A Rescue Dog Saved Him From Addiction

The dog that saved Mike Favor’s life was a German shepherd puppy named Honey: 8 weeks old, heart condition, four months to live. This was in 2016, and Mr. Favor was trying to get sober, after 13 years of active cocaine addiction. When he heard about the puppy, at a rescue organization where he occasionally volunteered, he knew he couldn’t take her.

“I’m too new into sobriety,” he told his fiancée at the time, who also volunteered at the rescue center. Another tragedy in his life, he said, might drive him back to drugs.

Then he met Honey.

Mr. Favor is a big tough guy, son of a cop, a self-described “street dude” with a chip on his shoulder. But here was this puppy looking at him, needing a home, even if only for four months. He told himself, “I’ll give her the best four months possible.”

One recent afternoon on Staten Island, Mr. Favor, 40, showed off the product of that encounter: a 4,000-square-foot rescue center and sanctuary for abused or neglected dogs called Freedom Home. Prominent is a photo of Honey, who lived for seven years in his care, far exceeding the vet’s prognosis, before dying last year.

At Freedom Home, Mr. Favor also runs Broken Souls Rescue and Recovery, to facilitate adoptions, and he also created a program to connect recovering addicts with the dogs. This venture he called Pitbulls and Addicts, for “two misunderstood breeds” that need care and acceptance.

“I wanted to show people what works for me,” he said. “This lifestyle with dogs just made me not want to cope with drugs no more, but to cope with broken souls, because I was a broken soul. These animals gave me a purpose to live.”

He added: “That dog accepted me for who I was at the lowest point of my life. As an addict, we go into a corner and we defend ourselves. I opened up my heart and I welcomed her. And with that, she welcomed me to find the man that’s inside. I was still a broken boy trying to get to that man.”

The maze of rooms and cages, connected by corridors with security gates at both ends, held a couple dozen big dogs — some of them missing legs, some blind, some volatile around other dogs. The dogs had been beaten with machetes or baseball bats, thrown from windows or, more often, simply left tied to benches or poles. Several have been here for years, with little hope of being adopted.

The energy was controlled chaos.

A bright painted mural on one wall announced Freedom Home; another, next to a heavy punching bag and some dumbbells, commemorated the actress Betty White, who campaigned for animal welfare.

A mounted photo of Mr. Favor bore his story in shorthand: “My rescue dog rescued me.”

A liver-spotted Dalmatian named Rolly, a gusher of affection, came bounding toward Mr. Favor. Rolly was born with an abnormality in his eyelids that impeded his vision. Mr. Favor paid for surgery, and now plans to have him trained to comfort children with cancer.

To spend time at Freedom Home is to sense a parallel. The dogs’ transformation, from broken to whole, is not unlike Mr. Favor’s own.

“These dogs know when I’m having an emotional day,” he said, letting Rolly jump at him. “My whole life, I didn’t have no emotional connection. There was no feelings inside. So nowadays, if I’m having a bad day or something goes wrong — Rolly, enough! Enough. Enough. Now you’re putting on a show. Sit down.”

On cue, he did.

On an afternoon in late January, inside the unmarked door at Freedom Home, Mr. Favor was dealing unhappily with the thing that most annoyed him: in his words, “the humans.” A woman had bought a Dalmatian from a breeder and she did not like the way it was behaving around her children. Now she was calling Mr. Favor to take it off her hands.

Exactly the kind of request that set him off.

“I’m like, are you stupid or just brain-dead?” he said, away from the phone. “You thought he was going to be this fairy-tale dog. And now you got a dog with problems because you did nothing for it.”

To the woman he suggested getting a trainer and then hung up, irritated. “People think that because I rescue dogs that I want their problems,” he said. “I don’t want their problems.”

Another problem: The week before, a woman had adopted one of Mr. Favor’s dogs, a Rottweiler named Marli who was not friendly around other dogs. Now she said she intended to bring home a second dog. Mr. Favor was incensed. He had made it clear that that would not work. So he had to take Marli back before anything bad happened, even though his kennel was already full. “I don’t need any stupidity,” he said.

There is a bracing frankness to Mr. Favor — about people who irritate him, about his own trauma and struggles. He tried cocaine for the first time at age 21 on a trip to the Jersey Shore, and after 13 increasingly damaging years, he quit cold turkey, he said, because “I didn’t want my father and mother to bury me as a drug addict.”

He likes dogs more than he likes people, including other people in rescue. “Very, very, very few people that Mike likes,” said Erica Mahnken, his former fiancée. (The two remain friends, and she runs a program called No More Pain Rescue.)

In conversation, Mr. Favor often repeats the phrase “It’s the humans” to indicate the root of any problem with a dog or with the world. He had the words printed on T-shirts that he sells, alongside hoodies bearing the more in-your-face slogan, “Euthanize Pedophiles Not Pitbulls.”

Mr. Favor says simply, “Soft-ass America is not for me.”

Broken Souls Rescue and Recovery is among the more than 300 nonprofit rescue groups in New York City that take in stray or abused dogs, either from city shelters or off the streets. Many of the people who run them, like Mr. Favor, have no formal training. “Everyone has their own style and philosophy,” said Joel Lopez, vice president at the ASPCA Adoption Center. “I’m just grateful for anyone who’s doing their part.”

