A look back. It’s June, 2018, and RIOC Sparks the Cat Sanctuary Water Crisis and All That Follows


The cat sanctuary water crisis, caused for still unexplained reasons, flared in the late spring, of 2018. By the end of June, it ended, but repercussions vibrate into 2021 with dried-up water fountains and unanswered health concerns.

As we put away the original Roosevelt Island Daily, this month, we’re preserving a few articles of special worth. This is one of them, edited slightly from its original form.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

R.I. Huckasanders RIOCsplains the Cat Sanctuary Water Crisis

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 – 14:21

  Blind, Dumb & Deaf: RIOC Compounds the Cat Sanctuary Water Crisis

Faced with thousands of petition signatures and email complaints, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) shows all the depth and wisdom of squirrels in mating season. Perhaps that’s unfair to the squirrels, which when overwhelmed with hormones still maintain their amazing dexterity. RIOC’s got the flexibility of a tree sloth.

Where the water got shut off: WFF’s humble cat sanctuary in Southpoint also helped injured geese, opossums and other wildlife.

Last year, in a Q&A with The Daily, RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal maintained that, of course, her agency has a responsibility to listen to resident concerns.

However, there seems to be a catch. The State agency does not recognize any responsibility to respect or even respond to what it hears.

On the heels of a tone-deaf demolition of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program and egregious mishandling of an affordability plan for Westview, RIOC’s showing a familiar indifference and intransigence. It’s apparently driving the Wildlife Freedom Foundation’s cat sanctuary out of Southpoint by shutting off its water supply.

It’s a David and Goliath tale, with tiny WFF bullied by a relatively giant State agency.

But WFF’s fighting back, reporting 1,200 signatures on a petition to restore the water. There are also hundreds of emails urging interventions by elected officials.

History of RIOC’s Actions Against the Cat Sanctuary

In May, RIOC’s Parks and Recreation Director Mary Cunneen ordered the sanctuary’s water shut off without notice. When WFF President Rossana Ceruzzi asked, Cunneen said that using the water impacted Southpoint’s sprinkler system. This came after 7 years with no problems.


Cunneen offered three solutions, ranging from ridiculous to strange while maintaining a take or leave it stance. Not open to discussion or alternatives, RIOC crafted these as “our way or the highway.”

(Sound familiar: See Southpoint Cat Sanctuary in Jeopardy.)

The “solutions:”

  1. WFF could fill up buckets at the Southpoint comfort station, each weighing approximately 40 pounds, and haul them all the way across the island to the sanctuary, a “solution” last witnessed by me as a teenager responsible for watering horses on a farm. I was nearly six feet tall and 175 pounds. Most of WFF’s volunteers are smaller and some elderly. On The Daily’s informal stupid scale, this rates a 10.
  2. RIOC offered to build a rainwater accumulation tank in the sanctuary. While RIOC is notorious for poor construction projects (Cultural Center, anyone?) and inept maintenance (Youth Center), this added the prospect of mosquitoes and dengue fever. It would also be of unpredictable effectiveness in our climate. Stupid scale: 8.
  3. Demonstrating RIOC’s genuine disinterest in a true solution, Cuneen proposed that WFF dig an underground conduit from the comfort station across the Island to the sanctuary to the tune of an estimated $10K, a figure the State agency certainly knows is far beyond the nonprofit’s means. Stupid scale: 10+, extra credit for being contemptuous.

Responding to public outcry as recently as yesterday with State Senator José Serrano, Jr.’s office, RIOC continues to pedal these “solutions” as proof that WFF is at fault for not buying any of them and its President “crazy,” according to a RIOC executive.

Birth of R.I. Huckasanders with a tip of the hat to Washington’s icon…

Lined up to parrot RIOC’s evolving rationales is Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson, who will be known here until further notice as R.I. Huckasanders. While it’s true that he has more charm, intelligence and common decency than Trump’s mouthpiece, he shows the same willingness to regurgitate whatever bilge he’s fed from above.

On a first foray into the melee forced by RIOC, Huckasanders pooh-poohed animal lovers’ concerns, saying RIOC was not shutting off the cat sanctuary’s water. But it had already been off for three weeks.

