It happened gradually that I became the cat lady,” says Katrin Hecker. “It was never a life goal, but the cats took over.” Hecker is the founder of Animalkind, a Hudson-based nonprofit dedicated to helping cats (although other species sometimes get caught in the mix) primarily through humanely controlling overpopulation in Columbia and Greene counties.
“My life is like the movie Groundhog Day,” says Hecker. “It’s always the same. I wake up and a lot of cats greet me like I am a walking can opener. I spend two to three hours pooper scooping and giving meds. The next day I wake up and do it all over again. I used to go to dinner and a movie every weekend. Those days are over.”
Hecker always was an animal lover. As a child growing up in Germany, she says that “Everybody brought everything to our house.” She recalls her mother taking in a baby bird with a broken wing. “We even had orphaned children,” she says. “We were raised with a consciousness about others who don’t have what you have. You share.”
After Hecker became a trained pediatric nurse, she thought her life plan was to practice nursing in Third World countries. She went to New York City to learn English, but plans changed and she moved to Hudson with her husband in the mid-1990s after the two purchased an old church there. She thought that she might establish herself as a clothing designer or focus on painting pieces of art.
The impression she made on the locals was quite different. “Everyone thought I was a witch,” she recalls, “because my husband drove a motorcycle, wore leather, and we lived in a church.”
Around this time, it became obvious to Hecker that there was a large population of stray and feral cats in Hudson, and after a personal run-in with one of the felines, she couldn’t ignore the issue any longer.
“Lucky was a three-legged, one-eyed, bobtailed cat,” Hecker says. “I thought, there is not much left of this cat. His eyeball was hanging out.” She trapped the animal and took him to the veterinarian’s office. A hefty $1,500 later, the cat was hers to take home. “He brought the problems to my attention,” she says. “He was the founder of Animalkind.”
Hecker began trolling the alleyways on a motorcycle to feed the homeless cats. “People always asked, ‘Who is that?,’ ” recalls Hecker. Their suspicions, and confusion, about the tall, blonde German woman who fed the cats faded as Hecker helped people who couldn’t afford to take care of their pets by themselves. She also started trapping cats to get them spayed or neutered and vaccinated, which she called her TNR (trap, neuter, return) program. Her new reputation spread, and soon she was bombarded with requests for help.
“I couldn’t pay for it anymore,” she says. “I realized I had to start an organization.”
Chip Chapin had adopted two stray cats from a local farm, but both cats ended up testing positive for feline leukemia. It was at the vet’s office that he first saw Hecker. “There was this lady with all of these traps and cages, and I thought, ‘What is going on here?’” he recalls. Since his two furry friends had just passed on, Chapin inquired about helping out. Twelve years later, Chapin is a director at Animalkind.
Since those early days, the organization has gone through some changes. At first, it operated out of Hecker’s home, but when the owner of the building at 721 Warren St. offered the space to the group (Hecker had been caring for the ferals behind the property), they happily accepted. For about 10 years, the nonprofit grew and prospered. In addition to the TNR program, Animalkind offers medical services to pet owners at reduced costs. Some rescued cats are brought back to headquarters and put up for adoption, others are returned (spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and marked) to supervised outdoor communities. Last year, according to Chapin, Animalkind spayed and neutered 1780 cats, took in 823 cats, and adopted out 710.
But in early May 2012, disaster struck. “It was 11:30 at night and my phone was ringing constantly,” Hecker recalls. Thinking it might be important, she took the call and learned that there was a fire at the Animalkind building. There were around 150 cats in the building’s basement, first and second floors.
“I drove over thinking, ‘Maybe this is it,’” Hecker says. “My own home was flooded last year after Hurricane Irene―I had just recovered.” During the drive, she seriously considered calling it quits.
The fire was in the third-floor apartment. It never actually spread, but it did trigger the building’s sprinkler system. Water poured throughout the building, soaking everything. The multi-floor space that had once been painted in bright colors and filled with amenities for the cats, was reduced to collapsed ceilings and slabs of waterlogged sheetrock. The clinic, which housed equipment for the part-time vet for the organization, was also beyond repair.
“The stainless steel cages, the new heating and ventilation system, the office equipment―it was all destroyed,” said Chapin. “In the vet’s clinic the anesthesia machine, the X-ray, the refrigerator, and surgical areas were totally damaged.”
“I stood there with 50 cats on the sidewalk, and it was the outpour of support that made me switch my whole point of view,” says Hecker. “This was a time where I had to bite my tongue, grind my teeth, take deep breath and just go forward. I realized I owed it to the people who supported us, to the animals, and to the people who work there. I thought, ‘I cannot give up.’”
Animalkind was offered a vacant office at the Warren Inn (731 Warren St.) as a temporary location. The space is the size of a large living room, and there are around 60 cats living there while they wait to be adopted. Some of the other 170 “adoptables” are in foster homes around the area. There are eight staff members and a handful of volunteers who care for the animals. They are making due, but it is difficult with the space’s size constraints.
“Our mission doesn’t stop because of the crisis,” says Hecker. “It’s very stressful―we still need to help others even while we are trying to help ourselves.”
Animalkind is trying to raise $150,000 to rehab the now-gutted space at 721 Warren St. Once the walls, ceiling and floors are replaced, the money will go toward “new clinic facilities, an outdoor area for the cats, enhanced heating, cooling and air filtration equipment, stainless cages, shelving and cabinets, washer and dryer facilities and more,” says Chapin.
Hecker hopes to start the project next month, although they are very far from their goal. In a campaign called “Gimme Shelter,” Animalkind has tracked progress so far and reports $40,000 donated toward their cause.
Local author and artist Mary Gianetto is one of a few different artists that have joined the efforts to rebuild the shelter. Gianetto first met Hecker when she helped trap some feral cats from behind Gianetto’s property almost a decade ago. Gianetto lives along the Hudson River, and her artwork is heavily influenced by nature. She started writing and illustrating children’s stories to help her two nephews appreciate animals and the outdoors. A character that pops up in many of her works is a black stray cat named Baggy who has magical qualities and often arrives out of nowhere to help rescue kids.
“How can children be compassionate about other creatures or be interested in nature, if they never are around them?” Gianetto asks. The dedication in one book, Baggy’s Story, reads, “Thank you Katrin Hecker for promoting compassion, respect and kindness towards all animals.” Gianetto is donating the proceeds from sales of her three books about Baggy to the rebuilding process, when they are purchased through Animalkind’s website. She says that she is all too happy to give back.
“We are really the only organization who definitely returns every phone call,” says Hecker. “We solve the situation humanely in favor of the animals. We are trying to help the ones who have no voice.”
It’s evident to see from the stories and letters posted on Animalkind’s website (all-creatures.org) that those with voices are grateful for the services that the organization provides. A supporter in Australia wrote in September to give an update about her adopted cat named Pum. She also wrote, “Keep doing what you are doing and remember to the world you may just be another animal rescue person, to the animal you are their world.”
While it may take some time for Animalkind to settle into a newly rebuilt home, Hecker and the employees are eager to see that next phase happen and to get back to doing the work that they do best.