Alumni Profiles

Pet Project

cat and dog together

Mary Ann Cancio says she always has come to the aid of animals in need. “When I would find a stray, I would jump in to help,” says Cancio RC’76, GSE’80. For instance, when she worked at The College of New Jersey in the mid-1990s, a cat kept following students in and out of her office building. “The director said, ‘Something needs to be done about that cat.’ So I went outside, picked up the cat, put it in my car, took him home that night,” and proceeded to get him adopted.

That natural affinity for abandoned pets eventually led Cancio, now director of Direct Academic Support and Operations at Rutgers’ Learning Centers, to cofound the Scarlet Paws Animal Welfare Network at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in 2011.

Leader of the pack

After returning to Rutgers in 1996 for her current position, Cancio picked up the pace of her animal-rescue activities. She started setting out humane traps for the feral and abandoned cats on campus, placing strays into foster and adoptable homes, and trapping, neutering, and releasing the ferals. Soon, she realized she wasn’t alone in her mission. “A number of us faculty, staff, and students were individually rescuing on campus,” she says. “We just naturally found each other and decided to form a nonprofit rescue organization so we could fundraise and recruit volunteers.” Cancio has been the network’s president since its founding.

The organization’s other founders include Edward Konczal RC’92, a unit computing manager with the School of Arts and Sciences; Bonita Grant, formerly with Rutgers University Libraries; Helene Grynberg, formerly with the American studies department; Sharon Grau DC’03, SSW’11, formerly with the libraries; and Al Nigrin GSNB’83, MGSA’86, director of Rutgers’ New Jersey Media Arts Center.

Today, the network’s mission goes beyond helping cats and dogs. It is “dedicated to promotion of the humane treatment of both domestic animals and wildlife found living on the New Brunswick campuses of Rutgers,” according to its website. Volunteers include staff, faculty, students, and community members, and the team is always looking for new recruits.

A rescue mission

“The facilities people at Rutgers, who are really great and caring, sometimes contact me about strays they see on campus,” Cancio says. Other animals that come to the network’s attention include pets like hamsters and snakes left in dorm rooms after the school year ends. But about once a week, Scarlet Paws receives word of an abandoned pet or wounded wild animal via email. Cancio follows up with a call or email and, if it’s an urgent situation, she will assess whether she or a volunteer can help or if they need to contact campus facilities or the local animal welfare officer.

“Often, I’m more of a resource because we can’t address every kitten, cat, and dog,” says Cancio. “I can direct them to someone who can help.” She says the group has probably helped rescue hundreds of animals in its decade of existence.

“We hope to work with the university to secure space and a facility for temporary housing and establish a campus sanctuary to place ferals, similar to what many other universities throughout the country are doing,” she adds. “Students are always looking for ways to help animals and this would be a great way to provide such opportunities and to help the campus strays and ferals at the same time.”

Fostering happier outcomes

While Scarlet Paws works as a PetSmart Adoption Partner on adoptions and can fund some of their activities through adoption fees, the network also relies on fundraising, donations, and one-on-one pet care from the community. “Spaying, neutering, vaccinations, and testing end up costing us $100 to $200 per pet,” she says. “We always need supplies and foster homes, too.”

For those considering a pet adoption—something that has picked up since the start of the pandemic—Cancio recommends fostering first. “See if it fits into your lifestyle and whether the pet is a good match,” she says.

Cancio adds that you should be wary of any adoption group that doesn’t conduct an interview with you to ensure the pet is a good fit. “We have an application, we do an interview, we ask for references, and we will match the pet to that info,” Cancio says. “We want to make sure you are happy and that this pet is going to the right home.”