Broadway Barks Spotlight:
Broadway Barks celebrates its 15th year this July, and what better way to commemorate this anniversary than with a one-on-one interview with Broadway Barks co-founder, Bernadette Peters! Ms. Peters is a Broadway legend and has captured hearts all over the world in films, TV shows, and on the stage. An avid animal lover and compassionate philanthropist, Ms. Peters supports many charitable organizations including Broadway Barks and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. As she talked with us about her own rescued pets, and the work she does to stop the euthanasia of companion animals, it becomes clear that Ms. Peters is using her beautiful voice to speak for the voiceless.
Broadway Barks (BB): Tell us about your pets. What are their names and how did you find them?
Bernadette Peters (BP): I have Stella, she’s a 15½-year-old pit bull, like Petey from the “Our Gang” comedies. Remember the dog with the circle around its eye? You know, pit bulls used to be the family dog of choice at the turn of the century, so you’ll see Victorian photographs of babies with their dogs and they were pit bulls. They were called the “Nanny Dog” because they actually took care of the babies and made sure the rats didn’t get to them. Pit bulls love babies; they are wonderful animals. Pit bulls have just been victimized, which is a shame; they are easy to manipulate because they are very loving and they want to please you.
I also have Charlie, who I got last July after my beloved 16-year-old Kramer passed away. Stella was grieving. She pushed Kramer’s bed up against the front door for a week waiting for him to come back. She wouldn’t sleep, and then I would wake up at five in the morning to her crying and looking at his bed—dogs really grieve. So I had to get another dog sooner than I wanted to because I had to get Stella a companion, and I started looking for a shaggy dog like Kramer. I was going through Texas and went to a rescue there called DAWGS ’n Texas. I like to visit rescue groups across the country to see how they run their shelters; there are some very wonderful rescues out there. So, I went to DAWGS ‘n Texas, and they had a six-month-old puppy that looked so much like Kramer. I adopted him, and we drove him back to New York. Stella and Charlie met outside and then Charlie came up to the apartment; it was like he was meant to be here. Stella barked at him a little bit, but by the second day they were sleeping side by side.
BB: Do you know anything about their lives before you adopted them?
BP: Well, Stella had her throat slit from a rope that was embedded, so that meant that from the time she was a small puppy she was tied up to something. She lives for food, so I don’t think she was fed on a regular basis. In fact, when we got her we already had Kramer and I thought we didn’t need another dog, so we decided to foster her until she found a permanent home. We didn’t even know if she would survive. She had to go to the vet to get her throat sewn up, and the vet said he didn’t know if she would be able to eat or swallow. So, we had to wait until she healed. Everyone at the vet’s office loved her and carried her around. To this day, she still associates the vet’s office with getting treats. After she healed I thought give her away yet again? No, that would do more damage to her psyche, so we had to keep her. It was the best thing I ever did.
Charlie was found at about two months old in a garbage dumpster. People heard cries coming from the dumpster and they looked inside and saw this little puppy. They took him in, but they had to hide him because they didn’t have the money to pay for the pet deposit at their apartment. Then, he kept growing so they took him to DAWGS ’n Texas. DAWGS took him to adoption events at the local PetCo, but he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. It was like he was waiting for me. And when I met him he just wrapped himself around me.
BB: How did you first feel about adopting a pit bull? Had you had one before?
BP: I used to be afraid of pit bulls. I would cross the street when I saw one because I believed what I’d heard. Then, I went to the city shelter to get a dog and I couldn’t believe the number of dogs that were in there, including purebreds. The shelter director who was showing me around told me about the pit bull [breed], and how wonderful they were. She said that she had two at home herself and they happen to be a very loving breed of dog. You can wreck any dog—there are terrible people out there who fight dogs, put cigarette butts out on them, starve them, feed them gunpowder, aggravate them, and basically make them feel unsafe so they will do anything for them. But their natural behavior is to be very loving. In fact, most of the Michael Vick dogs were rehabilitated and several of them became therapy dogs. One dog even helps a boy as a reading dog. Remember, Petey from the “Our Gang” comedies was a pit bull and was chosen because pit bulls are so good around children and they love being around them. When you get to know them, they’re lap dogs basically. Pit bulls are a family dog. When I got Stella, all she wanted was to be my baby. She just wanted to lie on me and sit next to me and sleep with me and be with me; that was all she wanted. But I understand people being afraid. You mustn’t walk up to any dog you don’t know on the street and get in its face no matter how docile it seems.
