Keeping Finn’s Henry Friedman Calls From the Road to Talk Van Life & Dog Rescue
“I do enjoy this nomadic lifestyle, but we don’t just go to Mexico to enjoy the beaches. We’re there to help dogs, make donations, make a difference — which, for me, adds a lot more meaning to traveling around in a van.”
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)
To the Rescue is a new column about visionary animal advocates.
Three years ago, Henry Friedman had a case of wanderlust. So he hit the road with his brother Elias, a.k.a. The Dogist, and a Puerto Rican puppy named Finn. They were fostering the pup, rescued by The Sato Project, and on a cross-country mission to find him a home. Finn had other plans. By the time they made it to California, Friedman and Finn were inseparable and @KeepingFinn was born.
The duo headed into the wild in search of adventure. #Vanlife suited these free spirits and as Friedman chronicled their journey, @KeepingFinn’s fan club grew, inspiring him to use his platform to raise awareness (and funds!) for rescue dogs like Finn. He launched a wildly impactful Patreon campaign, 100% of the donations of which support animal welfare organizations. We talked to Friedman about the reality of life on the road, falling for fellow van-lifer Sydney of @Divineontheroad, and the meaning of it all.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Baja recently. It’s almost impossible to visit certain (usually tropical) parts of the world without running into stray dogs. Was the Baja rescue mission planned or were you just in the right place at the right time?
I do enjoy this nomadic lifestyle, but we don’t just go to Mexico to enjoy the beaches. We’re there to help dogs, make donations, make a difference — which, for me, adds a lot more meaning to traveling around in a van. Often times, it can feel pretty self-indulgent and rescue work is what makes this lifestyle more sustainable for me.
So we were down there and ran into a bunch of dogs on this remote beach. In the past, I would have done what anyone else would have — given them some food and water, then driven on with them in my rearview mirror. But now I am in this strange, unique position to help. Why these dogs, though? We passed hundreds of other strays but these ones had been hanging out with us on the beach all day and just left an impression on us. So I made the call to one of our partner rescues, Animal Pad, who were more than happy to drive down and help rescue them. The dogs woke up next to our van the next morning, so we just got ’em in there and drove them to San Diego.
That’s amazing. I can’t imagine the fate of those dogs, then their puppies, had you not made that call.
Exactly. They were covered in ticks. They were not being cared for. Two of them turned out to be pregnant and gave birth at the rescue to 16 puppies! Sydney and I are fostering two other puppies from the beach, Taco and Belly. The trip to Mexico was our biggest fundraising month yet — our monthly donation increased to $21,000. We’ve added Animal Pad as a partner, so they’ll receive 10% of that, along with the other rescues we support.
* Update: Taco and Belly (now Belle) have been adopted!
How do you pick which organizations to support?
We want to work with purpose-based organizations that are dedicated to a specific mission, like Shelter to Soldier, that rescues and trains dogs to be service animals for veterans. And then frontline dog rescues, like The Sato Project, that are taking on severe cases in Puerto Rico’s poorest communities. From a storytelling perspective, seeing the dog’s transformation is really compelling and engages people on an emotional level. Which is why Instagram is such a great vehicle to drive awareness for animal welfare. Dogs kill on Instagram!
They do! Elias had been doing his thing with The Dogist for a while. Did @Keepingfinn happen organically?
When I left New York City, I was looking for an adventure at the end of my 20s. I started off aimless, but Finn changed that. I knew I was keeping him, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My only job was to keep him alive on that trip — to hold the leash while my brother took pictures! I think what’s pretty cool about my story is that it is organic and it’s happening in front of everybody. This experiment of mine has developed into a real-life story. We’ve raised over $200,000 since we started, which has helped a lot of dogs and just feels great. And now, three years later, I’ve got a little family with Sydney and her dogs.
I have to ask about Sydney and your IG love story. Obviously the ‘must love dogs’ box is checked, but how has she felt about diving into the rescue world with you?
She’s a huge animal lover and has always been supportive of #teamfinn even before it launched. I don’t think either of us knew how impactful it would be, but there was a conversation! We have our own vans, so we don’t need to do everything together, but she loves it. Also, she has her own platform so her involvement certainly helps my cause. It just makes sense to combine forces.
And Finn has a best friend in Ella, Sydney’s golden retriever. The joke is that they’re dating too. Sydney and I used to travel together for months at a time, then we’d go our separate ways, and when we’d see each other again the dogs would love it. One of my resolutions for 2021 was to get a second dog, and now I have Ella and Pearl so it’s been a growth year for sure — in all the best ways!
Have there been any challenges with raising Finn on the road?
It was just us for three years and I don’t think I could have done it without him. This lifestyle means that everywhere you go, you’re a stranger. You’re just a solo dude in a van. People are thinking, Who is that stained, stinky guy? He’s probably going to pee on our lawn! Sometimes I wonder, when’s the last time I even heard my own name? But with Finn in the picture…walking a dog in a new town gives me confidence to start a conversation.
What has been your most memorable part of the journey thus far?
A lot of the pleasure I get is from knowing that Finn is living his best life — no day is the same for him. We climb mountains together, then he charges down a trail while I slide down on my butt! Having a dog as a travel companion is amazing. This lifestyle has taught me that so many of these experiences are better shared. Like, you ever watch a sunset by yourself? It can feel kind of depressing. Finn is a dog, but I get recognition in those moments just by seeing how much fun he’s having.
What’s next for Team Finn?
Sydney and I are road-tripping Taco and Belly through southern Utah — just kind of live the van life for a little bit. Fostering on the road is so much fun — for me and the audience. Finn is an ambassador for rescue dogs and satos. People are always surprised he’s a rescue dog! But it’s hard for van-lifers like us to adopt animals. Most rescues would be like, “You’re living in a van? Nah.” Sydney has a golden retriever because no one would adopt a dog to her. Like, do you really need a backyard to love a dog — are they better off waiting in a shelter?
One of our missions this year is to try to make animal welfare more inclusive. During the height of the Black Lives Matter reckoning last year, I searched for Black-owned animal rescues to support and only found a couple! We’ve worked, and will continue to work with CARE, whose mission is to create more diversity in the animal welfare world, especially in underrepresented communities. The power of dogs, right? Everyone should be able to enjoy that. In person — not just on Instagram.
I feel like hashtag van life is so filled with chasing waterfalls and “Home is where you park it” posts. Which is cool but…you can’t do that forever. I feel very proud of the project because it’s turned into something so impactful, but I’ve also gained a purpose. I feel like now I can adventure because I’ve added meaning to it all.
"I have put a gold chain bracelet around her neck as a collar for some photos, but she looks so perfect in just her spotty coat that I keep her au naturel."
Style and safety don’t have to be mutually exclusive (phew).
Samantha Gurrie is The Wildest’s Editor-in-Chief. She was previously the senior editor at NYLON magazine, co-publisher of Four&Sons, and director at Puerto Rican dog rescue The Sato Project. She lives in L.A. with her husband and rescued Pit Bull Midnight.