My mom is an artist, and for most of her career was an art teacher. First she taught in after-school programs and a children’s museum, then in a retirement facility, and finally, in public high schools in New York City.
But she had another job this whole time as well, as a rescuer of various animals, usually off the street and often on our own block. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that this was unpaid. My mom doesn’t just see a homeless animal, feel bad, and move on. She scoops it up, feeds and cares for it, and finds it a new home. And she’s done it despite a very small apartment, two kids, a reluctant husband, and limited funds. I’ve always shared a passion for animal welfare with my mom, and have also done years of volunteer work in that field. I didn’t think about it much growing up, but as an adult I can she that she has been the inspiration for all of it. I wanted to know more about her career as a rescuer, the role animals had played in her life, and how she managed this incredibly meaningful yet taxing commitment. Here is what she had to say.
Did you always love animals?
Always. When I came to the U.S. from the Czech Republic, I had just been through a very traumatic experience, although I didn’t realize that I had because I didn’t remember it well [my mother and her family escaped the Czech Republic in 1948 shortly after Communists took control. Her father, who was in politics, was in danger]. The first thing my parents got when we arrived was a kitten from our next door neighbors. Her name was Minka. She was influential in bringing me out out of my shell and making me feel safe.
I don’t know whether they got Minka for me or for themselves. Some kids have a fuzzy toy; I had a real one. My father had a turtle in the Czech Republic; it used to come sit under his chair when he played the violin.
Did you have pets when you were growing up?
We always had cats in my parents house, usually two. And then it wasn’t until I moved to New York that I started seeing cats all over the place. They were hungry and skinny and didn’t look good, and I started taking them in.
Did you always try to find homes for them?
Oh yeah, yes. I had probably two of my own, but there always a whole bunch I was finding homes for. I partnered up with other people who were doing the same thing and we figured out ways to work more effectively. We would try to find adopters and I got great advice from people with more experience. Then I teamed up with Gretchen Wyler, a Broadway actor and big activist. She formed a group of volunteers at the SPCA, and I became a part of that group (the first one there). I did that for years, and of course I always come home with animals – sometimes dogs, too. I already had my own dogs at this point, and was in a relationship with the man who would later become my husband. So he became an unwilling co-conspirator, but was always fascinated by what I brought.
What is the most number of cats you had in your apartment?
13, in our three bedroom apartment, maybe ten of which we were trying to find homes for.
Do you still remember the toughest cases?
Yes, there was one called Rodeo Joe. He was a tomcat who tore up my husband’s records and never really adjusted to apartment living. Another cat, Tom, was black and white with very square features, which I found funny because cats are usually curvy and graceful. Tom looked like a cartoon character! He was very sweet. One day I came home and he had died. He wasn’t a young cat, but it was still unexpected.
How did you afford taking in so many animals? You were a waitress at the time.
I actually made pretty good money as a waitress and didn’t have too many other responsibilities at the time, so I made it work.
What were some of the hardest parts of helping animals?
Finding really good homes is difficult and was a continual challenge. But I managed.
How did you find homes in a pre-internet era?
I put ads in local papers, like the Westsider. I don’t think that paper exists anymore. Word of mouth was a big part of it, too.
What were some of the happiest parts about helping animals?
Meeting so many different personalities! I’ve always liked having all these different colors and kinds of animals, and I got all of them in my house as some point or another. It’s like interviewing people. You get a rich array of personalities.
Do you have any idea how many animals you’ve rescued over your lifetime?
I really don’t know! Maybe one to two hundred?
Who are some of the people you admire who are helping animals?
I certainly admired Gretchen very much – she ran a shelter in upstate New York. She was able to talk to people and change minds and to get them to help. I admire my friend Brenda, too. She’s an animal communicator and someone who lives in a regular apartment like ours in New York City who dedicated her life to this.
Do you still have vivid memories of your rescues?
I remember once looking out of the apartment window and I saw a dog sitting in the street. So I took him a can of food and I fed him. He was a big, long-haired, yellow dog – maybe a golden retriever mix. I fed him for a few days and finally took him in a vet I was working with at Bide A Wee, and they took him in and gave him a bath. And oh my god, he was so gorgeous! He looked like a lion. It turned out he was about eight years old, and they found him a home. It’s a wonderful memory.
In the ’80s and ’90s, when I was doing the most rescuing, there were a lot of animals in the street, but there aren’t so many anymore. Having that whole big family of animals made my life very rich.
Animals have been a huge influence on my mother throughout her life and art. To see more, visit her Etsy shop, Angels & Animals.
A slightly modified version of this post was originally printed on Pawesome. Top image: Eddie Marritz.