NORTH JERSEY — Have you ever found yourself in need of rescuing when no one was there, so you decided to be the hero you needed for someone else? 

Such was the case for author Regina Conroy. A victim of childhood abuse, she’s familiar with the pain of ill-treatment. It’s been five decades since a chance visit to a Montclair animal shelter — which turned into a beloved first job —  forever changed her. A responsibility that afforded her the opportunity to channel and heal her pain through providing tender loving care to the neighborhood dogs and cats, a number of whom were abandoned, abused and neglected. In recent years, Conroy used the compilation of journal entries she’d taken during that pivotal epoch and yielded a heartwarming novel about the power of self-love, redemption, and courage that she calls “Shelter: Lost and Found.” The book was released on October 29 via BHC Press.

It all started in the later half of the tumultuous 1970s when a teenaged Conroy wandered into the Pound Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) of Montclair, Inc. when it first opened its doors. The animal rescue and shelter organization is dedicated to the humane treatment of animals and facilitates pet adoption for stray and abandoned cats and dogs. Through Conroy’s eyes, it was a “world that very few people knew anything about,” a place she likened to an underbelly for unwanted pets.  

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“At the time, it was a private shelter, it was contracted to four different towns,” said Conroy. “We were also in an area with abandoned businesses going belly up, unemployment rates had skyrocketed. The biggest thing for me was the ignorance. The ignorance I found rampant along with the problems that caused that ignorance stemmed from poverty, a lack of education, and a lack of real information on how to care for animals. So many people were looking at animals like property… they need our love.”

At the shelter, Conroy said she had witnessed some animals abused and neglected to the point of starvation. 

“There were dogs and cats that you would see who were heartbroken, and we know that they were more susceptible to disease and losing them from sorrow,” recalled the author. 

On the flip side, she also recalled instances of dogs who were happier at the shelter under the care of people who knew how to properly care for them. For Conroy, who had previously worked at the Turtle Back Zoo as a lecturer and guide and at various animal hospitals, it was kismet when she found the shelter. She was hired on the spot before eventually moving up to manager.

“I had been searching for a way to help animals in a way that I hadn’t been able to do in the animal hospitals and in the zoos, and looking for more experience in the world of animals I didn’t know anything about — searching for meaning and answers like so many young people,” said Conroy.

The week she started her job, a young Conroy jotted diligent notes, attempting to cope with what she was learning and willed to make a difference. In the novel, protagonist Peggy, a runaway teen, is loosely based on the author’s own life experiences, and a character named for a homeless woman the author knew in real life who passed away in recent years. 

“People like Peggy come in and you have no idea where they’ve been, you can only wonder about it,” said Conroy. “In these characters, you learn why they’re there and the secrets in their past. Every single human being has a story to tell. We are so much more alike than we are different.” 

In retrospect, Conroy saw remarkable parallels of her experience and the problems of the world today in regard to race, politics and socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“So many young people today are being bullied, abused and scared and alone,” said the author. “No matter one’s circumstances, one can move mountains with courage and compassion by getting involved in something greater than yourself. Sometimes the bravest heroes are the most scared.”  

Like a young Conroy, Peggy is reticient and shy and attracted to fields that help animals, as she’s known hurt in her own life. It’s through her journey at the shelter where she unleashes her desire to give these creatures a voice who had no say in their circumstances and in turn saves herself.

“Everyone at the core is just looking for the same thing,” said Conroy. “The shelter of love, trust, kindness, compassion and empathy. I think that’s an important sentiment for today. We need to gather together in the spirit of humanity and discover what it really means for us to be human and truly humane, and only find that when we enter into the shelter of each other. Under the shelter of each other we survive.”

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