NEW YORK — A driving rain washes oily rainbows across the broken sidewalk on 123rd Street. It's a cold, soggy Sunday in Harlem and the street is deserted, except for a small figure hunched against the wind. Although she struggles to pull her shopping cart across the crumbling concrete, there is purpose in her stride.
She stops in front of a lot strewn with garbage, junked cars, and discarded refrigerators. She calls out softly and rattles her cart. At first the lot appears deserted, but after a few seconds, there's movement among the clutter. Two stray dogs, drenched and filthy, emerge from the backdrop. When they see who it is, they come alive, ears up, eyes bright, tails wagging.
The focus of their affection is Chitra Besbroda. For 25 years, she has been the patron saint of Harlem's stray cats and dogs. Besides feeding them daily, she has found homes for more than 100 each year - close to 3,000 all told - an extraordinary record by any standard.
"She is driven to save lives and relieve suffering - and in a way that's what a saint is. I guess in her own way in the animal kingdom, Chitra Besbroda is a saint," says Roger Caras, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), who calls her the "Mother Teresa of dogs."
Besbroda's mission, as she calls it, is not always pleasant. It is dirty, dangerous work. In addition to the strays and junkyard cats and dogs, she rescues dogs being bred for illegal fighting pits - that has put her in conflict with some pretty vicious criminals.
She has been beaten severely several times and her life is threatened regularly. Mr. Caras worries Besbroda could be in danger carrying out her mission. "Chitra doesn't perceive danger the way other people do because she's a zealot," he says. "She has seen something and she cannot live on this planet with it; and she's going to drive it out no matter what the personal cost."
Besbroda says she can't help herself. Something in her will not allow her to bypass even one helpless animal.
"What drives me is a very strong need to save animals - beings for that matter, animal or human; I've done both," she says. "But the emphasis has always been animals because they are so helpless; they can't speak or help themselves at all. What propels me is the fierce need to save lives of the totally innocent."
Besbroda used to fund most of her rescue work out of her own pocket. (She is a full-time social worker in the New York school system.) But six years ago, she applied for and received nonprofit status and named her organization: Sentient Creatures Inc. Now tax-exempt contributions support her mission, although barely a month goes by when she doesn't have to dip into her own money to make ends meet.
In addition to financial challenges, the dangerous nature of her mission makes it hard for Besbroda to find volunteers. Some are willing to walk the dogs she has already rescued that are awaiting adoption, but few are willing to take to the back alleys of Harlem. Most who do bail out after one or two trips.
One exception is Ronnie Lawrence. Quiet and shy on the surface, she has been going on the rounds at least one day a week for the past few years. She says it was Besbroda's courage and encouragement - along with her own deep love of animals - that helped her find inner strength.
"It's not easy; it can be scary, emotional, heartbreaking work. You have to know what to do, how to take care of the animals," she says. "You can't quit and walk away in the middle of a rescue. You have to take responsibility and have the persistence to follow through after the rescue to find homes for the animals. Sometimes that's the hardest part."
The first home for most of these animals is Besbroda's one-bedroom apartment. It is common for her to share it with eight to 10 animals at once. Over the years, generations of them have chewed, scratched, or broken just about everything in reach. Only the bedroom is off-limits. She dreams of someday owning her own kennel.
Every Sunday afternoon, Besbroda sets up shop at a flea market on Columbus Avenue. Here she finds volunteers, solicits donations, and sometimes finds homes for the animals. She brings those she feels are ready for adoption, and they lie quietly under her table waiting to be trotted out on display.
Besbroda knows that she may have to talk to a hundred people before she finds one who is willing to take an animal home. But experience has taught her that patience and persistence pay off, and she says she never loses sight of the goal: to transform a street animal's squalid existence into a life of love and comfort. Each success renews her and drives her forward to the next.
As an example, she points to a building just down the street from the flea market.
She says an investment banker who lives there adopted a brindle pit-bull terrier named Mudpack from her.
"Now he [Mudpack] has a trainer - a dog walker who's a friend of mine - lives in a penthouse, and is given every comfort," she says. "Whatever his heart desires, his master obliges."
But after 25 years, Besbroda finds that her mission is more difficult than ever.
The number of strays on the streets of Harlem is larger than ever and complaints about noise and threats of legal action from her neighbors and condo association have forced her to rent a nearby storefront to house her dogs, creating a further drain on her resources. But she has no intention of giving up her fight - she says she's ready for another 25 years - and she constantly exhorts others to step into the ring as well.
"Do not neglect, or ignore or refuse to save a life," she says. "The first sad-looking pair of eyes and a raggedy dog that crosses your path, rescue him, rescue that first one. That will lead you to the next and the next. Do something - you cannot close your eyes."