BB: What made you decide to rescue animals rather than go to a breeder or pet store?
BP: I heard that there were dogs in the shelters that needed to be rescued; they needed homes. My dog had died of cancer—he was from a breeder, and we decided that maybe a mutt would be better. So we went to the shelter. People don’t realize that every animal the police find on the street goes to the city shelter—dogs, cats, roosters, there was even a calf that escaped a slaughterhouse once! There are so many wonderful rescue organizations that try to save as many animals as possible, but unfortunately about 40 animals a day still get put down in New York City. And in the United States there are millions of dogs in shelters and many of them don’t make it out. It’s sort of the last frontier where we humans are allowed to behave in a very barbaric way. It’s like we say, “Oh, too many animals? Oh, okay, kill them.” It doesn’t even make sense that we are allowed to do that. It is not acceptable to kill a companion animal; it’s just wrong.
BB: What is your favorite activity to do with your dogs?
BP: [Laughter] I played hide-and-seek with Charlie today, and I gave Stella a bath. I just love being with them. They are a great leveler of reality…you hold a dog and you feel the peace. They are lying there and you put your head on them or lie next to them and you just feel peaceful.
BB: Do your dogs have any special talents or tricks?
BP: Charlie is really smart. He taught himself a trick! I slapped my knee and he gave me his paw; I slapped my knee again and he gave the other paw. And he sings, he really sings. He likes it—he wags his tail and his mouth makes a little “O.” Stella does high fives!
BB: What do they do that is naughty?
BP: They’re not really naughty. They can be demanding. Stella is sort of deaf now, so she will bark and she keeps talking and talking in a very loud voice. Then Charlie starts barking because Stella taught him to bark.
BB: Do you “scoop the poop”?
BP: Of course! I have to. It’s my responsibility.
BB: Why is it so important to you to have animals in your life?
BP: I think they give you a peacefulness. Animals seem to be so much more connected than we are. They accept life as it comes. Eckhart Tolle wrote a wonderful book called Guardians of Being. He writes that a human says, “I love myself, I hate myself,” but the dogs says, “I am myself,” and then he writes “that is called integrity—being one with yourself,” which is true. Companion animals are here for us, they really are. They are sort of a miracle that no one understands yet. I think there are more animal lovers out there than we know.
BB: Do you believe in pet/animal therapy?
BP: I do. It makes people feel good to be around them. I learned this firsthand. The first year of Broadway Barks I was in Annie Get Your Gun and I always slept between shows. I thought how am I going to do the show, then do Broadway Barks, then do the evening show if I haven’t slept? That show took a lot of energy. I thought let’s just try it and see. So I did the show, then, did Broadway Barks, and I went back with so much energy, feeling so good. The animals are so therapeutic. They are wonderful for children who can’t communicate with people sometimes. The dog will sit next to them and the children will start talking to the dog, and it allows them to feel safe and gives them a friend to talk to. And then you have older people who have nothing to get up for every day except their animal. Maybe they live alone and that animal is their companion, it’s their reason to live. Animals have so many reasons to be here and be with us, to help us. As my friend Fran Drescher realized when she lost a beloved pet, the reason dogs only live a short amount of time is to teach us that we can love again. I think we need to understand more about the human-animal connection. It really is something that heals us.
BB: Do you sing to your dogs? How do they react?
BP: Well, when I wrote my two children’s books I wrote each of my dogs a song. Kramer knew when it was his song. If I sang Stella her song, Kramer would leave the room, but he loved his song. Now, Charlie, when I am just singing or rehearsing he is nonplussed, but if I sing to him, sing “oohs” to him, he sings back to me. He “oohs” back.
BB: What do your dogs think about cats?
BP: They both get along with cats. I used to have a cat named Murphy, and Kramer wanted to chase her so she stayed away from him. But one day I looked down and saw Murphy rubbing up against Stella, my pit bull. They were great pals. Charlie hasn’t been around cats so much, but when we go to the vet he sees them and he is very nonchalant, so I think he is fine with them.
