The RIOC Cat Wars return after a two year pause, a peaceful period disrupted by distrust and RIOC’s failure to work with residents. But what’s it all about?
By David Stone
UPDATE, JULY 4TH, 2020: At RIOC’s July board meeting, acting president/CEO Shelton Haynes reported that cat sanctuary issues were resolved, and a new home would be bigger and more modern. Yesterday, WFF executive director, Rossana Ceruzzi confirmed it.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 12TH, 2020
But then, reacting in spite, after Ceruzzi led protests against plans for drastically altering Southpoint Park, RIOC threatened to shut down all Roosevelt Island cat and animal sanctuaries.
Angry rumblings crossed my desk — okay, computer screen — for weeks.
Aspects of remedial work on the shoreline at Southpoint rankled the Wildlife Freedom Foundation even without moving the cat sanctuary. Paving over native habitat for walkways and seating promised severe environmental damage, they said.
As heat rose over the dispute, echoes from the RIOC Cat Wars of 2018 returned. And just like before, RIOC failed to settle a problem they created.
In 2020, will it too explode into something much worse?
“It started amicably,” says WFF founder Rossana Ceruzzi, and it stayed like that until RIOC abruptly fired Assistant Vice President Jonna Carmona-Graf.
That was June 5th. RIOC cooly refused to explain the admired Carmona-Graf’s dismissal, and according to Ceruzzi, things went to hell quickly.
RIOC Cat Wars, Edition One
The original dispute blew up when freelancing RIOC employees suddenly cut off water for the Southpoint sanctuary. And lied about it.
That mess worsened because RIOC never explained why an internal band of renegades worked hard, over several weeks, at evicting the cat sanctuary. It remains a mystery.
That evolved into a cascading series of false RIOCsplanations about what happened. Salted with a mix of self-pity, umbrage and evasion as a RIOC spokesperson juggled colliding internal narratives.
It wasn’t as funny as it sounds, but it was funny in a painful sort of way.
But the unraveling that came next did not, it now seems, teach RIOC a lesson.
What followed was exposure of serious environmental lapses by RIOC, lasting decades. Violations of city health regulations and flawed engineering allowed contaminated water in drinking fountains in parks and playgrounds since, at least, 1990.
When caught, RIOC suddenly shut down all the fountains. But they never owned up to the full scope of health risks. And it’s on the record that they lied about it, covering up hard facts when they could.
Is there something about cats that discombobulates management at RIOC?
As Always, There’s Another Side
Not so fast, says RIOC.
“RIOC understands and appreciates the Wildlife Freedom Foundation’s invaluable service to the homeless cat population on Roosevelt Island,” protests RIOC through public information officer Terrence McCauley.
“RIOC needs to move the Southpoint Park sanctuary to a more permanent home within the park so we can begin to repair the damaged seawalls in that part of the island,” he explained in an email.
“For more than a year, our staff has worked with the foundation on these relocation efforts. We have conducted several walk-throughs with the foundation to select a suitable location since mid-2019. In fact, RIOC has delayed the move several times in order to comply with the WFF’s changes to our designs.
“The WFF’s new Southpoint Park sanctuary will be a permanent facility within the park that has electricity, running water and an even bigger cat shelter than it has now,” McCauley concluded.
But the RIOC Cat Wars Continue
WFF’s Ceruzzi sees it differently.
“After months of discussions, RIOC, without warning, suddenly demanded that WFF relocate the cats in the unreasonable timeframe of 2 weeks. What is more, RIOC is forcing this relocation despite the fact that the new site will not be completed before then –- something RIOC’s own architect admits.”
She went on, “As per the last email received from Jonna Carmona-Graf on 4/29, there was no timeline or date at which the cats would need to be moved.
“COVID-19 was ever-present, and we know most construction was on hold.
“Then, suddenly, on Monday, June 8, WFF was informed for the first time that work was to begin the first week in July, requiring relocation of the cats by June 30,” she said.
“In another email,” Ceruzzi insists, “RIOC threatened WFF that if it did not comply with its demands that it would hire an animal rescue group to carry out their objective.”
RIOC does not deny bringing in an outside resource, although they say it was not meant as a threat.
At the core of the dispute…
According to Ceruzzi, “Then came the real kicker: in a subsequent communication, RIOC declared the shoreline work was going to start at the very spot where the present sanctuary stands!”
“Cats are not objects. You can’t just shove them into a carrier and move them.
“Those animals have established a territory that they consider home. The cats have been living at that site for ten years, so their territorial instinct will be particularly strong. Even if they are moved to a new structure, it will be alien to them and they will continue to return to their former home. Weaning them from the old site, by not leaving any food there, will take many months.
“The WFF has emphasized that part all along. “
In spite of all that, RIOC insists it “…looks forward to continuing to work with the WFF in its noble mission to protect Roosevelt Island’s wildlife. “
But RIOC did not answer several specific questions relating to WFF’s worries about moving too fast and breaking promises agreed to with former employee Carmona-Graf.
The state agency also declined to identify which personnel are involved in the new RIOC Cat Wars.
“There is not much time left. Our beloved voiceless cats need help,” concludes Ceruzzi.