The cheery plaques outside Jill Rappaport's rustic home in Water Mill, New York, say "Cowgirls Forever" and "Cowboys Welcome." But every visitor—even those who don't fit either description—is sure to get a warm reception from Jill and her rambunctious crew of rescue canines: Rubie, mini dachshund and queen bee; Sweet Pea, a sleek coonhound; Buck-A-Roo, a yellow Lab; C.J., the Havanese; and her "gentle giant" Petey, a 120-pound American bulldog. Inside her big ranch-style house (actually, more like log cabin à la Ralph Lauren), there are no signs the pooches have the run of the place. Then Jill lifts up a blanket on the leather sofa, revealing a mangled seat cushion that's become a favorite chew toy. "You should see my car, which has chunks taken out of the dashboard," she says. "I don't mind. I even have extra collars and leashes in the back seat in case I find a stray. I'm not looking for another dog, but I'll save any animal that comes into my life."
That openhearted attitude has won her many fans among viewers of the Today show and NBC Nightly News, where Jill's carved out a unique role as guardian angel for our four-legged friends. She's reported on pets displaced by Hurricane Sandy, a racetrack in upstate New York where about 175 horses were starving to death and, more recently, black dog syndrome, the shelter phenomenon in which black strays are frequently passed over for adoption and are the first to be euthanized. Her journalism has also earned plenty of praise, including two Genesis Awards—the equivalent of the Oscars for animal reporting—from the Humane Society of the United States. "I see Jill as the Energizer Bunny for the cause," says friend and fellow NBC correspondent Meredith Vieira. "But she's dangerous—spend a little time with her and you'll end up wanting to adopt every homeless creature out there." Jill, in fact, would like nothing more.
"Raising awareness on TV is one thing, but there are up to seven million companion animals in shelters, and over half of them will never make it out," she says. "This isn't just a job, but my passion. It's my oxygen." A 23-year veteran at Today, Jill started out as entertainment reporter, covering Hollywood royalty and red-carpet events. All that changed in 2006, when Jack, the 11-year-old German shepherd she rescued as a pup, was diagnosed with bone cancer. Her moving stories on Jack's leg amputation, chemotherapy and eventual recovery drew a huge response, and Jill decided to make animal advocacy her full-time beat. She created "Bow to Wow," a popular segment showcasing cats and dogs from a New York City shelter who'd been given a "makeover"—that is, placed in foster homes, where they were groomed, cared for, and trained to become absolutely irresistible. And every one of them cleaned up nicely. "The series ran once a month for six years—I would have preferred once a day—and we had a 100% adoption rate," says Jill, who has found dogs for friends (Christie Brinkley, Bryant Gumbel) and convinced colleagues (Al Roker) and on-the-set celeb guests (Michael Phelps) to take home a cuddle buddy. These days Jill is branching out into new ventures to benefit creatures great and small. She designed the Jill Rappaport's Rescued Me Collection of leashes and collars, which sells at Petco.com, and donates a portion of the proceeds to shelters and animal cancer research. "They have cute messages like 'I'm a Pound Hound' and 'Smitten By My Rescue Kitten,'" she says. "People who adopt are proud of it, so this is a great way to get the word out and enjoy some bragging rights without saying a thing." A horse lover as well—she has seven of them—Jill also created the Hannah's Heart line of equestrian-themed bracelets and charms (named after her beloved late mare) for LondonJewelers.com to benefit the ASPCA, where she serves as an equine welfare ambassador.
When she has time between reporting assignments, Jill often travels across the country to meet with local humane organizations and visit shelters. But it's her dream to get into a van with her dogs and spread her opt-to-adopt message 24/7. "I'd call it the Jill Rappaport's Rescued Me Road Trip, and we'd drive to small cities and towns starting up and down the Eastern Seaboard, urging people to go to their neighborhood shelter and rescue a dog or cat before it's too late," she says. "You know, people think of these animals as damaged goods, but it's not their fault they ended up without a home. And when you save them, they know it. They'll thank you for it every day."