Mr. Favor and Ms. Mahnken started their rescue operation in 2017, a year into his sobriety, in an empty dirt lot behind a bar in the Tottenville section of Staten Island. He had done some contracting work for the property’s owner. “I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I had to walk through a bar every day,” he said.

To start, they had just one dog, $5,000 “and a dream,” Mr. Favor said. A carpenter by trade, he built living quarters for dogs, later expanding and adding a waterfall and an artificial grass play area. To pay for it all — including medical care and professional training for the dogs — Mr. Favor constantly solicits donations on GoFundMe and Instagram, where he has built up more than 180,000 followers. Anyone adopting a dog pays $600, mostly to cover medical expenses.

Mr. Favor focused on pit bulls, he said, because they are the hardest to place, stigmatized as aggressive and dangerous. Some insurance companies, in fact, will not cover pit bulls in homeowners’ policies.

“Mike just sees himself in those dogs,” said Zach Skow, who runs a rescue center and canine prison program on the West Coast, and has become a mentor to Mr. Favor. Like his protégé, Mr. Skow got into rescue while recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. While Mr. Favor hadn’t found Alcoholics Anonymous meetings helpful, he was drawn to Mr. Skow’s Instagram posts describing his recovery and work with dogs.

“He’s always talking about wanting to help the underdog,” Mr. Skow said. “He’ll talk to me about various dogs that he’s wanting to help or people he’s trying to help. He may not understand it from an A.A. standpoint, but Mike is all about service. Like he’s always trying to pull somebody up. And that’s where we find our recovery. That’s where recovery is.”

The dogs’ role in recovery makes perfect sense, Mr. Skow said: “What every dog needs is rules, boundaries, discipline, structure, exercise and affection. That is exactly what an addict and alcoholic in recovery needs.”

In a back section of Freedom Home, sometimes called “the forbidden zone,” is a pit bull named Arya. Mr. Favor rescued her from an attic in the Bronx, where she had been left behind for days when her owners moved out. Most of the dogs here are rambunctious but friendly. Arya, Mr. Favor’s first dog at Freedom Home, is not.

“I don’t handle Arya, and I’m the manager,” said Jenn Magrone, who started working for Mr. Favor after a car accident that left her physically and emotionally broken. “But she’s great with Mike.” She added: “Mike’s a big Pop-Tart. He’s hard on the outside and soft on the inside.”

New York City is now home to about 600,000 dogs, and since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, city shelters — run by the nonprofit Animal Care Centers of NYC — have been overcrowded and have struggled to keep employees. Last month, the organization euthanized 38 dogs, largely for behavioral issues. Mr. Favor sees his mission as getting these dogs before they reach the shelter. A dog like Arya would most likely not survive there.

Pat DeSario, the office manager at Bay Street Animal Hospital, at the other end of Staten Island, sees most of the dogs Mr. Favor takes in, many of them starving or aggressive, some needing expensive medical care. “These are dogs that the police cannot go near, or they can’t untie,” she said. “And he ends up taking them. And the transformation of them is unbelievable. At first they’re petrified; they won’t go near him. And within an hour, they’re jumping up and licking his face. It’s almost a crazy response, to be honest with you.”

When Mr. Favor started Pitbulls and Addicts, he had ambitious plans to house dogs as well as people in recovery from substance abuse. The dogs, it turned out, were the easy part.

“I’ve been robbed,” he said. “I let people sleep on couches. I put people in hotel rooms. I took guys under my wing for many, many, many months.” He suspects that someone deliberately started a fire that burned down much of the shelter in 2019.

He concedes now that he tried to do more than he could handle. “In the beginning, I was trying to make this visionary dream, just in a rush,” he said. “And it just set me back.”

“I’ve been screwed over way too many times by the humans,” he said. “But when somebody turns to me, I have open arms.”

In late January, he was working with a 23-year-old man named Rob, who had been struggling with cocaine addiction since his teens. After seeing Mr. Favor’s posts on Instagram, he asked for help. Mr. Favor gave him a job and set him up with a three-month gym membership and a trainer. He contacted Rob’s parents to get them on board.

“He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall,” Rob said, using only his first name to protect his privacy. “It seems that he truly cares about my recovery, and it’s hard to find good people like that.”

Now Rob was cleaning the dog areas at Freedom Home.

“I’ve been to rehab multiple times,” he said. “But this is different.” With dogs, he said, “certain parts of my brain that solely focus on that one thing, on that substance,” were now focused on “something that’s good for me.”

He was 26 days sober, dirty from the work and grateful, he said, to be thinking about something other than cocaine.

“I wake up every morning, I look forward to coming here,” he said. “Because I know I’m going to get to be in the yard, and I’m going to get to play with the dogs. Look at me,” he said, pointing out the filth on his clothes. “And I have a smile on my face. You ever seen that before?”

Mr. Favor instructed him to take the center’s soiled linens to the laundry, giving him $40 for the machines. Before Rob left, he received a brief pep talk. A month later, he is still sober and working at Freedom Home. “Life is starting to look up for me,” he said.

Mr. Favor’s own recovery is still a work in progress. Four years ago, he became suicidal because of chronic dental problems, which he feared would drive him back to drugs.

Of his current state, he said: “This is seven years. I finally feel like I’m OK. I didn’t feel this way my whole life. Like I finally have a reason to live.”

But he still had more work to do, especially with changing public attitudes.

“If you walk past a homeless dog in the street, you stop and you want to help,” he said. “You walk past a drug addict, you step over them.”

He added: “We need to do better.”