The Canine Connection

A chance meeting in an Upper East Side dog park creates new bonds

23 Jul 2020 | 11:50

One spring afternoon, Elisabeth Rasmussen was sitting in a dog park on the Upper East Side, finishing one of the phone meetings that have become too commonplace, when, suddenly, she saw someone walking toward her with Phoenix, her dog. Astonished, Rasmussen began to approach the woman, but stopped when she realized that Phoenix, whom she adopted in February, was sitting right next to her. Yet Rasmussen was not seeing double; there truly was a Phoenix look-alike strolling excitedly over to the bench she had been sitting on. And not only that, but Phoenix and Toki, the doppelganger, seemed to recognize each other.

“Up until that point, Toki was extremely shy, she wouldn’t approach other dogs, her tail was often pretty down in the dog park,” explained Melanie Horn, Toki’s owner since early March. “When she saw Phoenix, immediately her tail was up and wagging, she was jumping around. I had never seen her that excited.”

Convinced that Phoenix and Toki were not meeting but indeed reuniting, Rasmussen and Horn began talking, and the two discovered that they had both adopted their dogs from Bideawee, a New York-based no-kill pet welfare organization. Phoenix and Toki are not, the women discovered, two old, bizarrely identical pals—they’re brother and sister.

“It was a really sweet moment,” Rasmussen reflected. “It was special, it was magical.”

That magic extended beyond the canine connection and into the human world, for Rasmussen and Horn have since developed a strong friendship and supported one another through the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Rasmussen, who is from Norway, discovered her family was no longer visiting, she found comfort not only in Phoenix, but in Horn; when she underwent surgery, Horn was the one to send her flowers.

“It has been such a gift that during this time of uncertainty and isolation I was able to meet a really beautiful, strong, amazing woman,” Horn said. “I wouldn’t have been able to meet her without the dogs and that very serendipitous moment when we were in the park at the same time.”

“Foster Fail”

“It’s a really beautiful story of bonding and connection, both animal and human,” Rasmussen added. Employees at Bideawee are acutely aware of the importance of animal-human connections, particularly during a moment that is defined by isolation. Since the onset of the pandemic, Bideawee has put as many of their animals — they care for dogs and cats — into foster care as possible; according to Melissa Treuman, director of communications, the foster program grew by over 100%. The organization is already seeing some foster owners choosing to permanently adopt their once-temporary pets, a decision that is lovingly known as a “foster fail” in the animal welfare community. Yet overall adoptions have dipped during COVID-19, likely due to the necessary changes made to Bideawee’s operations.

“I think it’s a good thing that, in terms of adopting, you haven’t seen the kind of increase that you’ve seen with fostering,” said Treuman. “At some point, God willing, things are going to normalize, and adoption should never be a knee-jerk decision. These animals are your family ... so while you may suddenly find yourself with a lot of time on your hands during the pandemic, you have to imagine what’s going to happen when that changes.”

Though Rasmussen and Horn both adopted animals before the coronavirus pandemic became all-consuming, each found that having a dog — both of whom are, according to Rasmussen, “gentle, playful, kind, and snuggly” — made the quarantine far more bearable.

“I definitely found that having a furry companion helped me through ... the lockdown and being isolated in my apartment,” said Horn. “It was great timing because ... I got a lot of bonding time with [Toki], but it was also a great way to interact with other people in the city at a social distance, and I’m so grateful I was able to meet Elisabeth.”

Treuman articulated a similar sentiment. “Animal companionship and the joy that it brings,” she said, “is something that someone of any age, gender, race can benefit from, and we see that in terms of who adopts from us.”

Rasmussen and Horn plan to continue furthering that very companionship, not only between themselves, but between the dogs, too. In another random, heartening development in Toki and Phoenix’s story, Rasmussen and Horn were contacted by another dog owner on Long Island who fortuitously happened to see a video of the two puppies meeting. There is, it seems, another sibling — a sister whose name was Eliza but has since been changed to Willow — and the three owners have plans to meet up on the beach in August. The puppies will, of course, be joining them for the adventure.

“It was a really sweet moment. It was special, it was magical.” Elisabeth Rasmussen