Urban park rangers Shantel Mena and Harry Aguilar show their equipment for handling some animals they find in the parks. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Shantel Mena was surprised to find her job as an urban park ranger involved frequent care for abandoned pets. In college, she imagined working with big birds, horses, and other large animals. But reality hit when Mena started working at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 2021. The first animal she helped was a puppy, not one from the wild.

The abandoned German shepherd was found trembling and tied to a tree in Highland Park. And the rescues didn’t stop there; the list grew to include cats, rabbits, and even chinchillas. 

In recent months, animal shelters across the city and the country have become overwhelmed with stray and surrendered animals. Animal welfare experts say it reflects the effects of inflation and the rise in housing and food insecurity. According to the most recent board meeting at the Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC), the city’s largest animal shelter, the number of stray dogs they took in rose by about 40% from 2022 to 2023. 

This means Mena and fellow park ranger Harry Aguilar have less time for other responsibilities: keeping parks safe, rescuing wildlife, and educating the public. 

“Recently, it’s been really, really often, and it’s so sad,” she tells Epicenter NYC. She and Aguilar had two back-to-back cases of abandoned dogs in the days after a storm hit the city last month. One, in Astoria Park, had been tied to a bench the whole storm.

How big is this problem?

We analyzed data provided by NYC Parks and found that the number of dogs needing ranger care has surged in recent years. 

  • 2018: Rangers helped five abandoned dogs 
  • 2019: Rangers helped 12 dogs
  • 2020: Rangers helped 18 dogs
  • 2021: Rangers saw an 88% increase after helping 34 dogs   
  • 2022: Rangers saw a 164% increase after helping 90 dogs 
  • 2023: Rangers helped at least 65 dogs, but this number only reflects rescues made until  August; this number is expected to increase 

There’s also been an increase in dumped cats in parks. 

  • From 2018 to 2022, there was a near doubling in the number of house cats found by rangers, rising from 28 to 54
  • In 2023, they helped 36 cats, but the data only reflects the first seven months of the year; this number is expected to increase 

The unexpected chase for chickens in city parks

In 2022, rangers documented 29 cases involving chickens. Photo: Adobe Stock

People also abandon rabbits, turtles, and chickens in city parks. While rangers have not seen an increase in these animals, they spend much of their time chasing them – except for turtles. In 2022, rangers documented 29 cases involving chickens. Coincidentally, the day before chatting with Epicenter NYC, Mena and Aguilar got a call about several chickens on the loose in Kissena Park. 

While most abandoned chickens are healthy, others are dead on arrival; their stench permeates through pine trees and their carcasses are dug up by raccoons. “And then you’re just seeing body parts everywhere, and you’re like, ‘what is that?’” Aguilar says. 

Sometimes the chickens have died of natural causes and owners aren’t sure how to dispose of them. Other times their heads are chopped off, likely part of a religious ritual, he says.

What do the city’s animal shelters see?

Animal welfare experts say that the increase in abandoned pets nationwide and in New York City reflects the effects of inflation and the rise in food and housing insecurity. 

“Because of the economic crisis, the housing crisis, veterinary costs are difficult to meet, people are having to move,” said Rachel Larkin of the animal rescue organization NYC Second Chance Rescue. “Moving creates a whole different aspect, especially with legislation that doesn’t allow a lot of large breeds or discriminated breeds on their insurance policies.”

Larkin says it’s an unfortunate example of the system working against itself.

“The biggest problem is New York City living — apartments aren’t that big,” Aguilar says. “Most people don’t realize how much it takes to raise these big dogs.” 

NYC Second Chance Rescue has noticed this uptick in calls about abandoned animals in or near public parks. “We’ve been called out to go pick up dogs on the side of the road or tied to benches, tied to fences and local parks,” says Lisa Blanco, co-founder of NYC Second Chance Rescue.

Marla, a white pitbull mix found tied to a park fence in Ridgewood. Photo courtesy of NYC Second Chance Rescue

The non-profit is based in Whitestone but receives calls about abandoned animals in the Bronx and Queens, mainly from Astoria Park and Ridgewood. The calls are primarily pit bulls or bully breeds, like Baxter, a bully mix found tied to a park bench in Astoria.  

Social media has been instrumental in helping non-profits find homes for abandoned pets. It’s also how they often learn of the dogs in need of help in the first place. A post about Baxter was circulating on Facebook before landing in front of workers at NYC Second Chance. Staffers went to the scene to investigate. Before they arrived, animal control had already secured Baxter and took him to the Animal Care Centers. Second Chance then took Baxter, who has since been adopted. 

Rangers hope for a better future for animals

Rangers Shantel Mena and Harry Aguilar in Forest Park. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Despite the increase in need, success stories like Baxter’s encourage Mena and Aguilar. 

“We both love animals,” Mena says. “We could be patrolling or doing something [else], and out of nowhere, the radio will sound for ‘Queens rangers, there’s an abandoned dog’ or ‘there’s a turtle that’s sick that’s caught in a fishing line.”

Sometimes, they get up to three calls daily from various parks, highlighting the constant demand for their compassion across Queens. 

Mena and Aguilar occasionally have the excitement of protecting marine life, including beached whales or seals. Recently, they had to prevent passersby and their pets from getting too close to a seal resting on Rockaway Beach. This required them to navigate the delicate balance between allowing for human curiosity and protecting wildlife.

Their daily challenges fuel their aspirations. Aguilar, whose family is from El Salvador, is inspired to become a game warden to educate and prevent people in his parents’ homeland from overhunting. 

As both rangers continue to respond to animals in need, they are driven by the memory of each one they helped rescue. They’re hopeful for a future where both wildlife and abandoned pets get the care and protection they desperately need. 

Need help with pet expenses? Consider these resources instead of abandoning your pet: 

• While ACC is at critical capacity and closed for dog surrenders, it provides a guide to help rehome your pet

•ACC can help find a new home for your pet while the pet stays at your home. The shelter can also match pets directly with private rescue organizations. This minimizes the shelter stress on your pet. You can call the care centers at 212-788-4000 to coordinate.

• ACC offers free services, including vaccinations, dog training, cat behavioral assistance, spay/neuter appointments, tenant advocacy, and help with pet-related housing issues here.

•The ASPCA has a comprehensive list of low-cost veterinary services and spay/neuter clinics.

•NYC Second Chance Rescue can offer families limited financial support when their pet needs medical care. You can contact the organization here.

Visit the ACC’s website to learn about more options here

Join the Conversation


  1. Thankyou to the rangers for caring
    I know I. Economic troubles that animals will suffer.please continue to help these abandoned precious animals

  2. I absolutely think it’s insane that people are allowed to abandon animals in such a cruel way without any criminal charges. There is NO justification for it..none!!
    Start pressing animal neglect and cruelty charges against individuals who abandon these beautiful souls.Enough is enough.
    Abuse and animal..go to jail..period!
    Thank you Rangers for your compassion.

    1. Animal abandonment is a crime in NY but sadly it’s rarely enforced. People that abandon animals do it when and where they’re least likely to be seen.

  3. I caught one of those chickens running loose in Kissena! We called 311 and had no luck figuring out what to do with it, so we contacted a local vet who helped us find someone that had chickens of a similar age and was willing to take on one more. I guess if I find another one, I’ll at least know who I should try to call!

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