There are people who like cats and then there are cat people. The crowd-funded, Brooklyn-set documentary “The Cat Rescuers” by Rob Fruchtman and Steven Lawrence deals with the latter category. It focuses on four cat lovers/animal rescue activists who help to save the lives of feral felines and to find new homes for abandoned pets. Those hoping for a domestic take on “Kedi,” the popular documentary about Istanbul street cats, should note that “The Cat Rescuers” concentrates solely on the stories of its human characters. After well-received screenings at the Hamptons and DocNYC festivals last year, the film is gradually rolling out to select venues nationwide through Balcony Releasing.
The directors posit that as many cats live on New York City’s streets as are kept in apartments and homes. That statistic means at least 500,000 abandoned and feral cats. Tens of thousands of them make Brooklyn their home. Since the city can’t handle the problem, hundreds of activists work with ad hoc methods to get the animals off the street. “Trap-neuter-return” is the favored method for feral cats, many of which are fed by well-intentioned neighbors but continue to breed. One of the many little-known facts presented over the course of the film is that cats can become pregnant a mere 30 minutes after delivering a litter.
Among the rescuers is the energetic Latonya ‘Sassee’ Walker, a long-time Canarsie resident. The streetwise former rapper turned legal investigator is a single mother who will jump into her car any time of day or night to bring in an at-risk feline. Her motto is, “Don’t talk about it, be about it,” and that inspires her pretty teen daughter Nijah, a rescuer in training. Walker is so soft-hearted that she will wait hours in her car, hoping to lure a pregnant stray into her baited cage trap. And she pays food and vet bills out of her own pocket.
While Walker seems to maintain a reasonable animal population in her small apartment, Tara Green, a nurse and health-care administrator from near Coney Island moves from a one-bedroom in an apartment building to a free-standing home so that she will have more room for the 18-32 felines she has in her care at any one time. Tara credits the first pair of kittens that she received as a gift some years ago as helping her to surmount a drug problem. Her mother jokes ruefully that Tara’s cat addiction is better than her previous one.
Bedford-Stuyvesant resident Claire Corey, an artist and graphic designer, also fills her home with foster felines because it breaks her heart when she reads about cats euthanized at the Animal Care Centers of NYC because they weren’t adopted in time. Luckily, her generous husband agrees that the foundlings can stay in their large basement. Claire articulates the sentiments of most of the animal medical professionals in the film when she condemns the irresponsible humans who neglect to get their pets spayed or neutered and then abandon them.
Lest one think the film is solely about cat ladies (a moniker that Latonya rejects, laughingly opting for “Cat Chick” or “Cat Woman”), we also meet Stuart Siet, an electronics engineer who maintains the NYC Fire Department’s wireless communication network. When Stu walks his dog in the Kensington neighborhood during the early morning hours, he feeds 20-25 stray cats per block. Since, as he notes, he has no humans to be responsible for, he can devote himself to these vulnerable animals. He even provides (illegal) burials in Prospect Park for the ones who die.
Co-director Lawrence was inspired to make the film when he moved to a new home in Brooklyn and found that it came with some hungry strays. When he and his wife sought advice, they met Tara Green and Claire Corey. Lawrence and fellow documentary maker Rob Fruchtman (“Sweet Dreams”) both shot the low-budget film over four years, a period during which a city-wide summit takes place about the cat problem but nothing is ever resolved, nor additional financial resources allocated.
Although the film briefly introduces a large variety of felines that are lovable and loved, they lack the screen time to establish a personality or to roam with haughty grace. They are more often seen wild and terrified in traps or pawing at the bars of their cages.
As in “Kedi,” the filmmakers show how the gentrification and development of previously wild or abandoned spaces in the metropolitan area affects the lives of stray felines. But in the milder climate of Istanbul, the residents are not so concerned with getting cats off the street; “Rescuers,” on the other hand, is more a call to action.
While the production package is merely workman-like, the commitment, honesty and heart of the main interviewees makes the material compelling. Indeed, the film nabbed a “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” award at the Hamptons Fest.