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Saving Chris: How a Surprise Visitor Exposed the Difficulty of Helping Animals in Bushwick — Personal Essays & Opinions on Bushwick Daily

Saving Chris: How a Surprise Visitor Exposed the Difficulty of Helping Animals in Bushwick

What would you do if a sick cat showed up on your doorstep?

Matthew Watanabe

for Bushwick Daily

As I rushed through the subway station to make my second transfer, eyes tried to peer into the shallow blue tub that I was carrying. Sometimes, a kid would glimpse what was under the blanket in the tub and exclaim, “Mommy, look! A little kitty!” Waiting on the platform, I’d smile at the admirers who’d approach the kitten with compliments. They didn’t notice how her eyes were wide and still, how she had soiled her blanket and was beginning to smell. We were on our way to the Animal Care and Control Center in Brooklyn about an hour away. I hoped nobody would try to touch her.

***

It was a rainy October afternoon when I found the tabby at the doorstep of my apartment building. I was a student at The New School, and it was my second year in the quiet neighborhood off the Central Ave M stop in Bushwick. It was primarily a Hispanic neighborhood, but students like myself who were new to the city were already beginning to arrive in search of cheaper rent. Others would come from Manhattan to visit bars like the Gotham City Lounge across from my three-story walk-up to party on Friday nights. 

The buzzer rang at 5:30 p.m.—it was the mailman. I went down to sign for my package. “Did you know there’s a cat outside?” he said. He pointed toward the garbage cans by the door. “Maybe you should give it some milk,” he said, concerned, before retreating through the rain to his car. The cat was small, maybe a kitten. She was resting her head on a bagged newspaper behind the garbage cans. I ran upstairs and brought back a saucer of milk. The kitten tried to crawl away but didn’t have the energy. It looked like she was sick, or hurt. 

I took her upstairs. She started to mew. My roommate was home, and we frantically searched online for help. The search results brought us to the New York Animal Care and Control website, a nonprofit organization operating since 1995. “AC&C has been responsible for NYC’s municipal shelter system,” the site read, “rescuing, caring for, and finding loving homes for homeless and abandoned animals in NYC.” With 40,000 animal rescues a year, it’s the largest pet organization in the northeast, the website claimed. “We create happiness by bringing pets and people together.”

There was a phone number. We dialed it to get the kitten retrieved. No one picked up. They only rescue animals between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. apparently. There was also an address for an AC&C Center in Brooklyn, open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. I decided to go. I wrapped the cat in a towel and placed her in a shallow tub to carry. It was 6:00 p.m. I had two hours.

Waiting on the elevated train platform, I called my friend LeeAnn for advice. She had lived in the city for a long time, and I had helped her take her cats to the vet before. She warned me that the AC&C was notorious for holding animals for a few days before euthanizing them, and she recommended that I check out City Critters, which is a no-kill organization. “If nothing else, have her checked out while you’re there,” she said, “then maybe you can take her someplace else.”

The train arrived, and I boarded as I listened to LeeAnn. People were beginning to notice the cat I was holding, who began to twitch violently under the covers as if she was burning. A Hispanic woman boarded with a little girl. The girl noticed the cat and pointed it out to her mother excitedly. Her mother took one look, muttered a few words in Spanish, and led her off the train.

“By the way,” LeeAnn said, “does she have a name?” I paused.

"I don’t know," I answered. I wasn’t even sure if it was a she or a he.

LeeAnn laughed. “She needs name! Maybe one of those names that can go both ways, like ‘Chris’ or something, which could be ‘Christine’ if it turns out to be a girl, you know.” I thanked her for the advice. ‘Chris’ it would be.

***

The train trip took longer than expected. Between stations, I tried the number for City Critters, but they were closed. When I finally got to Shepherd Ave, it was 7:15 p.m. I stepped out into the rain and looked at the directions. “Excuse me,” an assertive woman’s voice called. I turned my head. Two police officers were staring at me. “What do you have there?” I showed them the small cat, and told them where I was going. “Oh, look at her!” the officer cooed, leaning into the tub. The cat’s eyes remained wide and still, but she was alive. I had already checked. The officer stood back up. “Why don’t you keep it? She’s so cute!”

Having grown up with two cats, it was a tempting idea. But the truth is, even if I wanted to I probably couldn’t. As a college student, it would take more time and money than I could afford to care for and domesticate the small cat. But that doesn’t explain why there are so many stray and abandoned cats out there. People understand that cats are independent creatures, but the city streets aren’t the best home any animal could have.

According to ASPCA, the number of feral cats in the U.S. is in the tens of millions. Of the estimated hundreds of thousands of feral cats in New York City, only about 14,000 were taken into shelters last year. They originated as cats that survived abandonment into the wild, and continued to reproduce. The older the feral cat, the less able it is to be socialized, and thus more probable that it’ll be euthanized if it’s “rescued” by an animal shelter from its preferred wild environment.

Organizations like The NYC Feral Cat Initiative, Bushwick Street Cats, and A Tail of Two Kitties respond to this problem by participating in what’s called “Trap-Neuter-Release” (also known as “Trap-Neuter-Return” or “TNR” for short) where wild cats are sterilized, vaccinated, and returned back into the wild. The result is a decrease in the nuisance caused by mating habits and fights between cats, a reduced cat population, and continued help from the cats with pest control. But this was of little concern to the kitten I was holding. There were other things to worry about.

