The doctor behind the 'Dogfella'
An ex-mob enforcer walks into a veterinary clinic with a litter of baby opossums.
While that may seem like the start of a joke, for Salvatore Pernice, DVM, at Brooklyn Veterinary Group (BVG) in Brooklyn, New York, it’s a regular occurrence.
It’s a story that has taken the internet by storm: an ex-enforcer for the Gambino crime family is now an animal rescuer. James “Dogfella” Guiliani got into the rescue business 12 years ago and never looked back. For five years now, he’s owned and operated a rescue for animals in need, including dogs, cats, pigeons, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, turtles and baby opossums.
“Right now, I have 16 permanent residents here,” he says in an exclusive interview with dvm360.
Guiliani says he does this completely on his own, living off of cigarettes, espresso and limited hours of sleep a night. Because his dogs are aggressive and free-roaming, he prefers to handle the workload alone, which means he’s working 18 hours a day, every day.
But, of course, working with animals day and night requires veterinary assistance.
‘I know when I speak to him ... I'm hearing the truth’
Dr. Pernice first met Guiliani when he asked for advice with a pet store he’d opened.
“Someone had given him my name and he asked to meet up with me,” Dr. Pernice says in an interview with dvm360. “When we met up, he was considering selling puppies and we discouraged him. After that, we became good friends.”
“I am not a vet,” Guiliani says. “I don’t play a vet. I’m not one of those rescue groups that administers their own shots. That is for a qualified person to do. My qualifications lie in caring for these animals that need help.”
Working with the Dogfella is summed up in one word: blunt. The need for brutal honesty means life or death for the animals these two are caring for.
“Dr. Pernice does not lie,” Guiliani says. “He’s too brutally freakin’ honest, but that’s what I love about him. I know when I speak to him, I’m not hearing exactly what I want to hear; I’m hearing the truth.”
Dr. Pernice seems to be the yin to the Dogfella’s yang. Where the veterinarian is reserved, Guiliani steps in to fill the quiet with stories of their friendship and the hard work that Dr. Pernice and his veterinary team does to help with rescuing.
“We’re opposites,” Guiliani says, “but that’s what makes us work. We make a great team, and more rescuers should appreciate their vets and the work that they put in. Without good vets, there’d be no such thing as rescuing—but nobody appreciates them because they charge for their services. God forbid.”
“Without good vets, there’d be no such thing as rescuing—but nobody appreciates them because they charge for their services. God forbid.”
“My only friend in the world other than my wife is Dr. Pernice,” Guiliani continues. “He’s my mentor, and he has been for many, many years. He’s not just my vet—he’s my friend. When I’m ready to break, he knows it.”
In fact, through their friendship, Giuliani found a guiding motto: All God’s Creatures.
“It’s a motto that Pernice gave me. My place is open for all animals,” he says, “and if it’s an animal that I don’t know about, I will educate myself on it. Rescuing isn’t something we should pick and choose on.”
‘Who do you know is doin’ that?’
Dr. Pernice says that Guiliani may come in with any number of animals to get looked at, but if it’s something that needs to be looked at by a specialist, he’ll have Guiliani do so.
“I have peace in my life, and it’s because of Dr. Pernice and his vet group,” says Guiliani. “I can go over there any time I need to and they’ll help me out—I was just there before this interview, actually.”
While Dr. Pernice doesn’t seem the type to brag, his friend is more than happy to brag on his behalf.
“I’ll give you a killer story to show you just how great this guy is,” says Guiliani. “Superstorm Sandy hit, and it pretty much took out Staten Island. I went down there, and [Dr. Pernice] and his son came with me. We found a house that had 17 cats still alive. We went in that water, grabbed every cat, put them in cages and Dr. Pernice made a [nearby] colleague open his clinic to us to treat them. We did that every day for five days. Who do you know is doin’ that?”
‘We should be able to overlook the nonsense ... and help them and the animal with them’
Both Dr. Pernice and Guiliani are aware of the stigmatism that comes with rescue groups. Their response? Keep fighting the good fight.
“As veterinarians, sometimes we tend to judge,” Dr. Pernice says, “but the reality is that a pet owner or rescuer is likely doing the best they can. Not everyone is going to be a well-spoken professional. Some are going to be a little rough around the edges, just like with any animals we might see. We should be able to overlook the nonsense of it all and help them and the animal with them.”
For Guiliani, the animal’s life matters first and foremost.
“If I kill an animal that lives here, I’d have to close,” he says, “because I wouldn’t have the right to run this rescue anyhow. I’d be a killer. If that happens, I might as well become a gangster and start shooting people again.”
At the end of the day, the two have gathered an assortment of rescued animals and built a friendship that has withstood many trials and tribulations.
“If you ever met me, you’d think I’m a joke,” Guiliani says with a laugh. “I’m in a sweat suit, I sound like Rodney Dangerfield, I’m smoking and cursing—I don’t fit the picture. But Pernice—call him Superman. Call him St. Francis of Brooklyn. He saves all God’s creatures.”