Anyone who loves animals knows it takes a special person to rescue, foster and adopt.
For Michelle Neufeld Montak, who says she “loves animals more than most people,” the decision to form Gimme Shelter Animal Rescue was inspired 12 years ago at a friend’s fundraiser for a local animal rescue.
“I stopped by to give a donation and to say hello, and that event changed my life,” says Montak, who had been selling real estate in Toronto where she grew up.
“I found out how many dogs are dying in shelters all across the country—I just couldn’t believe it … how many dogs were being killed in gas chambers all across the South—it was absolutely horrific, so I started volunteering and I literally felt like I found my passion.”
Montak’s first trip to the Hamptons 13 years ago proved to be a prophetic one. While visiting a girlfriend’s share house for the weekend, she met her now husband Eddie Montak. Eddie, who owns a contracting business, was living in the city and had a house in the Hamptons. After a couple of years of long-distance dating, the couple got engaged and decided to live together out east because “it was the best fit” for the other love of Michelle’s life—her dog, Otis—“a big, black, fluffy, sheep-y dog, a border collie-husky mix,” says Montak, with affection.
While waiting for her working papers, Montak would take Otis around as she familiarized herself with the area and her new home.
“All the towns and the stores were so welcoming,” says Montak. “It was such a nice change from Toronto in that way—they all welcomed Otis … everyone fell in love with him—he was so zen and he was definitely an old soul, a very spiritual, sweet dog … I met a lot of dog lovers that way and that’s kind of how it all started.”
After volunteering at a local rescue, eight months later Montak founded Gimme Shelter in December of 2011. The rescue “took over life” and she never looked back on real estate.
“When I first started, I didn’t have a foster network, I didn’t have donors,” says Montak. “I just had friends who loved dogs and believed in what I was doing.”
She started to “literally save one dog at a time.”
“I would see dogs on Facebook or online, or I would see dogs down South that were in a shelter that were about to die, and I would just call the shelter and say ‘Is there a vet nearby that I can pay for vetting and shots? … Is there a volunteer nearby that can bring the dog out of the shelter to the vet?’ I paid for the boarding, and I paid for all the vetting—and my very generous friends all chipped in,” says Montak.
But once she rescued a dog, where would she keep it? That was her dilemma early on with a rescue named Emma, “a sweet little black Lab who was at a shelter down South who had been wandering on the street with her two newborn puppies.”
After Montak rescued the Lab trio, a friend of hers who worked at Ralph Lauren sent out an email blast to her contacts to effort a foster and that led to Montak meeting Chuck and Ellen Scarborough. Not only did the Scarboroughs end up fostering Emma, “they fell in love with her and adopted her,” says Montak. “The Scarboroughs became big supporters, hosting our summer fundraiser out here at their house in Southampton,” she says. “They are amazing people.”
Word of mouth helped and the rescue grew.
“A lot of friends who are huge dog lovers started the website and it just took off, and people started adopting from us and telling their friends and then other families decided that it was a nice thing to do, especially for their kids. … They are teaching them to care for another living creature, to provide love and comfort and to be actually able to see it go to a wonderful home and then do it again,” says Montak.
There have been challenging days.
“For the first three years, the transport van that brought the rescues up from the South wasn’t even coming to Long Island,” says Montak, so she would get up at 5 a.m. every Saturday and drive with a friend in her minivan from the Hamptons to pick up the rescues in New Jersey at a service area.
“It was all-consuming,” says Montak who describes her work as “very rewarding and very stressful. … It’s also very heartbreaking on a daily basis because I can’t save every dog I see or hear of.” She says she often works 24/7, adding, “My husband Eddie has been extremely tolerant … I’ve been a workaholic for 10 years now.”
To date, Montak has saved almost 3,000 rescues. At any given time she has 70–80 dogs in her care, between the ones down South at the kennel that she pays to board, and the dogs up here with her network of fosters.
“When the doors open to the transport van that arrives every Saturday in Commack with the rescues and the fosters, and the adopters come forward, it is very emotional,” says Montak. “The dogs all started off in such bad situations, and they are going to have great lives.”
Because Gimme Shelter is an all-breed rescue, that means all types of dogs (and ages) are rescued. “Stockard Channing adopted a pit bull several years ago,” says Montak. “She was super cool, a total pit bull lover and we saved him off death row.” Julianne Moore started following the website and she and her husband Bart Freundlich adopted a black Lab.
No matter who applies to foster or adopt, the aim is the same for Montak:
“To make sure we find the best home for each dog and we also find the right dog for each person.” She describes her fosters as “very special people.”
“When a foster ends up taking the dog, we call them a ‘foster failure,’” says Montak, adding, “We laugh at it … it’s a beautiful thing for the dog because it doesn’t have to move and re-adjust to a new home, but for us, every foster is like gold—they are precious.”
As for the future, Montak would like to build on what she has created.
“The goal,” says Montak, “is to have a shelter out here in the Hamptons so that we can save more dogs … if we could find someone out here to give us some land and then I can fundraise for the shelter—that would be a dream come true.”
For now, the rescue work continues.
“I love what I do beyond measure,” adds Montak. “I’ve met some extremely special humans through my rescue work. I feel deeply grateful and truly humbled to have such incredible supporters and friends. And that I get to dedicate my life to saving so many precious, magical souls.”
Gimme Shelter Animal Rescue in Sagaponack is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. For more info, visit GimmeShelterAnimalRescue.org.