When that line proved false, he blamed “substantial plumbing issues” indicated by “experts.” Confronted with questions about how a simple tap caused “substantial plumbing issues” and asked to identify the “experts,” both vaporized without further explanation.

Next, it was flooding and water wastage caused by WFF volunteers’ carelessness. It was like, Huckasanders said, you left a tap running full blast all day. But WFF attaches a hose with an automatic shutoff to the tap. It can’t be left running. “No flooding,” said Ceruzzi. Indeed, not only did RIOC produce zero evidence of flooding, a video by The Daily along with stills by Frank Farance show RIOC routinely flooding areas, including the West Promenade and sidewalks, with their own sprinkler systems.

Finally, Huckasanders took RIOC’s message from reckless to absurd or frightening. Your take on it is determined by whether or not you think he’s telling the truth. (We think he’s lying on orders from on high… No, not that high.)

Where the cat sanctuary water crisis went off the rails…

“And there’s one last point we should make,” he wrote in an open letter to the community. “Irrigation system water, like the one WFF was using, is not potable; that means the water is not suitable for drinking by humans or animals since it’s contaminated by fertilizer, pesticides, feces and other contaminates.”

Merrily, he added, “Nobody wants the cats ingesting those types of pollutants. Let’s find a solution for the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary that makes healthy sense for everyone.”

There’s a moment when you either chuckle at this ham-handed approach at deflecting opposing arguments or your radar blossoms with an array of alarms.

But If true, this official statement means two things immediately. First, RIOC’s ignoring best practices and City regulations by not installing backflow prevention devices on its sprinkler system. Second, perhaps worse, RIOC has provided contaminated water to the cat sanctuary (and probably elsewhere) for years without any public notice or warning to anyone.

Unsaid in Huckasander’s address is that the Southpoint sprinkler system draws from the City’s drinking water supply, as do its numerous other sprinklers around Roosevelt Island. If RIOC’s not using backflow prevention devices as implied, they are endangering the entire community, not just the sanctuary.

A note about what came next…

But the problems were just beginning. Due diligence by Frank Farance showed that RIOC pumped contaminated water to, not just the cats, but the whole community. All public water fountains were turned off, and they remain dry nearly three years later.

Like the cat sanctuary water crisis, the state agency stonewalls information, but only when not lying about it outright.

And then, the expected RIOC turn into bunker mode…

Predictably, RIOC’s refusing to answer questions about contaminating the water. Predictably, but not responsibly. 

Many pass off Huckasander’s statement as just another RIOC lie falling in line with those that preceded it. But what if it’s not?

RIOC’s not saying, failing to respond to the fourth request for simple straightforward answers, this morning.

Big RIOC, Tiny WFF

The back story behind why WFF’s being forced to play David to RIOC’s Goliath is unclear, although suspicions are high that RIOC’s game plan is to drive the cat sanctuary out of Southpoint while covering themselves as blameless, WFF as bumbling.

As we’ve seen from the demolition of the Roosevelt Island Youth Program and waylaying of Westview affordability until its prospects expire, RIOC is anything but transparent about its real motives. It’s almost like a mass mental defect prevents them from being forthright with the community.

Whether that’s true or not, RIOC’s iron-fisted stance, disregarding a tidal wave of protests, needs explanation.

Reasonable people sit down and talk. In RIOC’s world, you accept the fiat or get crushed. That’s not acceptable anywhere, but it’s openly practiced where officials don’t stand for election and are answerable to no one within shouting distance.

Best guess. RIOC’s abuse of public trust is a predictable result of unqualified individuals given too much power and too little accountability, and that’s combined with a self-protective mindset that refuses to ponder the possibility that they can make mistakes.

Anyone ever see RIOC apologize for anything? Raise your hands. Not all at once now… Hm. Anyone? Anywhere?

It’s potent, and it’s destructive.


  1. Things like this make me speechless! I own a horse farm and I know that, sadly, stuff like this happens around some horse rescues, too. Not necesserily with water probelms, but complete, gross negligence from the people who should have not owned an animal(s) in the first place!

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