Sean Casey has come a long way since Queens.
The 31-year-old pet-saving maven—and head of the eponymous —first began saving dogs, cats and everything in between under the roar of jets coming to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“We were literally like, in the cargo area, buried in the airport,” Casey said of the shelter’s humble beginnings. “It was nice for the dogs because we had big indoor-outdoor runs and a big yard, and they could make as much noise as they wanted because there was no one to hear them. But for adoption purposes, who could get there? “
That was 10 years ago, and since that time, Casey has moved out of the airport and into a storefront on East 3rd Street in Kensington. And in just a couple of weeks, Casey’s animal rescue outfit will occupy its biggest space yet: A 5,000 square-foot warehouse in Sunset Park, rigged from floor to ceiling in the latest in animal-keeping technology.
The new location, which will operate in conjunction with the space in Kensington, will be used to house the majority of the rescued pets that the shelter takes in. Once they’ve received medical treatment and are ready for adoption, Casey said, they will be transferred to the smaller shelter at 153 East 3rd St.
“We basically outgrew the first location very, very quickly. We didn’t expect it to take off the way it did,” Casey said. “So the idea of the second shelter is just to give more space and better quality of life to the animals while they’re with us.”
Once renovations to the space—housed in a brand new building at 551 39th St.—are complete, the shelter will serve as a veritable pet palace for animals in between homes. The building can hold up to 42 dogs and 50 cats, with additional room for assorted birds and reptiles. Dogs will be treated to sleeping quarters 8-feet long and 3-feet wide, with built-in beds.
While the building itself is very long with high ceilings, it doesn't boast a ton of floor space. Because of this, Casey and his staff borrowed from the standard New York City architectural model of building vertically, taking full advantage of the warehouse's height by housing smaller dogs in second-floor kennels—literally, doggy duplexes. Birds and other exotic animals will be kept on the second floor as well.
Casey explained that each kennel will have its own drainage system, requiring staff only to spray down the space, rather than clean up the pens with paper towels, an expenditure that currently sets the shelter back a whopping $40 a day.
The new building will also have a special quarantine unit for dogs who enter the shelter sick. Individually ventilated cages will pump air straight outside, thereby decreasing epidemics of kennel cough, a common problem that drives up medical bills.
“[The dog] coughs, he sneezes, it doesn’t go to the dog over here or the dog over there,” Casey said. “It’s all contained in here, gets sucked up to the exhaust and out.”
Despite the ventilation system’s high price tag—around $16,000—Casey said it was only a fraction of the project's ultimate cost, which totalled upwards of $250,000.
The process of raising money for the new shelter has been long and arduous, Casey said. Though he and his staff initially acquired the space more than a year ago, finding the funds has been an ongoing challenge.
“We had a very grassroots movement. We basically reached out to every one of our supporters, and we had a lot of very small fundraisers,” he said. We just kept squirreling all the money away, just squirreling it away.”
Luckily for Casey, the shelter has some fans in high places. Judy McLane, a Broadway performer best known for her role in Mamma Mia!, held a star-studded fundraiser in 2010, the proceeds of which all flowed directly into the rescue's coffers. A single evening netted $18,000.
Opening a shelter of this scope has been a dream of Casey's since he first began helping neighborhood animals as a child. His mother, another compulsive rescuer of beleaguered pets, first instilled in him the idea of "TNRing"—trapping, neutering and releasing—stray cats around the neighborhood, after regularly witnessing feral kittens being killed by speeding cars. From there, he was hooked.
"I started helping [my mom] when I was like, 5 or 6-years-old, just catching these feral cats, " he said. "I guess that’s kind of where my love for it started. And when I got out of school, this was my skill, this was what I was good at, so I said, 'I have to make this work.'"
Despite years in the pet industry, Casey said that running his own spacious shelter has always been his ultimate goal.
"This is what I wanted to see. This was always my dream to build, but it was always out of reach, financially," he said. "We’ve worked really hard to get here."
But Casey isn't content to rest on his laurels. Even as the paint continues to dry on the new location, he's already plotting his next step: Implementing a similar shelter in every borough across New York City. Whether the project is his or helmed by someone else, Casey said, the mission is to provide all rescued pets a no-kill environment where they will be treated humanely, and given the medical attention and support they need to be adopted into loving homes.
"I’d like to see bigger and better for everybody," he said. "That’s always been our goal— just to keep improving and keep growing."