Op-Ed: Open Letter to Nick Santino, Who Died for His DogPublished February 3, 2012
Following the euthanasia, Santino came home and promptly swallowed a fatal dose of pills.
He left behind a suicide note saying, “Today I betrayed my best friend and put down my best friend. Rocco trusted me and I failed him. He didn’t deserve this.”
There’s been an outpouring of sympathy for Santino and Rocco, including a vigil to be held at his building tomorrow organized by the Animal Farm Foundation, as well as series of satellite vigils to be held around the country. But I’ve also read hundreds of angry comments from readers outraged with Santino. People demand, “Why didn’t he find the dog a home?” or “Why didn’t he give the dog to a shelter?” or “Why didn’t he just move?”
These are reasonable questions, but as a New York City co-op owner and also someone involved in animal rescue for many years, I want to clear a few things up, as Nick Santino can no longer do it for himself.
1. It’s not so easy to “find a dog a home.” Any dog can be difficult to place, but an adult pit bull can be near impossible. Santino apparently did ask at least one person to take Rocco. According to the New York Post, his friend, Sandra Tarr, lamented on Facebook: “Why didn’t I just take Rocco when you called me…. Why? Why? Why???”
2. It’s not so easy to “give a dog to a shelter.” Shelters are overwhelmed—it’s difficult even getting a kitten into a shelter, let alone a pit bull. And many no-kill shelters will not take an adult pit bull, precisely because they know how difficult it will be to adopt one out.
A few years ago, I came across a young orange-and-white pit bull weaving in and out of traffic in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Luckily, I knew a lady who rescues this breed. But even knowing her, I had to cough up a large (very large) donation before she’d agreed to take in the dog. She was buried in pit bulls. It’s quite possible that Santino tried several shelters and was rejected.
Reports say Rocco was a rescue dog. I don’t know why Santino didn’t return Rocco to the same group he adopted him from, but perhaps he tried and they couldn’t take him back right away, or the group no longer existed, or he simply didn’t realize a rescue group will almost always take back one of its own.
3. It’s not so easy to “just move.” Santino owned his condo at One Lincoln Plaza. In this depressive real estate market, many condo boards are not approving sales below a certain price point, making sales extremely uncertain. But let’s assume he was able to sell his condo, he still would have had a difficult time finding an apartment that would allow him a pit bull.
Even if he did find one, it is possible Santino himself didn’t meet the criteria that banks, condo boards, and landlords require of buyers and tenants in this city. Even renters often need to show several months’ worth of rent in the bank. Condo buyers usually need a year’s worth of maintenance. Everyone wants to see a long and solid work history. If his employment situation or finances had worsened since he bought his condo, he could have been out of luck getting a new place, even with money from a sale.
Perhaps he could have moved to a different state, but we don’t know his circumstances or why he may have needed to stay in New York. At any rate, this is a lot of life rearranging to do for someone who was clearly suffering emotional demons. (Santino has been described as growing up in a series of foster homes.)
Nick Santino’s troubles started in 2010 when his building’s board passed an ordinance banning pit bulls. Rocco was grandfathered in, meaning that Santino could legally keep his dog. However, Santino was being pressured in another way: A neighbor repeatedly complained that Rocco was barking. Other neighbors have disputed that Rocco barked. To my knowledge, pit bulls are not excessive barking breeds, so I suspect Rocco wasn’t causing a problem, but either way, it’s obvious Santino felt his place in the building was under attack.
The euthanizing of Rocco was a dreadful decision, but until you’ve had a condo board down your back, don’t make judgments. Animals love us unconditionally, and we want to love them unconditionally. Yet we humans live in a conditional world.
People who live in houses in the suburbs would never quite be able to process the peculiar torture that a building management company or condo board can inflict if you’re not fitting in. Yes, Santino could have dug his heels in and said, “I’m not getting rid of my dog. Go ahead, take me to court.” The board would have likely backed down, not wanting to run the risk of an expensive legal battle. But it takes a willful, emotionally tough person to stand up to a condo board—and this wasn’t Santino.
If Santino were alive today and if I were a friend of his and aware of his tormented decision, I would have done my best to comfort him in this way: Nick, you didn’t drop your dog off at the city pound, as thousands do every day, for him to die scared, confused, and without you. Rocco went to sleep with you right there, by his side. You didn’t fail Rocco in that final moment, and you didn’t betray him. You comforted him. You made the worst decision a pet owner can make, and you faced it like a man. In the end, you were his friend—his best friend.
Half of my fee for this story will be donated to Sean Casey Animal Rescue, a group that rescues pit bulls and other animals. Petside is matching my donation.
Vigil for Nick Santino and Rocco:
Saturday, February 4th
4:00 p.m.Outside of “One Lincoln Plaza”
20 West 64th Street, New York, NY
(between 8th Avenue and Broadway)