They come on Sunday mornings, bags in tow, to the PetCo on the Upper East Side. They assemble and stack crates, pull cats from meowing, thrashing bags and set up camp. They bicker over which cat goes where and who gets what blanket until everything is meticulously in place.
Michelle, a regular volunteer, ties ribbons around the cats’ necks. She calls it the “beautification process.”
“The ribbons can be controversial,” she says. “I think ribbons are the least of these cats’ worries.”
Then they spend the day trying to get the cats adopted.
They are an NYU professor who speaks six languages, a trained psychoanalyst, a CEO of a high finance company and students struggling to afford college or even make it into the city to volunteer their time. One woman works in fashion, another works in a government office, one is a hospice nurse, one a former journalist. They worry about their children and have passions unrelated to animals, they discuss the significance of astrological signs and planetary activity, they pride themselves on being good judges of character.
One volunteer, Jacqui, who regularly shows up in heels, smelling of honeysuckle or jasmine, says: “I can’t paint or draw, so I dress up.”
But don’t ever ask these women how many cats they own at any given time; they won’t tell you. They’ve learned the hard way. When you’re in rescue, you don’t tell people how many cats you have packed away at home, rotating in and out of the fickle system.
You get strange looks, people shy away and the neighbors in your co-op start to wonder. As one woman says, when you work in rescue — with groups like Zani’s, which take pets off the euthanasia list — you do not choose which pets to adopt. You adopt the un-adoptable.
And yes, for the most part, these volunteers are all women. Several note they got involved at a point when they felt they needed a change in their lives.
Tiffani, a 17-year-old volunteer with Zani’s who commutes from the Bronx, explains: “There are a lot of volunteers who come and go, but no guys. I think we freak them out.”
She adds: “I saw a guy volunteering one time. I came back and he was out the door.”
Valerie, Zani’s expert on cat behavior and nutrition, explains women tend to be more drawn to cats in general.
“Women, especially older women, get into cats, when they’re not valued by society in the same way,” she says. “Cats are warm and affectionate — they fill a void.”
Valerie is careful to distinguish between those who hoard cats as they might other material possessions — the stereotypical “crazy cat lady” — and many of the women in rescue.
“I’m not a crazy cat lady,” she emphasizes.
Valerie, who originally got involved with rescue because she was looking for something to do, says she keeps her place clean and wants few possessions. She concedes sometimes, however, she finds herself wearing a “blanket of cats” while watching television.
Further, Valerie explains there’s an adage that tends to ring true — when you’re young you want a dog, when you mature you want a cat. Despite any stereotypes, cats, like one or two of Valerie’s, still have the potential to be incredibly needy. Cats are very social creatures, just not perhaps in the way we understand — or desire — socialization.
They may have prodigious knowledge of the animal world, but Jacqui says Zani’s volunteers are really just regular people.
She describes a fundraising benefit Zani’s threw the night before our interview, complete with cabaret acts. “Someone called us the prettiest girls in rescue,” Jacqui says.
A few other volunteers scoff at this remark, betraying their no-nonsense attitude. “There’s a reason we’re no-nonsense,” says Valerie, when I point this out. “We go through hell.”
“I don’t know, Anjellicle [Cats Rescue] is very pretty,” offers another. Anjellicle, a “competitor” to Zani’s, occupies the temporary PetCo home on Saturday afternoons. Unlike Anjellicle, Zani’s also rescues dogs and the occasional rabbit or bird.
Dismayed perusers often come in looking to hold the cuddly kittens Anjellicle shows. Zani’s peppers their cages with signs forbidding all but the most interested from touching their cats, as illnesses are easily spread to the stressed animals.
Young people, who adopt from shelters, tend to enjoy the playfulness of a young kitten, but sometimes they return the cats when the animals age and lose their liveliness or when the pet would rather play with another kitten and have nothing to do with its owner. Zani’s does everything in its power to combat this mentality.
“People don’t really understand cat behavior,” says Valerie, “but once you get it, you get it.” She explains a cat’s head-butt is the ultimate sign of love and respect.
Valerie points to a statistic about Americans: approximately 70 percent of Americans say they prefer dogs, while something like 25 percent prefer cats.
Yet cats have overtaken dogs statistically as pets in the United States. The seeming discrepancy is explained by the fact that cat-owners tend to own more than one cat.
The hands-on experience of showing the cats in-store is essential, as rescue groups like Zani’s have saturated the internet market. Pictures and bios of the animals, written and rewritten tirelessly by volunteers, also play a critical role in whether an animal will be placed. Valerie says people respond best to visual depictions.
Sometimes which cats will get adopted — if any — just depends on the day.
One woman browses the cats while I talk to the volunteers. I ask if she’s interested in adopting. “I’ve got eight animals,” she says, sheepishly, “but it’s so hard not to look.” Others meander by and stuff dollar bills into the group’s donation jars.
Jacqui says the group is financially indebted to their veterinarian. Besides squatting at PetCo once a weekend, Zani’s operates entirely out of volunteers’ apartments.
The founder and executive director of Zani’s, who asked to remain anonymous, started volunteering at the ACC of NYC shelter years back when she realized “the real need is in rescue.” While working at the shelter and for a rescue group, she was told she was too good, and needed to form her own organization. Allergic to cats at the time, she began her own dogs-only group, and says Zani’s grew from there.
She adds cat rescue is like the mafia. “Once you’re in, you can’t get out,” she says, while clipping a cat’s nails. (She often clips the nails of passersby’s pets or offers up solicited — or unsolicited — pet advice.)
For all its struggles, Zani’s has just as many success stories, including adoptive parents who write in to thank Zani’s, saying their newfound pets have been more therapeutic than they could have imagined.
“They rescue us more than we rescue them,” explains Jacqui.
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