By James Maher
Name: Robert Shapiro
Occupation: Founder & Director, Social Tees Animal Rescue
Location: 5th Street, between First Avenue and Second Avenue
Time: 6 p.m. on Monday, May 18
I was born in Woodside, Queens, in the mid 1950s but my parents moved to Howard Beach – the citadel of racism, Selma of the north — when I was young. Howard Beach was really Howard Beach man.
I got really lucky. I had a wonderful art teacher when I was in junior high school and he encouraged me to take the test to go to High School of Art & Design. So I went and I met all these city kids and I realized how vapid my existence was. I swear to you, I cried. I remember my father consoling me when I was a kid. I was really upset then. All these other kids were cool and they knew things and culture and going out and my parents never left the house. They were hardworking, blue-collar people.
It takes a certain type of person to have an ego that makes you want to leave your home. I had a lot of teenage angst then. I left home at 17 just to move to the city. I really liked it. I got a job at a department store in the pet department while I lived with my parents. I met this guy who was also this struggling artist. He rented me this little tiny room in his basement that I was able to afford and I could still commute to high school. That was it. I never moved back.
I’ve always loved animals since I was a child. I used to go to the Staten Island Zoo all the time because they had a lot of reptiles. I would also pet Leo, the lion that they used to have there. I used to lean over the rail and he would kind of come up to me. I was always afraid, but he started purring one day, so I started really getting into petting him. I used to cut school all the freaking time to go to the zoo and pet this lion. Petting a lion in the middle of New York? He would purr and he was great and he would lick me, zero fear. Then I got a girlfriend. Next year, I came back to see him ... and I went up to him and he almost killed me. And she never believed any of the stories about me petting the lion.
I still work with animals, but [animal rescue] is a privilege. You can’t just start a rescue unless you are retired from doing something that made some kind of money, because it costs a fortune. So Social Tees was a t-shirt fundraising company. We raised money for human rights organizations all over the country. Schools would sell my shirts. The kids would sell the t-shirts through a catalogue that we would provide. The schools got paid in advance, they sold the shirts retail, they paid us wholesale.
I write a little bit and when I first started making t-shirts, my first line had a terrible name — it was called Global-uh-wareness, and it was all information on these t-shirts about the environment. It was... really cool. It didn’t sell. Nobody cared about it.
Then one night I’m walking down 6th Street, right between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue. I don’t dress to impress but I don’t look like a slob. I was clean-shaven and I’m alone and a woman sees me. She’s not really paying attention and she sees me, clutches her purse, and crosses the street. I thought, ‘that’s a pretty smart thing to do. I don’t have any problem with that.’ I wasn’t offended at all, but then I realized, if I was black, I would have been really hurt. Even though she did it because I was a guy, I thought, man that must suck.
So I made three t-shirts that month. The first shirt said, ‘No, white lady, I don’t want your purse,’ which became, you would not believe how popular this shirt became. Spike Lee bought them for his stores and sold them all over the world. It was crazy. That’s when Social Tees started.
My shirts were humorous even though they were a little bit confrontational. I realized that I could make shirts about things I really cared about, and that’s when Social Tees really happened. From 1991 until around 1998, my whole life was business. It’s funny, when you’re a certain age and you start something, you’re hungry. There were things I cared about, like I would do street fairs and promote my stuff. I would do conventions all over the country where there were school conferences. I would travel by myself with everything. I was hungry.
But I gave it all up. All of a sudden my great idea became not such a great idea. I was selling thousands of shirts a day all over the country. I mean, I had thousands of salespeople selling my shirts, right? Great idea, right? There was this one day where I had to leave my little shop, which was on Bleecker Street, and hire a staff and then trucking and the art department. I needed to expand to make even more money. I was never meant to be a businessperson.
So instead of selling the business like a normal person would, I just gave it up. All that was happening is that everyday I would go to work and I would make more money and I would put the money in the bank and then I would wake up the next day and make more money. I’m not going to live forever, how much money do you need? Money’s great, don’t get me wrong ... It’s so great to be over that. I was miserable even though I had this successful business plan that worked.
That’s what I mean by it’s a privilege to start the rescue. That happened organically. I remember I was with a bunch of friends in Chinatown. We were walking back from a great Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Pasteur on Baxter Street. I see this gleaming dumpster in Chinatown. What were sparkling were literally a million baby turtles. What they do is they buy the babies illegally by the millions for maybe a penny each and sell them for $10. They still do it. Most of the turtles die because they keep them in water and you can’t keep water turtles in water all of the time. They don’t feed them either. They just sell whatever they can and they dump the rest. A whole dumpster, if you can imagine, of turtles the size of a half dollar and smaller.
I took my t-shirt off and I spent like an hour and I found 35 out of these million baby turtles and I put them back in against my body because they were freezing. I took them home and rehabbed them. I think 34 of them lived. Then I was stuck with 34 turtles that were stinking up my apartment like you couldn’t believe.
So I found this guy who worked for the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society — yes there is one — and he was able to find a qualified place for these turtles to go. He ended up moving to Tennessee and I ended up taking his job of picking up turtles and other reptiles from the city and other reptiles — found, lost, abandoned, whatever — from Animal Control, where the dogs and cats are.
I used to pick up a snake here, a lizard here, then all of a sudden I’m seeing this line of animals being euthanized. So I started taking the dogs and cats home. That’s how it started. I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I’m fully licensed and I have all my documentation, but then I was like, take a puppy and take him home. I was learning on the fly. I had never even owned a dog until I did rescue.
That was the late 1990s but I didn’t start doing majority rescue until after 9/11. I took over someone’s lease and all of a sudden I went from having a shop that was one little room to seven big rooms. Now I have this little space and something miraculous happened because of all these amazing people who work for me. They turned it into a virtual shelter. It’s all done digitally. We have a crew who processes applications, and if someone is approved they get to meet the dogs here, but none of the dogs are kept here overnight. I get to do way more rescue.
People say, ‘How can you have freaking exotic animals like that? How can you have an owl in your shop?’ I say, ‘How can you buy cocaine so easily? How can you buy an Uzi?’ In the black market, animals are third, after drugs and arms. We had a baboon once; it was a baby. We had a mountain lion, which was the friendliest thing, in a giant dog crate and it was just rolling over purring. It was going to a rescue upstate with a guy who did wolves and mountain lions. That was the guy with the baboon. The baboons ride the wolves. The guy’s crazy. He looks like Clint Eastwood. I think he has alligators in his living room in a big pool and he swims with them. We’ve had anacondas, alligators and crocodiles. When you’re in New York, you get some crazy animals. Anything you can fit in that door will end up there.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.