The widely admired Roosevelt Island cat sanctuary in Southpoint Park is endangered. Known for its loving, unpaid animal care, it’s in trouble because its landlord, RIOC, suddenly wants money. After fifteen years of mutual support, is it legit or retaliation?
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By David Stone
After Fifteen Years of Helping, RIOC Turmoil Endangers the Cat Sanctuary
Even calling WFF’s busy operation a cat sanctuary misleads because they’ve helped many species over the years. Its predecessor, Island Cats, co-founded by WFF executive director Rossana Ceruzzi, established itself as a go-to resource for Roosevelt Island.
While busying herself with animal care, Ceruzzi pauses and tells stories of calls from RIOC’s Public Safety in middle of the night and animals needing help.
Ceruzzi says her many rescues included “Everything. Chickens, turkeys…”
Today, WFF, best known for looking after cats, of course, also fosters injured geese and opossums.
RIOC always knew who to call, and she always answered. And her services were free, voluntary. Neither RIOC nor the community incurred any cost in humane efforts helping animals increasingly threatened by urbanization.
Open green space on Roosevelt Island vanished while risks for animals grew.
Early on, transitioning from Island Cats to Wildlife Freedom Foundation went easy because then RIOC president Charlene Indelicato understood and appreciated the work.
But things were sometimes tense with successor Susan Rosenthal, and there was an internal, freelance attempt to starve out the sanctuary by turning off its water in mid-summer, 2018. Only strong local protest and media coverage, embarrassing RIOC throughout the city, saved it.
Embraced by animals lovers near and far, WFF endured the political storms while keeping to the task of sheltering and healing animals.
Then, in 2020, the Fit Hit the Shan…
Late in 2019, RIOC announced a troubling, poorly explained and mismanaged plan to convert Southpoint into Brooklyn Bridge Park North. Needed seawall repair work was the cover, but the project went much farther.
(New York State Assembly candidate Lou Puliafito has called for an investigation.)
And this left WFF’s cat sanctuary endangered. RIOC threatened uprooting it, making way for strollers along sculpted paths wiping out the park’s natural features.
But public pressure mounted again, and RIOC agreed to a relocation elsewhere in Southpoint.
Ceruzzi began working out details with Jonna Carmona Graf, a highly regarded RIOC assistant VP handling most of its infrastructure projects.
An internal takeover of the state agency simmered in the background, though, unknown to anyone outside the backstabbing zone at 591 Main Street.
RIOC begins chopping heads on the way to a big one…
First week of June, word leaked out that Carmona Graf and another exec had been fired. The ultra opaque agency announced nothing, but the clipped managers reached out to Island friends with goodbyes and best wishes.
Into the breach with WFF stepped president/CEO Susan Rosenthal, but gone were the courtesy and consideration. As Ceruzzi pleaded for time to acclimate her animals to the change, Rosenthal slammed her foot down.
Move now or forget about the sanctuary. The project that destroyed Southpoint was imminent, and the animals were in her way.
Then, the earthquake rattling RIOC evolved into a coup, and Rosenthal herself got canned, also under strange circumstances and with hidden motives driving it.
The cat sanctuary’s still endangered, but not so much… briefly.
Shelton Haynes, defaulting into acting president/CEO with his boss fired, had already showed himself respectful of WFF’s mission, and Ceruzzi found him a thoughtful and generous manager.
He’s easy to get along with, as long as you don’t cross him.
Because the Southpoint project was ready to go, the move still needed to happen, but Haynes made it right. He built a new, larger shelter in time for a peaceful transfer.
But more trouble brewed…
RIOC’s strange plan for changing Southpoint Park had enough deficiencies and questionable motives that it attracted attention, but not unfortunately any kind of serious scrutiny from its board.
RIOC’s board of
enablers directors is the single most important firewall against state overreach and corruption. For a community denied the privilege of voting on local government or participating in how its locals taxes are spent, the board is its only voice.
Or should be, but it’s more like a team, selected by Governor Cuomo, based on openness for numbed approvals. Community values be damned.
The standard for sheeplike acquiescence increased recently as Cuomo bulked up with new and certain “Yes” votes.
Among the plan’s worst mistakes is clearing out two shorelines of flora and fauna, destroying the last natural escape on Roosevelt Island. That wholesale wipeout was unnecessary in completing a critical shoreline revetment, which RIOC welcomed its contractor, Langan, to take it much farther.
A band of environmentalist tried saving the space, mounting a petition and a protest march into Southpoint. Completed, the Langan project wipes out the last standing place for sheltering animals during breeding seasons.
RIOC remained stoic…
Some now suspect that this protest endangered the cat sanctuary because Ceruzzi helped organize the protest.
Concerns for the environmental impact bore no relationship to the cat sanctuary, but irrelevance may pose no obstacle for RIOC revenge.
Did Retaliation Endanger WFF’s Cat Sanctuary?
You know the line… If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck… Well, bring on the ducks.
One act quickly followed another.
Soon after the protest march, as Langan tore apart the natural shorelines, RIOC suddenly discovered a state regulation its legal department says requires WFF to pay $400 in monthly rent.
This mysterious regulation never cropped up before, and it strangely does not apply to other Island groups granted free space from RIOC. And none of them do the rescue work WFF does for free or anything like it.
RIOC legal counsel Gretchen Robinson laid down the law, and she played hardball, refusing any and all negotiations, according to reliable sources, and setting a firm deadline.
Significantly, Robinson said all three longstanding sanctuaries, not just Southpoint, would be ripped out, leaving the animals homeless. This was a threatened death sentence against the defenseless.
Is no cruelty enough to rouse the board and elected officials?
Not just that, she demanded Ceruzzi’s personal signature, not as a corporate representative, improperly demanding personal liability. This strange and unorthodox move reinforced suspicions about retaliation.
Was RIOC inspired by Snidely Whiplash?
Conclusion: A Cat Sanctuary Endangered
We don’t know, as of this writing, what the result will be, but we do know that all WFF sanctuaries for cats and other wildlife are endangered by what appears as RIOC retaliation.
And we know that, whatever the motives, RIOC’s chief counsel is playing hardball against a much smaller adversary, one the used to be a friend…
And we know that RIOC’s board will never fulfill its responsibilities for overseeing the corporation…
…WFF is investing time fending off RIOC’s attack that could and should be spent helping animals…
Our elected officials? You know, Seawright, Kallos, Serrano, each of whom pledged to look after our interests…? Nothing.
Why expect any one of them to finally get enough gumption to stand up to Cuomo?