Freelance Writer
Hometown Heroes/Worcester Magazine 2001
10.19.06 | No Comments

Disciple for the dogs

Sometime last month, some heartless bastard tied a pregnant medium-sized mutt to a pole outside of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church.

A kind soul delivered the abandoned girl to the Worcester Animal Rescue League, where immediately Mary Jane Fallon recognized that she was ready to have pups. A shelter is no place to give birth, she knew, so her home quickly became the dog’s “hospital.”

Fallon assembled a makeshift welting box next to her bed, and within days, the mama expertly produced a litter of nine. The family is still living at her home.

This is not an uncommon act for Fallon. A devoted volunteer at the WARL, more often than not she’s sheltering fosters (alongside four of her own dogs, Jack, Tripp, Ellington and Sydney) at her home in Harvard.

Heineken would have you believe it’s all about the beer. But for Fallon, it’s really all about the dogs. In fact, to celebrate her 50th birthday two years ago, her husband Justin asked her if she’d like to vacation in Paris or to fence in an acre of land for the dogs. She figured she had seen Paris, and her dogs liked to roam around. She picked the fence. Likewise, her son and daughter sometimes surprise her with spay and neuter gift certificates for presents.

We chatted on an unseasonably warm day a few weeks ago outside at the Rescue League, where Fallon walked a female pit bull mix named Kookita. While telling her story, she consistently talked to and patted the jumpy inmate.

Fallon can afford to donate – both in terms of time and money. But she doesn’t have to, especially to the degree that she does. And Fallon lacks pretension. A tall woman of medium build, she sports a simple cropped haircut and Levi jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt and Birkenstocks with wool socks. Her red Volvo station wagon sits in the parking lot, but there is, of course, a dog cage braced in the back.

Unlike a lot of animal advocates, Fallon didn’t grow up enamored by animals. She was a kid who occasionally brought home strays to her family’s one-bedroom Bronx apartment, but only for a short stay. It didn’t happen until later in life – specifically nine years ago, when she adopted her Border Collie-mix, Jack – that Fallon truly became what we can call a “dog person.”

“I never thought I’d have pit bulls sleeping next to my bed,” says Fallon, “or that my birthday present to myself would be paying for $300 eye surgery for a dog.”

Now a reading teacher for special needs kids at Major Edwards School in West Boylston in the morning, Fallon has headed over to the WARL to log time with pooches like Kookita every day for the past year and a half. She stumbled into the shelter about three years ago, when she was coordinator for the Australian Shepherd Rescue League.

“I really became a dog person after I kept Jack, who has a lot of Australian Shepherd attributes,” says Fallon. “So that led me to the Australian Shepherd Rescue, and I got my dog Daisy [who died of cancer] about five years ago. They were just so wonderful to me that I wanted to give something back. I went further than giving back to the Australian Rescue. I don’t do this because I should. I do it because it is amazingly up. I love being in the company of dogs.”

When her term was up as coordinator the rescue league, no one else wanted the role, so the group hooked up with the national representatives. Fallon started to become a regular volunteer at the Worcester Animal Rescue League.

As is common among heroes, it was difficult to pry much self-examination from Fallon. Instead, she often redirected the conversation to talking about the dogs, or methods of dealing with the dogs.

Book-smart and well spoken, it is apparent that she is an avid researcher, as she often alludes to seminars she has attended or books she has read. Fallon is the wife of a brain researcher, and has also done considerable research herself regarding the canine’s brain and what makes it tick. She’s a disciple of animal educator Susan Sternberg, and has paid for many of her seminars, which detail how to evaluate and handle adoptive dogs as they arrive at the shelter.

“Sternberg says that you need to walk down your kennels every night,” she says, “and say, ‘are you a better dog than you were when you came in, and are you a better dog than you were by the end of the day?’ Unless you can say yes, you’re just warehousing them and need to rethink.”

Fallon is a savior, and takes her role seriously – particularly since volunteering at the WARL. At the time she started to volunteer, WARL suffered from a severely fractured reputation – a reputation that was partly rooted in truth. When Hal Currier began to run the place in 1994, and his wife Doreen joined him in ‘98, they started to slowly turn the ship in the right direction. Fallon was a much-needed shipmate.

“MJ’s arrival to the shelter came at a time when we needed a new voice,” says Doreen. “She had visited many other shelters before, and we had never seen outside these walls – so she had some insight on what people are looking for when they visit shelters. It has been a tough, long challenge, but we are determined to let people know we are not a bad place for animals to come. MJ has gone beyond what we know as a volunteer. She sees no boundaries between paid and unpaid when it comes to animals.”

“I brought those things,” says Fallon. “But they had to be receptive. I think they were doing the best they could, but I think now it’s revolutionary.”

Whether ugly, old, handicapped, sick or scared, Fallon works at getting dogs back on their paws. For instance, Kookita, the surrendered dog she tends to as we talk, is older and not “conventionally gorgeous.”

“I’m just taking her for a walk – just hanging out,” says Fallon. “I do this with as many as I can. I don’t do it as much with the young, adorable puppies because they’re out of here quickly. They don’t need my help as much.”

Fallon socializes dogs aggressively, sometimes even taking them for a weekend at the Cape, or for spells at the Home Depot, where they can become tolerant of even burly human types. She’s not adverse to taking a shelter inmate out for a cheeseburger at Wendy’s. Her regular veterinarian gives her 50 percent discounts because she brings in so much business.

“She has been an angel sent from doggie heaven,” says Doreen. “Every shelter that exists needs an MJ. She has given hundreds of homeless dogs the chance of a lifetime. She opens her heart and home to them all.”

And cats? Surely she’d help them out, too, if they didn’t make her scratch, sneeze and break into patches of hives. Allergies have certainly shaped Fallon’s preference.

Lots of people like their dogs. But there are few who cross the bridge into becoming a spokesperson for them, taking on their plight as Fallon has done. She just instinctively knows they need her, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

“I don’t know if they need me, really,” laughs Fallon. “I know I need them. They live in the moment. They don’t hold grudges. They don’t dwell on stuff. What you see is what you get. They’re warm, and they’re funny. They’re the other species that we share our lives with in a very personal way.”

Fallon does more than most.