My story: New York volunteer Peter Vega
Peter Vega has been volunteering with Best Friends–New York for longer than he can remember. But what he will never forget are the countless dogs he has helped to find homes.
As a dog handler, Peter helps some of Best Friends–New York’s shyest, most frightened and energetic dogs learn how to overcome their challenges through dog behavior training. And as a team lead, Peter helps new volunteers develop the skills needed to excel in their role.
“Peter is more than a dedicated volunteer,” says Maria Hertneck, volunteer specialist for Best Friends–New York. “He’s a cornerstone to our programs.”
So where does Peter’s drive and dedication come from? Perhaps, in part, it comes from the 26 years he spent as a police officer for the New York City Police Department and his current role as a special officer for the U.S. Secret Service. But what also drives Peter to go above and beyond with Best Friends is his love of all animals.
We spoke with Peter, who told us about what inspires him to help Save Them All in New York City.
Why did you decide to volunteer with Best Friends and what motivates you to continue that work?
I decided to volunteer with Best Friends after reading a book and watching a documentary about the organization. I thought it was a cool concept. Then I got a chance to meet one of the founders, and I was even more impressed and motivated to volunteer.
What also motivates me are the animals I get to help. It really keeps me going. I remember once having a tough day on the job, and in my line of work, things can get really stressful. But my co-workers know how special Best Friends is to me, and they put pictures of dogs everywhere that day to make me feel better. I found pictures of dogs on my desk, my computer and I even found pictures of dogs in my ballistics vest. It brought me back to reality.
What inspires you most in your volunteer work?
I am inspired by so much of what I get to do at Best Friends, but I especially love getting the chance to help some of the most challenging dogs find homes. I’m lucky in that I have the luxury of dealing every day with many dogs. I teach them and, in turn, they teach me. They humble me and remind me that I have to check my ego at the door.
What would you tell others thinking of volunteering with Best Friends?
There is so much you can do as a volunteer — a lot of ways you can help. I tell people that if they’re great with others, maybe they can network. And if they know how to use a drill — great. We always need help setting up for events. Whatever skills they have, we can always use them. Everybody always brings something to the table.
People know me as the dog guy, and I like to remind people it’s not necessary to be good with dogs or want to work with dogs to be a volunteer. Our cats always need help, too. I believe everyone can bring something to the table, and there are a lot of ways that you can make a difference in the lives of homeless pets.
Since becoming a Best Friends volunteer, what have you learned and is there anything you see differently now?
As a cop in New York City, I spent years dealing with people on the streets, which in turn has helped me learn how to best interact with people. In my work, I always thought that the best tool I had was how I communicate people. As an officer, you never want to leave things worse than when you got there, and a lot of making the situation better is just knowing how to talk to people.
As a volunteer with Best Friends, I’ve gotten a chance to apply this, too. In fact, since starting as a volunteer with Best Friends, I’ve become an even better listener and communicator, and I can better understand what is going on around me.
I’ve also learned how to be patient and humble, which I’ve sensed has made volunteers feel comfortable approaching me to ask for help. It’s also very important for me that I try to make every person I meet feel valued.
How do you help inspire new volunteers?
First of all, it’s very important for me that I try to get everybody to participate so that they walk away feeling like they had a good time volunteering. I also make sure to be respectful to all volunteers. After all, these are people who have given up their free time to help us.
I will never make a volunteer do anything that I wouldn’t do. Team leads are the glue to the fabric in the event — in addition to the staffers. We hold everything together, but I don’t tell people what to do. I guide them and lead by example.
In terms of your volunteer work for Best Friends, what are you most proud of?
I’d say that it’s how I interact with the dogs and how hard I work to help many of them break from their old habits. Maybe they jump on people, or maybe they bark too much and so they are brought to the shelter. But what’s important to remember is that these habits are often easy fixes. With the right training, dogs can learn new ways of behaving so they can find the home they deserve.
I’m also very good at interviewing potential adopters, probably because I’ve worked as an investigator for so long. I know how to talk to people, and because I also know our dogs very well, I am able to match adopters with the dog that’s best for them. The more I know about the dogs, the better reflection it is on Best Friends.
Why do you volunteer and what does it mean to you?
It’s embedded in my everyday life. When a dog gets adopted, they are so happy. You can see it on their faces. And I’m happy for them, too. These are moments that I never forget, and why I volunteer. If I miss an adoption event, I feel like I’m not being fair to the dogs.
I’ll give you an example. A while back, we had a dog at Best Friends named Pork Chop, who we all just loved. I worked a lot with Pork Chop, and I wanted to see her go to a good home. At a pop-up adoption event one day, a couple came in looking for a dog to adopt and they chose Pork Chop. It was hard for me to let go, and to see her leave. And since I’m an emotional guy sometimes, I probably teared up.
Then, about a year later, I was at a Best Friends adoption event at PetSmart and in walks Pork Chop with her adopters. She looked great and I could tell she was very happy. Her adopters told me they come to PetSmart once a month so she can get ice cream. It was very warming to my heart to know she is in a good place. This is why I volunteer, to have these moments and to save as many animals as possible.
Tell us something we don’t know (about yourself or just an interesting fact).
I’m very honest and open about just about everything. What you see is what you get.
But I would say what surprises some people is that I actually like cats. In fact, my wife and I have seven of them, including a beautiful Maine coon and a Russian blue (who is tough as nails). So there you have it. I’m not just a dog guy.
Can you tell us about your pets?
Besides our cats, I have a 75-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback and pit bull mix named Brody. I found him at a rescue one day and said, “OK, you’re coming home with me.” Right now, I’m working a lot with a dog at Best Friends named Tyler. I’m trying to help him break some of his habits so he can find a great home. But if he doesn’t, he’ll come to my house.
Do you have a super power, and if so, what would it be?
Dogs always have a degree of stress, and I have a calming effect on them. Dogs just naturally relate to me. People tell me this all the time.
Besides volunteering for Best Friends, how else do "give back" to your community?
I’m always helping animals or people who are helping animals. My wife has a friend who regularly visits Animal Care Centers of NYC, pulls cats scheduled to be euthanized, and transports them to a rescue group in North Carolina.
Recently, when I learned she had 12 cats needed to be transported, I offered to drive. I was going to Virginia anyway for training for my job, so I figured I’d help. So there I was, driving my sedan filled with 12 cats from New York to North Carolina. Let me tell you: it was quite a road trip.
I’ll always do what I can to help animals. Once, when I drove a dog from a Staten Island rescue organization to Florida, someone I knew found out about it and said it was crazy. I told him: “It’s not crazy. It’s called having passion.”
Photos by Shannon Kirkman, Nicole Hamilton and courtesy of Peter Vega