Jen relaxes with DeeDee, Red Paw's Ambassador Dog, who was rescued from a fire by Red Paw in November, 2011, in West Philly. Dee Dee is their Animal Services Director's dog.

Jen relaxes with DeeDee, Red Paw’s Ambassador Dog, who was rescued from a fire by Red Paw in November, 2011, in West Philly. Dee Dee is their Animal Services Director’s dog.

by Stacia Friedman

Ask a group of five-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is often “fireman” or “princess.” Most of us leave those fantasies behind as soon as we’re old enough to understand that firemen risk their lives every day, and princesses don’t necessarily live happily ever after.

Jen Leary, 37, is an exception. “As a kid, I played with fire trucks and always knew I wanted to be a firefighter or veterinarian,” said Leary, who found a way to combine her seemingly disparate ambitions.

Jen grew up in Olney and attended Northeast High School. Following her studies in Fire Science at Philadelphia Community College, where she was the only female in the class, Leary joined the Philadelphia Fire Department. Her personal experience as a firefighter made her aware of a pressing need that was not being met.

“When there is a fire, flood or other disaster, emergency responders such as the Red Cross and Fire Department focus is on saving human lives. No agency is dedicated to rescuing pets that may be injured or lost,” said Leary.

In 2011, while working as a firefighter, Leary founded Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing pets from residential disasters in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. A tattoo peaks out of the neckline of Leary’s Red Paws t-shirt. She pulls it down to reveal the name Baldwin. Her former school or lover? Nope. Baldwin was one of Leary’s first rescue cats and, obviously, one she’ll never forget.

“We work closely with the Red Cross and Fire Department, responding to one to two residential disasters a day,” said Leary. “We do search and rescue for pets and carry oxygen tanks and first-aid for injured animals. We are the only organization in the country that specializes in rescuing pets in disaster situations.”

Case in point: A recent fire and house explosion in Kensington resulted in a family not being able to locate four missing kittens. “We found two kittens trapped in a basement that had been flooded with three feet of water,” said Leary. “A fireman found another kitten, and the family was able to return to find the fourth.” However, the family was unable to care for all of their eight pets in the temporary housing provided by the Red Cross. That’s where Red Paw comes in.

“While the Red Cross provides temporary housing for disaster victims and covers their hotel expenses, they do not cover the extra charges for the family’s pets,” said Leary. “We pay hotel fees for animals and provide pet food, or we offer foster care for up to 60 days. That’s how long it usually takes for families to get back on their feet.”

At any given time there may be 45-60 cats, dogs, reptiles and birds placed at Red Paw’s partner facilities, says the Point Breeze resident whose understanding companion Lori Albright, a Penn grad with a background in nonprofit management, serves as Red Paw COO. “We live on the first floor with our two dogs, three cats and one turtle. On the second floor, we foster some rescue animals.”

If that sounds like a zoo, Leary has the situation under control. “We cycle through them quickly. First, we evaluate each pet. When necessary, we have them neutered or given a flea bath and make sure they are in 100% good health before placing them in foster care until the owner is available.”

As any pet owner knows, expenses mount fast. Fortunately, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and other local vets give Red Paw “tremendous discounts.” A Penn veterinary technician serves as Red Paws adoption coordinator. “We don’t put pets in shelters or hand them over to animal control,” said Leary. “If their owners are deceased or are not capable of caring for them again, we find forever homes.”

A volunteer organization, Red Paw is always in need of people to help promote the organization at street fairs and special events, as well as office help and to provide foster care. While Leary wants to spread the word about what Red Paw does, she also wants people to understand what her organization doesn’t do.

“Red Paw is not an animal shelter, and we don’t take in unwanted pets.” With pets downstairs and others upstairs, Leary has to draw a line.

Leary recently retired as a Philly firefighter to focus on Red Paw, but she continues to be a Red Cross Disaster Responder. Does she miss the adrenaline rush? “Every day,” she says and admits to being a fan of “Chicago Fire,” yelling at her TV when they get it wrong. But she still plans to advance her knowledge in the field. “I want to get a degree in Leadership in Emergency Services from Philadelphia University,” she said.

Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, CEO of the American Red Cross, Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter, recently said, “We had families refuse to go into shelters to accept Red Cross care because we couldn’t accommodate their pets.” According to Jen, “People say it to us all the time. ‘This is my family. This is my child.’ The pets mean the world to them.”

In the four years since Red Paw started, the organization has responded more than 750 times and assisted over 1250 animals. Red Paw has hundreds of volunteers, and there is an interest in starting new chapters in other cities.

For more information, visit and their Facebook page. Warning: These sites contain images of irresistible furry creatures.

* This article was reprinted, with permission, from Newsworks.