Jill Rappaport: A Voice for the Animals

By Gunjan Sewhani and Anna Ryan
Photography by Getty Images/Andrew Walker

Jill Rappaport, the award-winning Animal Advocate and Correspondent at NBC's The Today Show and Nightly News, started her luminous career in journalism over two decades ago on the West Coast as an "entertainment reporter." She says (only half-jokingly) "I went from the red carpet to the wee wee pad."

Thrilled to have Ralph Lauren as her first interview back in the 80s, she boasts: "I got the exclusive with Ralph Lauren. I walked in with my Native American jewelry and my hair down to my waist. To this day, I adore the Lauren family."

It is ironic that her current farm in the Hamptons so closely resembles the lush, equestrian landscapes generally featured in her first interviewee's advertising campaigns. On acres and acres of land north of the highway in Watermill, Long Island, Jill peacefully coexists with her horses and rescued fido friends—caring for them and pursuing her lifelong passion for animal advocacy. On a gorgeous summer day, we had the opportunity to speak with Jill about what she calls the "mission of her heart:" animal welfare. In white skinny jeans paired with a casual navy top and her signature Native American-inspired jewelry dangling from her wrists and ears, Jill spent the day with us telling stories, roaming her farm and playing with the animals that are her family.

After her time as an entertainment reporter in San Francisco, she landed a job in New York as a co-host with Matt Lauer on PM Magazine. After this stint, she quickly became the Entertainment Correspondent at The Today Show in 1991. Reflecting on her time there, she tells us: "I was their entertainment correspondent, on every red carpet at every awards show, for 16 years."

But her life changed when her beloved German Shepherd, Jack, fell sick. Having found him just a mile from her home while he was a puppy, Jill recounts: "When Jack was 11 years old, one day he came in limping. I was hoping it was just a little arthritis because he was getting older, but I noticed a small bulge on his leg and my heart just stopped because I'd been through this before with another dog." Jack was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, and had to have his leg amputated and go through chemotherapy treatments —an emotional journey that was shared with viewers on Today.

Jack miraculously lived for almost 2 ½ years after he was diagnosed, and Jill to this day acknowledges: "Jack is the dog that changed my life."  After she shared this experience with her viewers on Today, she was moved by the viewers' emotions: "I got responses from all over the world. Literally countless emails and letters. They were so touched by Jack's story."

Moved that Jack's journey was as meaningful to her viewers as it was to her, she went to her boss and said: "You know, stars don't need my help. Animals do. I want to change my job." Jill realized what a risk this was, stating: "Let's be honest, it's not like I'm 20, 30, or even 40 years old at that point, it's a risky thing to totally make a career change. But to me this wasn't about career, this was a life change. It's like oxygen for me." Since then, Jill has been Today's award-winning Animal Advocate, corralling her colleagues for the cause as well as inspiring people worldwide.

And it is through Today that Jill has gained the platform for her cause; she raves: "I can't believe I am blessed enough to be able to shine a light on these animals because it's what I live for." One of her most popular segments on the show, Bow To Wow, boasts a 100% success rate in terms of placing adopted cats and dogs into new homes.

It is clear that rescuing animals makes Jill as happy as it makes them when she tells us: "Animals know they have been rescued. They thank you everyday for it. But, I always say that I'm the one who has been rescued."

Her colleagues at NBC are like a family supporting her mission; she in turn is overjoyed to have helped place adopted animals into their homes. In fact, she was instrumental in helping Al Roker and his family find their dream dog through Main Line Animal Rescue.

Jill showed up at the family's home with the adorable black and white dog, Pepper, and it was love at first sight. Al Roker gushed about Jill at a Petco event supporting her new line Jill Rappaport's Rescued Me Collection: "I've known Jill through The Today Show almost 25 years. Jill is the ambassador for pet rescue. There is no question about it."

The undeniable bond that she feels for all animals drives her everyday.  A mother once said to her: "I know you always refer to yourself as the mother to your pets, but it's not the same as having children." Jill responded: "I don't have any biological children; to me, my animals are my children. I don't know how else you would describe them. I love them, I care for them, I worry about them. I make sure they stay healthy and have the best lives in the world. Isn't that what all mothers should do and could do?"

And that's what Jill's new line at Petco is all about — Jill Rappaport's Rescued Me Collection supports various charities such as  the Humane Society of the United States and Tails of Hope, of which Jack is the Ambassadog of Hope for Animal Cancer. She gushes: "I'm so proud of the line because it's born and made in the United States by Yellow Dog Design, which was very important to me. They tout mindful and clever messages that support rescue and adoption."

We would be remiss to go without mention of Jill's jewelry line, Hannah's Heart, an equestrian collection crafted in memory of her beloved mare. Jill and the line support ASPCA. She designed it exclusively for London Jewelers.

Her work has been recognized numerous times and she is the Good Will Equine Welfare Ambassador for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). She has received two Genesis Awards, the Oscars of the animal world, and she was the first to receive the Voice for the Animals Award from HSUS. Mainly though, such recognition is purely a means for her to encourage others to reach out and help the animal community. She stresses the importance of the foster and volunteer programs: "Anything you can do to get into a shelter to donate your time is helpful—they desperately need it everywhere. I am very concerned that all the money we raise goes right back to them whether it's for better cages, better food, better beds, better toys, care, or volunteers. If an animal is in a cage, which is terrifying enough, and it hasn't been walked or cared for and given affection on a regular basis, it's understandable that it's not going to be waiting with wagging tail and hopeful eyes to get your attention. Regular loving human interaction is key to getting these animals out of these cages and adopted."

And it is from her farm in the Hamptons, The Last Buck Ranch, that Jill tirelessly works on projects to further these causes — imbibing the natural inspiration that the animals and surroundings provide.  She lives there with her five rescue dogs and seven horses. Jill started coming to the Hamptons in the 80s —staying in the classic share house with seven friends. When we ask her what it is about the Hamptons that she loves, she speaks of the proximity to nature: "You drive ten minutes and there's the ocean, and you can drive another five minutes and there's the bay. Or, you can come to my ranch and feel like you're in Utah or Montana with 60-foot pine trees. I have log cabins and horses –there's a big horse community here. It's really incredible. On any given day you'll see a family of turkeys going across my lawn; there will be deer literally right up to my porch. And to think that we are two hours out of Manhattan — does it get any better than this?"

Jill is truly a country girl at heart.  It is inspiring to see her walk, talk and breathe her passion and purpose here on The Last Buck Ranch in the Hamptons. Jill is more than just a striking television correspondent, a best-selling author, or an animal advocate: she is a woman who has melded her passion and talent. •

Jill is a fan of the Southampton Animal Shelter and will be honored at its Fourth Annual Unconditional Love Dinner Dance Gala, the shelter's biggest fundraiser of the year. The shelter focuses on caring for the homeless animals of twenty-two different towns and rescues dogs from "kill shelters" across the country.  Jonathan McCann, Board President, raved about Jill and her efforts to help the shelter: "Jill has always been a proponent for animals so we are honoring her this year." The shelter also has a program coming up with the Shinnecock Indian Nation—helping them spay and neuter their animal population.

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