Jill Rappaport – True Friend to the Animals

Jill Rappaport - Photograph by Christopher Appoldt

Jill Rappaport – Photograph by Christopher Appoldt

Her journey from the red carpet to the wee wee pad

By Dustin Fitzharris

When I meet Jill Rappaport at her Upper East Side apartment in New York City, I know immediately her dogs come first. Dressed in jeans, a navy blue zip-up hoodie, and flip-flops, Rappaport enters the lobby with a huge smile. She’s carrying Rubie, a red, miniature Dachshund she rescued just a week ago. Before we go upstairs, Rappaport asks for a few minutes to take Rubie outside. Her excitement for a potty break is not only charming—it’s infectious.

When we sit down to talk, Rappaport fills me in on Rubie’s story. While in California, winning her second Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)—the Oscars of the animal world—Rappaport visited the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control. At 5 years old, Rubie was the oldest of all the dogs at the shelter who weren’t sick or otherwise classified as “unadoptable,” and she was on the euthanasia list. “Most people would be happy to return with just an award, but of course, I had to come home with a dog!” Rappaport laughs.

Rubie may be the only dog with her at the moment—but four more await Rappaport’s return at her ranch in the Hamptons—along with six horses. Rappaport tells people, “I have more pets than a sane person, but less than a hoarder.” When Rappaport returned home with Rubie, her other four-legged kids—Sweet Pea (Coonhound), Buck-A-Roo (Yellow Lab), Petey (Bulldog), and C.J. (Havanese)—weren’t completely surprised by the new addition. “My dogs know the drill,” Rappaport says. “They accepted Rubie into the pack, but you could see their faces saying, ‘Mom, was this really necessary?’”

Jill Rappaport - Photograph by Robin Layton

Jill Rappaport – Photograph by Robin Layton

The self-professed “pied piper of pooches” grew up in Birmingham, MI. As a little girl she dreamed of one day having a horse in her back yard. She can now say her dream came true, but there was a time when she wasn’t above pretending. “There was a house that had a stable fence, and I used to go sit on that fence and pet an imaginary horse. People would be driving by. Can you imagine what that looked like?” she recalls with a laugh. She once ran up a $300 phone bill, determined to reach Timmy from Lassie. Rappaport admits her parents tolerated many other unique situations as a result of her passion for living creatures of all kinds.

While her love for animals never waned, Rappaport began her career as an entertainment correspondent. Later this year she will celebrate her 21st anniversary on NBC’s TODAY show. For 17 of those years she interviewed everyone from Muhammad Ali to Barbra Streisand. If there was a red carpet to be found, Rappaport was on it. Through most of her career at TODAY, she had Jack, her German Shepherd, waiting for her 
at home. Jack came into Rappaport’s life after neighbors in the Hamptons found him wandering around alone. They assumed he belonged to “the lady with the dogs,” since she had two others at the time. She attempted to locate the 6-week-old puppy’s family, but had no luck. So, of course, she welcomed him into her family.

Then in 2006, at 11 years old, Jack was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. The news was heartbreaking, but as Rappaport learned, “A devastating diagnosis is not always a death sentence.” In hopes of beating the cancer, one of Jack’s legs had to be amputated, and he underwent chemotherapy. Jack learned to live happily with three legs, passing away two and a half years later at the ripe old age of 13. While it’s never the right time, Rappaport has no regrets, knowing “he had the most wonderful life right up to his last breath.”

Jill Rappaport - Photograph by Linda Solomon

Jill Rappaport – Photograph by Linda Solomon

“Jack gave me perspective on my life,” Rappaport says. “As I watched his recovery, I thought, ‘Here I can be upset over something small, and I look at this dog who just had a limb taken off, and he’s just so happy to be alive. How can I ever be upset about anything?’ The message of resilience is really the most important thing animals teach us. They just want to be happy, loved, and pain-free.”

Rappaport chronicled Jack’s heroic story for TODAY show viewers, and the response was overwhelming. It was then she realized her true desire was to use her voice for those who didn’t have one. She went to her boss, explaining that she felt compelled to focus on animal advocacy stories. Without a moment of hesitation, he changed her title to “official pet reporter” right there on the spot. Since then, among her many success stories, she helped save nearly 200 horses with her two-part, award-winning series, “Horses in a Race for their Lives.” She also does a regular “Bow to Wow” segment, where shelter dogs receive makeovers and a second chance at life—and to date, every single one of the featured dogs has been adopted.

Rappaport’s work with animals has gained her much recognition. While each achievement means a lot to her, 2011 was a big year. She is most proud of being named the first recipient of the “Voice for the Animals Award” from the HSUS, presented to her by Matt Lauer, and being named the ASPCA Good Will Equine Welfare Ambassador. Even with all the accolades, Rappaport believes there is still much more to be done.

“I’m so passionate about rescue and adoption that I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what else I can do,” Rappaport says. “I think about all the animals sitting alone in cages, and wish everybody would go to shelters when looking for a new pet.” Rappaport encourages everyone she knows to adopt, not shop—most recently convincing pal Christie Brinkley to rescue a new puppy.

Rappaport’s latest venture is the “Rescued Me Collection,” sets of leashes and collars being sold through HSN, each one displaying clever slogans supporting rescue and adoption, such as “Heart Melter From a Shelter” and “Opt to Adopt.” The best part: a portion of the proceeds goes to charity, including Animal Care & Control of NYC (nycacc.org), Tails of Hope Foundation (TailsOfHopeFoundation.org), and The Riedel & Cody Fund (RiedelCody.org).

It’s not surprising that when Rappaport isn’t on camera or promoting animal welfare in some way, her favorite pastime is lying in bed with all of her dogs. To her, there is nothing better than being surrounded by fur, kisses, paws, and as much doggie love as she can get at once!

Rappaport’s amazing journey in her life and career has allowed her to be greatly blessed—doing what she loves for a living. As she proudly declares, “I’ve gone from the red carpet to the wee-wee pad!” And she—and the animals she helps—couldn’t be happier.

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