BB: It is known that you go to the city shelter and save animals that are on the euthanasia list. Why do you do this when you are already doing so much?
BP: Because that’s the real problem. At Broadway Barks we have an adoption event, and we try to get euthanasia down, but the real problem is they need help at the city shelters. I heard that 17 million animals go into homes every year and there are 6-8 million animals in shelters, so if people considered adopting there wouldn’t be a problem and the killing of these animals would stop.
BB: How did you get started in animal rescue?
BP: It all started when I was looking on the city shelter website and I was following this lovely young puppy named Bob. When I saw Bob on the euthanasia list I panicked and called BARC Shelter [in Brooklyn] and asked if they had room for a dog, and they said yes. So, my assistant, Patty Saccente, and I took Patty’s Jeep to pick up the dog. Patty said, “I hope you’re happy because now this is what we have to do.” She also got hooked because it feels so good when you take an animal away from danger and put them in a safe place. We took that puppy to the vet because it had a leg injury. Then, my webmaster, David Risley, who had recently lost his dog and was interested in getting another one, went right to the vet, paid the bill, and took Bob home. That was the first one! I called BARC Shelter and said Bob wouldn’t make it to them because he was adopted, and they said, “Well, now you can go get another dog.” So, we took the Jeep, went to the shelter, picked out dogs and loaded them into the car to save as many as we could. Now we have the Mayor’s Alliance Wheels of Hope that transports animals all over! In fact, we are honoring Wheels of Hope this year at Broadway Barks.
BB: You are so well known and so loved, not only in the Broadway community but also through your work in film and television. Do you feel a responsibility to use that star power to do charitable work?
BP: It is my passion to help and I can’t not help. I am also on the board of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. There are so many issues in the world that need our attention and a lot of people are doing a lot of work out there, and it is all important. Broadway Barks and Broadway Cares are the two [organizations] that I picked [to work with]. Tom Viola started Broadway Cares years ago because there was a need. Those are my heroes: people who say something has to be done and then do it. Tom did that for the AIDS crisis. And the rescuers are my heroes—every year at Broadway Barks I open the show by thanking them. They are the pioneers and I am grateful to them for saving all the animals that they have saved. They took it upon themselves as individuals to do something and they are doing it! I want to use my voice for the voiceless. When we did the concert a few years ago for Broadway Cares and Broadway Barks, it was about helping people and the animals that heal them. We mustn’t forget that the animals are here for us; they are not a mistake.
BB: You clearly love animals and have already saved so many, so why did you feel you needed to do more by starting Broadway Barks?
BP: After I had gone to the city shelter, I knew they needed help. Annie Get Your Gun had just won the Easter Bonnet fundraising competition and we were feeling really good. We asked what else we could do, and I said “[save] the animals.” So we said, we’ll use Shubert Alley, we’ll get everyone out between shows, and I knew Mary Tyler Moore, my friend who loves animals, would help us, and that’s what we did.
BB: What has it meant to you to share your passion for animals with your friend and Broadway Barks co-founder Mary Tyler Moore?
BP: Oh, it’s so wonderful because I just adore her, and she loves animals. There’s a story she tells that when she was a little girl she saw a man beating a dog with a stick and she ran up to the man and started beating on him. [Laughter] She was just a little girl!
BB: Broadway Barks has reached the 15-year milestone. What is your dream for the future of Broadway Barks? Any plans to expand?
BP: I love that we have the Braille Tails books for blind children, and I would love to do more things like that—continuing to foster the human-animal connection to help people through animals. And what is so wonderful is that actors in other cities are starting to organize adoption events like Broadway Barks. They just did one in Washington, DC, called Beltway Barks, and other cities are working on similar events. It’s so exciting.
BB: You have written two books, Broadway Barks and Stella Is a Star, inspired by your rescue dogs. Now you have a new dog, so can fans expect another children’s book anytime soon?
BP: [Laughter] I’m working on it. I usually write best in airplanes and I’m taking a trip at the end of the month, so I’ll work on it while I’m on the plane. I have to give Charlie a song!
By Charlene Sloan