborhoods where pet owners can’t afford health care for their animals. To receive the doghouses and other perks, people must agree to sterilize their pets. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s a yes,” says Piccone.
Not surprisingly, it’s the backyard breeders who resist altering their pets. “I might get a solid ‘no’ for a year, but I’ll keep talking about it,” Piccone says. One of his proudest accomplishments was convincing a woman who had been breeding Pit Bulls for 20 years to have her three dogs altered and allow them to live inside. “Pointing fingers will get you nowhere,” says Piccone. “It’s a matter of time, patience, asking the right questions and knowing how to ask them.”
Before PAWS, Piccone worked as a security technician for Time Warner Cable. His job was to drive around city neighborhoods and locate households illegally tapping into cable services. Peering into back yards, Piccone, an animal lover, was often disturbed by what he saw: dogs tied on short chains, dogs who were sick and malnourished or who had fresh wounds from dog fighting. Dead animals dumped at the curb also haunted him.
For eight years, he made thousands of complaint calls to animal control and the local humane society. Either help never came, or a dog would be removed from the home, only to be replaced. “I was directly affected by what I saw,” Piccone says. “There was a lack of compassion for [poor] people. They had been written off as bad pet owners.”
One frigid winter day, Piccone saw two dogs in a back yard, one in a metal crate with a plastic bag over it, and a second lying on concrete, covered by a wooden box with no bottom. Piccone called animal control. “I was crying. I insisted someone come down.” The animal control officer who came said the shelters were sufficient. Piccone rang the front doorbell. “I was afraid the dog’s skin would freeze to the concrete. I was so overcome with emotion I didn’t even know what I was going to say,” he recalls. When a man opened the door, Piccone blurted, “Your dogs can’t live outside like that. Can I bring you two doghouses?”