BY DEVIN HOLT
Barnum Andrew Underwood was a lover of rooftops and adventure. He stole underwear, shredded toilet paper with gusto and ran wild through a newspaper distribution center in Long Island City more than once.
Barnum was also a dog – a black lab mix – and one of the last of what Sunnyside United Dog Society (SUDS) members call the “SUDS originals.” Those were the dogs there at the beginning, the ones who inspired their owners to create a popular dog run in Lou Lodati Park that opened nearly 18 months ago.
Since forming in 2001, SUDS has grown into a well-known community that helps find homes for lost dogs through a 500-member Facebook group. The group’s annual holiday donation drive for supplies for animal shelters begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until shortly before Christmas.
“One of the things that when SUDS was founded that we wanted to do was give back to the animals that don’t have a home,” said Jeannette Remak, a military aviation historian and SUDS member.
Barnum’s death this year, at age 14, recently led Remak and some other human members of the group to reflect on the influence of the SUDS originals.
“It’s just a new type of nucleus in the park,” said Jimmie Underwood, who owned Barnum with his wife, Ingrid Larson.
Underwood and Larson remembered Lou Lodati Park as a chaotic place during the early SUDS days. The grounds were littered with trash and discarded chicken bones, they said. A row of trees at the back of the park was treated like a public restroom.
Dog owners gathered deep in the park after the sun went down to avoid hassles from neighbors and police, who weren’t always thrilled to find a bunch of canines running around on a playground designed for children.
“Everyone had to kind of look out for each other,” Larson said.
The idea for a dedicated dog section came after SUDS hosted a park cleanup day.
“I was there cleaning and I said, ‘You know what, we should have a space of our own,’” said Rick Duro, who still brings his dog, Matilda, 13, to the park most afternoons.
Getting that space took a decade. Plans were submitted, revamped and resubmitted to the community board. Discretionary funds were approved, then rescinded during the recession, and eventually approved again when the city planned a $1.4 million restoration of the entire park. City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who lives in Sunnyside, attended the ribbon-cutting when the dog run opened in June 2013.
Underwood said the renovation inspired the neighborhood to take better care of the space, which is now welcoming to everyone, dog owners included.
“Amazingly, the social behavior was changed in the park,” he said.
Barnum, unfortunately, didn’t get much time to enjoy the run. He developed arthritis and kidney problems during the decade-long lobbying effort.
“All I kept thinking was Barnum better be alive when this dog run finishes,” Larson said. “Barnum only got to use the run a few times.”
The couple decided to put Barnum to sleep after he collapsed in their apartment in mid-August. Duro brought Matilda over to say goodbye and Underwood cooked Barnum a steak for his last meal. The vet came to the apartment on the morning of Aug. 26, 2015. It was National Dog Day.
A few weeks later, Duro made a bone-shaped dog collar and hung it on the fence that separates the dog run from the basketball court. He does this anytime a SUDS dog dies, but Duro put Barnum’s tag close to the top.
“Without dogs like Barnum, there would be no SUDS dog run,” Duro said.
Donations of dog and cat food, blankets, toys and general pet supplies for animal shelters can be left in the SUDS donation boxes at Wespaw Pets and Super Doggy Wonder Kitty in Sunnyside, and Skillman Pets in Woodside.