WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A woman slept in a makeshift shelter in Highbridge Park in an effort to save a feral dog from freezing temperatures, she said.
The plight of the wild pup who's lived in Highbridge Park for years and was the last of about a dozen to roam the park freely mobilized a community of caring Uptown residents as temperatures plummeted to record lows.
As the cold reached just above zero on Sunday, neighbors finally managed to wrangle the scruffy canine they call Charlie into a van and deliver him to a veterinarian for medical care.
Denise Lauffer, 40, a dog walker who's adopted three feral dogs and another stray since she moved to the neighborhood in 1994, worried about the dog who she'd been leaving food for several years. She feared Charlie would not survive the cold in his old age.
So last week, she said, she started sleeping with him in the woods.
"He needs to associate me... [with] food and companionship and heat and warmth," she said. "I was able to line the bottom of his bed with hand warmers...He loved it."
She said she spent two full nights in a shelter she had built and part of two other frigid evenings. And she began meeting others who were also concerned about Charlie. Some residents from the other end of the park had another name for the dog, Ricky and had also been caring for the feral pup for years.
There were the school safety agents and teachers from across from the park at P.S. 5, a woman and her mother, a traveling salesman from Long Island who frequented the neighborhood and a handful of other residents who brought Charlie hot meals and blankets.
Even a Con Edison worker stopped by one day to donate more than 30 hand warmers.
"[Charlie] had coats and blankets and [he was] sleeping on pillows and hand warmers and hot water bottles," Lauffer said. "You name it he had it."
Finally on Sunday evening, a group of five neighbors managed to slip a rope around Charlie's neck and coax the pooch into a car. They took him to the Animal Medical Center, where he was tested then released to the care of Yuliya Avezbakiyeva, 35 and her mother Yelena who had been caring for 'Ricky' since 2009.
"He spent his first night in ten years indoors," Avezbakiyeva said. "The whole time he was sleeping."
Still, Charlie was lethargic and lacked appetite, so Avezbakiyeva brought the pooch to Blue Pearl, where he is still undergoing tests. A veterinarian said the dog's health problems seemed to be associated with age and are nothing to worry about.
Charlie, with a mottled coat of black and tan hues, has lived between Highbridge Park and Inwood Hill Park for about 10 years, neighbors said. Residents say Charlie was born to a wild pack of about a dozen dogs that used to roam the park freely.
“A couple of times, like early morning dawn, you’d see them scurrying through the baseball fields in the fog,” said Julio Belliar, 52, who's lived in Inwood for 34 years.
But about five years back, the other dogs mysteriously vanished, leaving Charlie all alone.
“I was just so sorry when they caught the rest of his pack and he was alone. It was sad,” Belliar said.
Charlie persevered for years, surviving on his wits and the kindness of neighbors who left food for him in the woods.
Neighbors are hopeful Charlie will recover. They're working to raise money to fund Charlie's medical care and they've already gathered more than $1,000.
"The whole neighborhood is crazy about that dog. We're just in love with him," said a teacher who works at P.S. 5 but did not want to give her name. "We're all worried about him."