Cover Story

Tara Zurawski Has Saved More Than 1,000 Lives!

Bandit, a former stray puppies from Puerto Rico at The Dog Store. (Photo: James Cullum)

By James Cullum

ALEXANDRIA,VA- Tara Zurawski is on a mission, and it’s heart-driven. For more than 10 years, the civil litigation chief for the Commonwealth of Virginia has also worn another hat – rescuing Puerto Rican street dogs with her nonprofit Project Second Chance. But since Hurricane Maria devastated the territory two years ago, the number of stray dogs suffering throughout the country has reached crisis levels, with hundreds of thousands roaming the streets. Since founding the organization in 2005, Zurawski and her team have rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,000 Puerto Rican mutts, and have found them new homes throughout Northern Virginia.

“I am not satisfied living in the United States, knowing how blessed we can be and not doing something to make things better. I don’t like to see problems and ignore them or walk by them,” Zurawski told The Zebra. “You never get a chance to grieve the dog you lost because you’ve got to move right on to the next one that needs to be saved. And it’s both a blessing and a curse, to feel the way we do about things and care. When you care so much it can be a very painful existence, but it can also be a very rewarding one.”

When she’s not commuting to Richmond from Alexandria to work in the Attorney General’s office, you’ll find Zurawski on the phone finalizing the details for the next pack of dogs to arrive on the mainland. Since there are limitations on the number of dogs that can be transported on a flight (up to five in crates depending on their weight), that means she needs to send volunteers to pick up the pooches and bring them back to foster homes. The fosters are not allowed on the plane without definitive destinations, and there are laws about how many pets can live in one home.

“There are hundreds of thousands of strays in Puerto Rico. You can’t rescue your way out of the problem, but what we can do with spay and neutering is to start addressing it and cut those numbers down,” Zurawski said.

Tara Zurawski of Project Second Chance. (Photo: James Cullum)

What Project Second Chance Needs

Sean Lein looked almost as happy as his newest best friend, a black Labrador mix he renamed Bert Macklin, FBI. Lein and his family were at Del Ray Pizzeria on Mount Vernon Ave. when he looked across the street and saw a Project Second Chance adoption event at The Dog Store.

“He was in the kennel and was super chill, and came over to me and looked into my eyes and that was that,” Lein said, with Bert resting comfortably in his arms.

Other pooches that day were given the names of the Team USA Women’s World Cup champs, like Rapinoe (after Megan Rapinoe). Incidentally, Project Second Chance regularly gives dogs creative names, like the Independence Day-inspired Bell, Bert (Liberty), Indie (Independence), Star, Rocket, and Anthem.

Sean Lein and his new dog, Bert Macklin, FBI. (Photo: James Cullum)

Zurawski holds pet adoption events all over the DMV, and a schedule can be found on the organization’s Facebook page. It costs up to $1,000 to rehabilitate each dog and the $385 adoption fee covers little more than their air fare. In other words, she’s looking for a few things to make her job easier – volunteers to foster rescued Puerto Rican street dogs, increased funding, equipment, and a facility to house the pets until they can be adopted.

“I’ve never gone to Puerto Rico for a fun trip, but I go to save lives, so I guess that for me that’s a fun trip,” she said. “Our goal is to have a fixed location in Alexandria, where we can actually have the dogs ourselves and not be so dependent on fosters.”

Dog Whispering

Zurawski first visited Puerto Rico with a friend in 2004, and didn’t like what she saw.

“I just wanted to help everybody and I didn’t know where to start. So I thought it was a good place to just keep volunteering as I learn more,” she said. “And when I got back here from day one, I was motivated.”

The Cornell University-educated attorney was born in Ohio to a NASA engineer father and homemaker mother in a dog-less household. It was only after she moved to the D.C. area for a stint as a paralegal at the Department of Justice that she went to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria to adopt her first pooch, a Roddy shepherd mix named Lexi. Her passion for rescuing stray dogs intensified the following year after she raised $15,000 for a dog with severe leg deformities.

“I never had a dog growing up. I adopted every neighbor’s dog and pretended it was mine, because the dogs would always follow me home because I was always giving them treats,” Zurawski said. “I think I let them know they’re safe, and especially with my interactions with dogs in Puerto Rico, I take them right off the street. It’s shocking to me that they can come from such a horrible place and somehow I am able to connect with them and put a collar and a leash on them and get them into my truck without a problem.”

But it’s hard work and Zurawski if often racing against the clock.

“The stressful part of all this is sometimes when you get a plea for help and they have six puppies, and sometimes you can be five minutes late and they’re gone and bad things have happened to them,” she said. “We also make sure feeding routes happen for strays, so we supply feeders with food and water and whatever materials they need to feed the stray populations that can’t be saved. Because some of them are too feral.”

Tara Zurawski of Project Second Chance. (Photo: James Cullum)

Interested in fostering or adopting?

Find out more about Project Second Chance at Doggy Yappy Hour at Hops N’ Shine on Tuesday, Sept. 3 at 5 p.m., at Tito’s Happy Hour at Blackwall Hitch on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 3 p.m., and at the Sinistral Brewing Company in Manassas on Sunday, Sept. 22 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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