Working as a one-man rescue operation in New York City is no easy task, but Paul Santell is up to the challenge. Known on Instagram as Paul the Cat Guy, Santell has been feeding, spaying/neutering, and rescuing the Big Apple’s community cats for more than three years. He got started almost by accident.
“While walking home from work I noticed a couple of cats on the sidewalk,” he says. “I fed them a can of food and went home. The next night I walked by again and saw three or four cats and fed them, then eventually it was a colony of about seven or eight cats, and I began feeding them nightly.”
Realizing he needed to explore a long-term solution to help the cats, he began doing some research. That’s when he learned about trap-neuter-return and the many benefits of sterilizing and vaccinating neighborhood cat colonies. Over the years, word of his rescue operation has spread, and people regularly direct him to cats in need. TNR has become a huge part of his mission – though it’s a difficult mission.
“Getting access to areas where cats are living or retreat to when going to trap and save them often takes multiple trips, days, weeks, months,” he says. “Some cats are very savvy.”
As a recent example, Santell’s Instagram feed tells the story of Richie, a handsome long-haired ginger kitty Santell tried for several weeks to trap. Richie was living in a dark alley in a makeshift cardboard box shelter, and Santell struggled to determine whether the cat was friendly enough to be adopted. In addition to doing TNR, Santell works closely with a number of foster homes and rescue groups to get adoptable rescues ready for their forever homes. Having struggled to find permanent homes for semi-feral cats in the past, though, Santell was hesitant to attempt to place Richie – though the cat needed TNR regardless.
“I was alerted about this cat in another part of Corona, so I swung over after work last night, right before the snow started,” Santell writes. “When I got there I had to scour the alley to find him and finally I saw a couple of makeshift shelters and there he was. He came out for food, allowed petting and stayed near me. A few times he followed me. However, when my foot got too close to him he would hiss then emit a high pitched growl, and start swatting and clawing at my boots … He obviously is being cared for, albeit not the best shelters or living area. I had to leave him there, unfortunately. Situations like this are some of the most difficult.”
By working together with one of his rescue allies, Santell was able to formulate a plan for trapping Richie, getting him medical attention, and hopefully socializing him and finding him a home. Another cat named Ironman was the last unfixed kitty in a particular industrial colony where Santell had been focusing his efforts for more than two years. About two months ago, Santell finally trapped the cat.
“The difficulty is that he roams the entire site, often I do not see him for a few weeks, and when I do I am running late for work,” Santell writes. “I decided to press my luck today and run to work late. He was, like I figured, an easy trap with my remote controlled drop trap as I sat in my car with the trigger. He has the look of an old beaten up tomcat. I hope after his ASPCA appointment he can relax a bit and live easier with the rest of the fixed cats there.”
Naturally, animal rescue can be frustrating – it’s difficult and often thankless, and the work is never finished. In addition to his rescue operation, Santell also has a full-time day job, meaning he’s always on the go. Still, he remains dedicated to helping improve the lives of street cats because the reward that comes from helping an animal in need makes it all worthwhile.
“There is nothing more gratifying and saving a life,” he says. “When people send me pictures of cats who they adopted from me it makes me feel so good, and it is overwhelming to think that if I hadn’t made a trip to a certain neighborhood on a certain day, that this cat would never be in a person’s lap in a warm home.”
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