Ask a 5-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is often fireman or princess. Most of us leave those fantasies behind when we realize that firemen risk their lives every day and princesses don't always live happily ever after.

Jen Leary, 37, is the exception. "As a kid, I played with fire trucks and always knew I wanted to be a firefighter or veterinarian," she said. And she has found a way to combine these two seemingly disparate ambitions.

Filling a gap

Following her studies in Fire Science at Philadelphia Community College, where she was the only woman in the class, Leary joined the Philadelphia Fire Department. Her personal experience as a firefighter made her aware of a pressing need that was not being met.

"When there is a fire, flood or other disaster, emergency responders such as the Red Cross and fire department focus on saving human lives. No agency is dedicated to rescuing pets which may be injured or lost," Leary said.

In 2011, while working as a firefighter, Leary founded Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing pets from residential disasters in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. A tattoo peaks out of the neckline of Leary's Red Paw t-shirt. She pulls it down to reveal the name Baldwin. Her alma mater? A lover? Nope. Baldwin was one of Leary's first rescue cats and, obviously, one she'll never forget.

"We work closely with the Red Cross and fire department, responding to one to two residential disasters a day," said Leary. "We do search and rescue for pets and carry oxygen tanks and first-aid for injured animals. We are the only organization in the country that specializes in rescuing pets in disaster situations."

Case in point: A recent fire and house explosion in Kensington resulted in a family not being able to locate four missing kittens. "We found two kittens trapped in a basement that had been flooded with three feet of water," said Leary. "A fireman found another kitten and the family was able to return to find the fourth." However, the family was unable to care for all of their eight pets in the temporary housing provided by the Red Cross. That's where Red Paw comes in.

"While the Red Cross provides temporary housing for disaster victims and covers their hotel expenses, they do not cover the extra charges for the family's pets," said Leary. "We pay hotel fees for animals and provide pet food, or we offer foster care for up to 60 days. That's how long it usually takes for families to get back on their feet."

Managing the menagerie

At any time, Leary is dealing with 45 to 60 rescued pets. Where? "Um, in our house," says the Point Breeze resident. Her understanding partner, Lori Albright, a Penn grad with a background in nonprofit management, serves as Red Paw COO.

"We live on the first floor with our two dogs, three cats and one turtle," said Leary. "On the second floor, we foster the rescue animals." Well, not all of those 60 animals stay there. There's a legal limit to the number that can be held in one house. And only cats, reptiles and birds stay there. Dogs are placed at Red Paw partner facilities.

If that sounds like a zoo, Leary has the situation under control. "We cycle through them quickly. First, we evaluate each pet. When necessary, we have them neutered or given a flea bath and make sure they are in 100 percent good health before placing them in foster care until the owner is available."

As any pet owner knows, expenses mount fast. Fortunately, Leary says that Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine and other local vets give Red Paw "tremendous discounts." A Penn veterinary technician serves as Red Paws adoption coordinator. "We don't put pets in shelters or hand them over to animal control," said Leary. "If their owners are deceased or are not capable of caring for them again, we find forever homes."

Red Paw is always in need of volunteers to help promote the organization at street fairs and special events, as well as office help and to provide foster care. While Leary wants to spread the word about what Red Paw does, she also wants people to understand what her organization doesn't do.

"Red Paw is not an animal shelter and we don't take in unwanted pets." With four pets downstairs and dozens upstairs, Leary has to draw a line.

Leary recently retired as a Philly firefighter to focus on Red Paws, but she continues to be a Red Cross Disaster Responder. Does she miss the adrenaline rush? "Every day," she says. But she still plans to advance her knowledge in the field and says she wants to get a degree in emergency services from Philadelphia University.