It’s not hard to find Jennifer Halpern’s apartment in the Upper East Side once off the elevator. Just follow the buzzing of the sewing machines, or the various volunteers carrying stockpiles of cloth.
Each month, Halpern and her team meet to create pet beds for city shelter animals. The group sews, knits, and even crochets beds. For some animals, these are the final touches of human-made comfort they ever receive.
“It’s a love letter, it’s taking this pillow that was made with love and just hoping that that cat or dog is going to feel that when they’re given the bed,” said Halpern, the founder of Pillows for Paws.
This Saturday afternoon, her living room is less a place for spreading out than it is a storage room for several sewing machines and multiple boxes of pet beds. Halpern has hundreds of those beds, most less than an inch thick, made from a variety of donated cloth to deliver. Appropriately, one volunteer sewed part of what used to be a “Hello Kitty” jacket onto a bed.
Halpern started the sewing circle a year and a half ago. With a background in production (casting director by day), she said that that experience made her feel she could handle organizing the group. It started with a few people, including some friends in the business, along with volunteers from a city shelter, and now includes volunteers who found out about the group online. The volunteers are mostly women, ranging from retirees to grade school children.
Pillows for Paws is also attracting donations from people in other states.
“This was in a batch that came from Lynn from Erie, Pennsylvania. She clearly knows how to sew,” said Halpern, holding up a roughly 2 by 2.5 foot fluffy, fully-made bed patterned with various dog pictures. A few other cat beds, about the circumference of a trash can lid, were also included.
Halpern’s deep connection with animals started at an early age. Always surrounded by pets — “My parents even took in a pigeon one time” — she became a vegetarian at around age 3 or 4. She has picked up several strays over the years, and started volunteering at a shelter last year.
“I’ve always felt that maybe sometimes I liked animals more than people,” said the 43-year-old with a laugh.
Last year, her cat of over a decade died, so she started volunteering with the ASPCA to connect with animals again. While participating in a program where humans can socialise with the cats, she met “this beautiful, beautiful furry baby and just fell in love.”
The cat, which the shelter pegged to be 5-6 years old, was in and out of four homes. Previously, he was found on the street.
“The thing that is so amazing about animals is — I mean, here’s this cat. He’s had this tough life and he’s just the sweetest, most loving cat. He just loves,” she said.
It’s been five months since Halpern adopted Squeaker and she says she falls in love with him more and more every day. “Not thrilled with the name, but when you call him [that name] he does come running,” she said.
Shelter intakes for cats and dogs have gone down over a quarter from 2004 to 31,561 in 2011, according to statistics on the New York Animal Care and Control website, but there are still animals in cages without beds.
“Just knowing this one pillow, there’s going to be this dog… that might just make him a little more comfortable. Puts you a little more at ease,” said Felicia Greenfield, an actress who met Halpern through work and also runs an organization helping animals. “This is actually a whole lot of fun to come here and be with other women. How many beneficial activities can you bring your six-year-old daughter to?”
Her daughter, Danielle, spent the day making cat dancer toys; in this case, a few different colored pipe cleaners wrapped around the bottom of a couple of feathers.
“I think they’ll like it and play with it a lot but not when they get tired. I bet they’ll just stop playing with it but they are going to stare at it, and then I bet they’re going to fall asleep,” said Danielle, holding one of the toys she made (a purple pipe cleaner base with blue and red feathers).
So far, Pillows for Paws volunteers have produced 700 toys and over 1,000 beds.
Calling the pet beds a labor of love is a subjective notion, though they are, at least, a labor. The sewers must craft the beds together toughly, with long diagonal lines through the middle to withstand the heavy-duty washing machines at shelters.
Gennie Perez, 60, finds an added benefit with the beds. “When the public comes looking to adopt their next best friend, their dog or their cat, they will see an animal on a pretty bed and it makes it more attractive,” said the retired public librarian who’s been volunteering since Pillows for Paws’ inception. “So it’s a little bit of marketing as well.”
Halpern’s efforts have enabled the creation of thousands of pet beds, a few of which she’s seen, through photographs, in use. With an unending amount of animals needing them, she has no plans on stopping.
“Anything that I can do to help them, to protect them, to hope that they understand that there are people out there that really do love them,” she said. “And even though they might be in a situation that might not be the greatest, there are people out there in the world who really are trying to do everything they can to help them.”