The police officer’s partner looked up the directions to the AC&C from his phone and grunted. “You don’t have much time,” he said. “But you just might make it if you walk fast.” He showed me his phone. I repeated the directions a few times just to be sure, and set off on my way. Six avenues down. Pass Sutter, pass Blake. It’ll be right there, he told me. But Sutter never came.

It started raining again, and I started running. I took my chances and made a turn, and things were finally beginning to look like progress. OK, I thought to myself, I still have thirty minutes. It was another fifteen minutes before I made it to Linden Boulevard, but I couldn’t be sure how far down I was from the center. The street was dark, and there were few signs or numbers to help. I ended up running right past it. When I finally did get there, it was 8:00 p.m.

“You got here just in time,” an employee said as he stepped out the doors for a smoke.

“Great,” I muttered. I set the tub down on the floor inside to rest. There were a few people in the waiting room. A middle-aged woman with heavy makeup on was standing by the reception desk with her husband. Waiting on the seats was a tall black man wearing a baseball cap, who smiled generously, and two Hispanic guys who appeared to be father and son.

The woman approached me after I signed in. She took a look at Chris and shook her head solemnly. “Oh, the poor thing,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll make it through the night.”

The others gathered around my tub, holding boxes of their own, and affectionately scratched Chris’ head. The woman was a cat breeder there to pick up a cat for her friend. “This one’s three-months old,” she told me. “If he doesn’t have feline leukemia, he might have a chance, but he looks very sick.” She turned to the box the Hispanic man’s son was carrying. Inside was a lively black kitten. “Now this one here,” she said, “he’s just a baby! People are gonna want to have him. He’ll be gone the next morning.” The box the tall man was carrying had a large cat, who was quietly curled up inside. “That cat is old and worn like me,” the breeder said. “He probably won’t make it. Yours just might.”

We huddled around the blue tub with Chris inside and began to talk about the AC&C. They were supposed to accept all animals, no matter how much space or resources they had, but they couldn’t accept Chris. They were supposed to hold animals for treatment and placement, but the vet had just left for the day. They were supposed to euthanize as a last resort, stating that “euthanasia of animals is not acceptable to us,” but all they did was offer to kill Chris for a hefty fee. What am I supposed to do? I thought to myself. I thought she deserved a chance. “If he’s not sick, then you can try force-feeding him and keeping him warm,” the receptionist told me. “But we can’t do anything for him here.”

The receptionist smiled sympathetically and handed me a list of 24 hour animal hospitals in the city. The cat breeder ended up adopting the young black cat who could barely be contained in his box. I took Chris back out into the rain. I can revive her, I thought to myself. She can make it.

***

I got back to the apartment after 9:00 p.m. and set Chris on the floor on top of another blanket. My roommate tried to feed her water while I ran to the store for some canned food. When I got back, Chris seemed to be doing much better, stretching her legs, trying to get up, and even mewing again. “She was just cold!” I exclaimed. It seemed like things were going to be OK, and we were getting excited about taking care of a cat for a while. And yes, she did turn out to be a girl.

She lay back down on her side and I opened up a can of food. I put it by her nose but she still wouldn’t eat. I took out a chopstick, put a tiny bit of food on it, and gently tried to push it into her mouth, but the food got stuck on her face. I laughed and pulled the chopstick away. Then I noticed something was wrong. Her upper lip was stuck.

“Oh no,” I said.

“What? What?” my roommate said.

“I think we lost her.”

Just then, I heard a trickling noise. A brown liquid seeped into the towel. “She’s gone,” I sighed. “She’s dead.” It was 9:40 p.m.

***

We took her to the uptown Animal Hospital to have her cremated, and the floor manager waived the fee. It’s likely that Chris either had FIV or Feline Leukemia, she told us, in which case there was nothing that could’ve been done. “At least her last moments were someplace warm with care,” she said. It didn’t help much.

Later, I learned to forgive AC&C for not doing what they couldn’t have done: save Chris. Even if they did have the space and resources to take a “walk-in,” who would want a sickly cat? 

Facing criticism for its high euthanasia rates, the Animal Care & Control reformed—or rebranded—and became the Animal Care Centers of NYC in 2015 in a move to reflect progress. Thanks to adoption and transfers to rescue organizations, euthanasia has seen a decrease in the past years, from about 4,000 cats euthanized in 2014 to about 2,000 euthanized in 2016 according to the Animal Care Centers of NYC website. Maybe things would’ve been different if I had found Chris today.

***

Five years have passed. I live in a different part of Bushwick now, a few stops further in. From my window, I often see cats play-fighting or basking in the sun on an adjacent rooftop. Sometimes I see them lying motionless on the sidewalk in the shade. I think of Chris.

10,000 more cats may end up in shelters next year, while thousands more continue to exist in cat colonies throughout Bushwick and the five boroughs. Without the help of adopters and volunteers to assist in TNR and other efforts, these numbers will continue to persist. As the rich move in, I wonder if the cats will move out like everyone else, escaping those that try to remove them in an endless cycle.

If you’d like to get involved to help make Bushwick a place where both humans and felines can exist peacefully, here are a few organizations to check out:

Bushwick Street Cats

NYC Feral Cat Initiative

Animal Care Centers of NYC

A Tail of Two Kitties

Featured image by Chaiyaporn Atakampeewong on Unsplash.

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