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December 12, 2012

Forever and Today: An Interview with the Today Show's Jill Rappaport

TV reporter gives star treatment to pets in need of homes

All Animals magazine, January/February 2013

  • "I wanted to do stories to make a difference for animals and be their voice," says Jill Rappaport. Tails Pet Media Group/Christopher Appoldt

For 16 years, Jill Rappaport attended A-list events and interviewed top celebrities for NBC’s Today show. But then her beloved dog was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2006, and viewers from around the world responded to the story of Jack’s leg amputation and chemotherapy.

“I went to my boss, the executive producer, and just said: ‘You know, stars don’t need my help; animals do. I want to be the animal advocate for this show.’ He looked at me without missing a beat and said, ‘Great, be a pet reporter.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Thank you so much, but not pet reporter, but animal advocate.’ Because I wanted to do stories to make a difference for animals and be their voice.”

Rappaport has since earned numerous accolades, including two HSUS Genesis Awards, for shining a spotlight on pet homelessness and other animal issues. Off-screen, she shares her home with five rescued dogs and seven horses, and she works to ensure that her friends never want for furry companionship: Bryant Gumbel, Christie Brinkley, and Al Roker have her to thank for bringing rescued dogs into their lives.

In this edited interview with senior editor Julie Falconer, Rappaport describes her mission to get needy animals into loving homes.

Have you always had a special connection with animals? Yes, my whole life I’ve had a kinship and relationship with animals, beyond just a mild passion. I was obsessed with Lassie growing up, with National Velvet. I ran up a $300 phone bill trying to reach Jon Provost from Lassie. I’ve always had what I call an obsession in a wonderful, healthy, loving way, because I consider an obsession with pets a very good thing.

What motivated you to launch the Rescued Me collection of pet collars and leashes? I just found that people who end up rescuing are so proud of it—and they should be! These leashes and collars have messages like “Opt to Adopt,” “I’m a Pound Hound,” or “Smitten by My Rescue Kitten.” It gives people bragging rights and sends the message that adoption is what you should be doing. And I’m working with two very important organizations, The HSUS and Tails of Hope.

It’s such a beautiful line, born and made in the USA. I’m very proud of it. It’s not about trying to become a cottage industry. I’m trying to become a business with a message loud and clear: You must step up to the plate and save a pet.

How are attitudes toward adoption and shelter pets changing? I’ll never forget when I found my dog Hampton at 7-Eleven 22 years ago. He was my first dog as an adult. People thought I was crazy to take a dog off the streets. The reaction was: “You’re taking in that dog? How will you know he won’t bite you or eat you while you’re sleeping?”

I’ve only taken in rescues. I never knew that there was any other way to have a dog or a cat. It’s always been my thing, being able to give one a second chance in life. I see the difference from when I first started rescuing to now. Adoption is the new green. Stars have jumped on the bandwagon. People are finally understanding the importance and the need and the benefits of rescue and adoption.

What’s the secret to the success of your From Bow to Wow adoption segment on the Today show? By putting a spin on it, making it a makeover segment, we kind of put a new face on adoption. Our first time doing this segment, we took four to five animals from a New York City shelter. I pulled two 10-year-old wheaten terriers who had to stay together. My producer said, “Are you sure? It’s going to be hard to get them adopted.” And I said, “If we just bring out yellow Lab puppies, we’re not doing the important service here.” A couple with twin boys adopted the terriers and sent pictures of them wearing matching bandanas.

Michael Phelps, Donald Trump, and Judi Dench have all walked out dogs. By shining a bright light on these animals, all of them get adopted. I’ve had three-legged animals and blind cats [on the air]—every single one has been adopted over the past four years.

How do viewers respond to animal stories? We could do the hottest celebrity, the biggest story of the day politically, or some fashion piece or diet story, and it’s still the animal stories that rule. They’re the ones that resonate with people’s hearts. I think one of the most important series I did was about 177 racehorses that were being starved to death in upstate New York. After we aired that story, we were able to save about 98 percent of them. Everybody stepped up to the plate.

You have to show a bright light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise people can’t handle it. Their hearts can’t handle it. So it’s a really fine line of covering the stories so you’re getting the message out, but you’re not making people so sad and depressed that they can’t bear to watch it. You want to give people hope and let people know that if we band together we can make a difference.

Are you seeing an impact? Every story I do, I feel like I’ve taken a few steps forward, but there are thousands and thousands of miles to go. However, if every one of those people I get my message out to takes a few baby steps forward, just think of the miles we can cover together.

To know me is to know that I walk the talk, and I live the life, and this is embedded in my soul. It’s authentic, and I think that resonates with people.

You have won two Genesis Awards and The HSUS’s first ever Voice for Animals award. What was that like? It’s so unbelievable. I just pinch myself. Because I remember reading about the Genesis Awards and watching them on television and thinking, “That to me is better than an Oscar.” Just to be acknowledged for making a difference for animals from such an incredible organization like The HSUS, it’s just the best gift in the world.

But I also feel a little bit guilty, because it’s really not about me. It’s the animals and people I cover that deserve the award. They’re the true heroes; I’m just the messenger.

Read more from this issue »

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