Cat Lover Works Like a Dog to Free Feline
Feral cats have a place in the environment, particularly in a city surrounded by water. Without cats to control rodents, snakes soon enter the area seeking rats and mice as food.
Sometimes, it takes a village to rescue a cat – and a woman who refuses to give up. Crystal Bell couldn't stand the thought of the sweet orange kitty being sealed in beneath the bank.
"I knew in my heart he was there, but at first nobody would believe me," she says.
After the open space under the Kenner branch of Omni Bank was closed in, Bell saw only one cat where she should have seen two.
They are look-alike brothers, except Coup has a long tail and Coupy's is lopped-off. They both have the tip of one ear cut, which is the universal sign for rescue groups when cats are trapped, neutered and released.
Like so many other cats in the New Orleans area, the brothers are feral, living on their own and relying on rodents and the kindness of strangers.
"I never thought I'd get so attached to these cats," Bell says.
After she went to work at the bank in 2007, Bell started helping another woman feed the two cats who took up residence at the corner of West Esplanade Avenue and Loyola Drive .
Even after she was laid off in early February, Bell would go by the bank at night and on weekends to feed them.
"They know me now," she says. "They know my voice. They know our little routine."
When she went by the bank on June 23, she was dismayed to see that a concrete barrier had been put around the foundation of the building, closing off the open space beneath it. And Coupy was the only cat around.
A worker told her he had seen two cats, but Coupy was upset and seemed to be looking for his brother.
"That's how I knew Coup was shut in," Bell says.
She called Omni maintenance. She called animal control. She even called 911. But she had no way to prove the cat was under the bank.
"It was awful to know he was trapped there and nobody would take me seriously," she says.
It was her e-mail to Animal Rescue New Orleans that finally brought results.
"Once ARNO contacted upper management, things started happening," Bell says.
ARNO is the grassroots group that sprang up after Hurricane Katrina. It's still going strong, even after Hurricane Gustav did serious damage to its Harahan last year.
“ARNO was tenacious in the rescue of this feral kitty, but OMNI Bank is the real hero of this story. That’s what it takes… working together to save a life. A four-paw salute to OMNI Bank in Kenner, LA.”
Since it began, more than 5,500 dogs and cats have been adopted into loving homes through ARNO. And members have trapped, neutered and released hundreds of feral cats in the New Orleans area.
"Some people say these cats have no value, but they do have value," director Charlotte Bass Lilly says. "They have a place in the urban environment. Without them, the mouse and rat population would be out of control."
When Lilly and ARNO feral dog coordinator Lise McComiskey read Bell's e-mail, they contacted the bank.
"The two vice presidents we met with assured us they were animal supporters," Lilly says. "I told them, 'This is about saving a life right now.' "
Lilly knew the cat could survive for a while; they just needed a way to get him out.
"What had happened was, the ground was pulling away from the foundation," Frank Martinez, a senior vice president at the bank, says. "There was a separation where animals, termites, everything could get in there."
The plans called for putting a concrete chain wall around the building and filling the space behind it with dirt.
Martinez admits he and Todd Murphy, another senior vice president, were almost sure there wasn't a cat trapped under the bank when they met with Lilly and McComiskey.
"We assured them we did what we could to get the cats out, but they weren't convinced," he says. "They said, 'We would like you to open up a hole in the building so we can make sure the cat isn't under there.' "
The vice presidents were full of questions: If the cat was under there, how would the rescuers get him out? If they made an opening, how would they keep the other cat or some other animal from going under the building? And how long was this all going to take?
Martinez, who's in charge of public relations, knew one thing: "We didn't want to trap a cat under our building," he says.
So they agreed to have a worker dig a hole under the wall, and the women agreed to stand watch over the opening.
Two days after the foundation was sealed, the hole was dug. But the rescuers didn't think it was big enough.
"The first night, they didn't think it provided a pass," Martinez says. "We told them, 'You tell us what you want. We want this to work.' "
"I wanted a hole big enough to get a Rottweiler out," Lilly says. "The next day, I went back and they gave me a shovel."
She dug until she felt a big whoosh of cool air, and she knew she'd hit the open area under the bank.
And then the waiting began.
"We were doing stakeouts night and day," Bell says.
The first day there was no sign of a second orange cat, but that night they put tuna in the hole and it was gone in the morning. The second day, no Coup. But the third day, after a rainstorm, he suddenly appeared beside his brother.
"I was elated," Bell says. "I asked him, 'Do you know what you put me through? Do you know how much I love you?' He just sat there and looked at me. I think he was less traumatized than the rest of us."
So Coup is out, and everyone involved in his rescue is happy.
"Because of a great team effort, this was a success story," Martinez says. "There's no substitute for swallowing your pride and letting the experts take over."
Now that she realizes how much the two cats mean to her, Bell is trying to find a way to trap them and adopt them.
"That's my goal," she says. "I want to take them home."
If you're interested in adopting a dog or cat from ARNO, you can visit the shelter at 271 Plauche St. between 3 and 7 p.m. seven days a week. For more info or to volunteer with ARNO send an e-mail to email@example.com. Times-Picayune Columnist Sheila Stroup can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 985.898.4831. Comment or read past columns at nola.com/living.
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