Russians, Ukrainians (And Some Others) Fight to Rescue Cats in New York
While the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, here in New York, some people from those countries are united with a common goal. Along with a few other New Yorkers on the team, they rescue cats facing dangerous life on the streets.
The organization that binds them together, Stray’s Hope for Life Animal Rescue, includes around ten foster volunteers on Staten Island and in Brooklyn who are bent on finding homes for 60 to 70 cats at any given point in time. And now that we’re at the start of “kitten season,” they’ll be working extra hard.
About three and a half years ago, I got a peek into their operation when my husband and I adopted two of the cutest kittens that ever graced Planet Earth from a Stray’s Hope for Life volunteer named Olga on Coney Island. I’ve kept in touch on social media with one of the founders, Anna Frizyuk — ogling the cute cats with names like Noodle, Minister, Truffle, and Catalpa. There’s even a few dogs in the mix right now, Bruce and Chiquito.
So when I was thinking about who I wanted to feature during Women’s History Month — what unsung sheroes I truly admire — Anna and her volunteer crew came to mind. This largely female collection of people does their rescue work without receiving any compensation, opening their homes and hearts to animals in danger of dying.
As I spoke with Anna and another partner in the organization, Valerie Shkymba McAndrews, they confirmed what I already suspected: this work takes a huge amount of time and effort.
The Rescue Project That Mushroomed
The initial spark for the idea of a rescue mission occurred when Anna moved to Staten Island in 2015 and started feeding a stray cat outside her home. One stray turned into seven, and before long, there were kittens.
“I started to contact all the rescue people,” she explains. But no one would help with finding homes for the kittens. That’s when she learned about TNR — trap, neuter, and release — which is the best option for feral cats that are incapable of becoming good house pets.
“Once you get in this rescue world, you get connected to one person, then another person. Someone gave us advice about the vets who would do the shots for cheap or test them for FeLV [feline leukemia virus], and how to get them spade. Everyone knows each other,” Anna says.
One of the initial pieces of advice Anna received was to network on social media. But she didn’t really know how to do it — at first. However, when she started to reach out on Facebook, she was connected to Valerie. They worked together and initially managed to trap, neuter, and release about 34 cats.
A heartbreaking reality occurred as they got deeper into their rescue work: many kittens don’t survive on the streets — killed by raccoons, possums, and disease. So Valerie decided to take on fostering a litter. And one thing led to another. They kicked things up a notch by developing a network of volunteers to take in other strays and find homes for them.
New York Shelters’ Tough COVID Challenge
The number of cats on the streets of New York worsened when COVID tightened its grip. In the early days of the pandemic, animal shelters needed to clear their cages. Desperate not to euthanize massive numbers of animals, many shelters waived adoption fees to incentivize wannabe pet owners. And many of the animals were never neutered.
Once COVID eased, many cats were dumped back on the streets. Pregnancies soared. “It was crazy. It was a lot. We had 300 kittens in 2020,” Anna says. “Last year, our kitten season started in March and ended in December.” The kitten numbers were slightly down from 300 in 2021 and 2022.
As I mentioned, this isn’t a money-making operation. No salaries or other payments come the way of anyone involved. In addition to all her work with Stray’s Hope for Life, Anna is a legal assistant. Valerie is semi-retired, and her big house is filled with the “the un-adoptables,” as she puts it. Some she’s currently nurturing have chronic illnesses; two have cancer; seven are on medication; and one is an amputee. “It’s a lot of work,” she says.
In addition to caring for the animals, there are plenty of other tasks — rescues, transports to clinics, promoting cats for adoption on social media, vetting homes for suitability, and figuring out which foster volunteer will take on which batch of kittens or adult strays. They hold fundraising campaigns on social media and a donation page on the Stray’s Hope for Life site. That’s the operation’s source of money.
Sometimes they’ve done even more. As the war in Ukraine got going, Anna was also reaching out on her social media channels to find clothing to help some refugee women who had managed to get to the U.S.
A somewhat fun task also needs to be done: coming up with the cats’ names. Anna remembers one batch she created while on a road trip. At the time, she was really hungry. The upshot: cats named after her favorite cheeses, like Cheddar and Muenster.
Stray’s Hope for Life is certainly distinguished by its Russian and Ukrainian volunteers. But when I asked Anna what really sets their organization apart, she didn’t mention that aspect. It took her a minute to think it through.
“We’re like a family. We can fight; we can argue and then — like a husband and wife or brother and sister — we’re good,” she says. “We get very, very, very tired. It can be very heart breaking. Sometimes we’re really excited. Sometimes we’re crying a lot. But it’s very rewarding.”
You can make a (tax-deductible) donation to Stray’s Hope for Life on PayPal or donate food via the organization’s Amazon Wish List page. And if you’re looking for a furball to love, you’ll find a bunch of contenders on their PetFinder page.