Cathy started rescuing animals when she was 7, when she was first allowed to cross the street. She took her little red wagon to the pond by her elementary school and, when she saw injured animals—ducks, turtles, birds, squirrels—she would put them in her wagon, bring them home and try to fix them. Her parents, she says, did not support her then and do not support her now. (“They think I’m crazy,” she says.) She did not go to school for veterinary care except for a large-animal care class in high school—“just so I could go to Old Westbury and play with the horses”—and for three years she worked afterschool at Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, helping to take care of racehorses. “But even there,” she says, “loose dogs would come and I’d bring them home. I always had rats in my pocket or something. I always had to have some type of animal with me, at all times.”
Bobby’s story is eerily similar. He got started when he was 6 or 7, picking up frogs, turtles, snakes, baby birds—anything that needed rescuing. He took them home, put them in a shoebox, fed them, nursed them back to health, and released them when they were ready to return to the wild. He took biology and zoology in college, but the bulk of his trade has been self-learned, he says.
Bobby and Cathy met some 30 years ago—just after high school, just around Merrick, around the neighborhood—and they have been friends all those years. They finally got together, romantically speaking, about four years ago, combined their efforts, their lives, their animals. They had Sadie. (Sadie is Bobby’s first child. Cathy has three kids—Danielle, 28, Nicholas, 22, and Christopher—from her life before Bobby.) They grew.
And here they are.
Cathy is not, as you might have guessed, a vegetarian. She eats some chicken, some steak. She has a lovely, deep laugh, an animated voice. (Like Bobby, her dialect is distinctly Nassau County-ese, rich with local flavors and textures and spices—the oft-used “awesome” is pronounced “aww-sum.”) She is pretty and warm, with dark, curly hair. She is enthusiastic, bright, slightly scattered; she looks younger than her 50 years. Her hands are picked and pocked and scarred—on her right hand is a deep pink groove courtesy of a red-tailed hawk who dug in during the process of setting up for an educational presentation for the Boy Scouts. Someone slipped, and the hawk accidentally sunk her talons into Cathy’s skin, digging deep, as hawks will do, all the way to the bone.
“I cannot even explain the pain,” says Cathy. By comparison, says Cathy, the experience of natural childbirth is “cake.”
Bobby, meanwhile, has been a New York City firefighter for the last 16 years. He is 47, nearly 48, big the way you’d expect a fireman to be big: tall and thick-bodied, strapping, strong. He has a long blond mullet in the back, though he’s lost a bunch of it on top. He moves quickly, authoritatively. If you are in his way, chances are you will get out his way, voluntarily and with haste, because you can tell he means business. This is doubly true when he has, say, a carrier full of hawks in his arms. He also, though, exhibits tremendous kindness, humility and humor. He’s not sure if being a firefighter and being an animal rehabilitator are related, though both certainly demand a generosity and fearlessness that most people do not possess. Sometimes, the two roles truly overlap.
“Guys tease me at work,” says Bobby. “When we go into certain situations, I’m looking for the animals that need help while they’re looking for the people. If there’s a fish tank, I’m looking in there to see if there’s something still alive. Or if there’s a birdcage, I’m grabbing that and trying to take it out with me.”
With this heroism comes loss. Not all the animals make it, says Cathy—some die of natural causes, some have to be euthanized. Sometimes, Cathy says, she feels like the Grim Reaper; sometimes she is overcome by sadness.
Bobby and Cathy are forced to euthanize approximately 25 percent of the animals that come into their care, says Bobby. Some, just by Mother Nature’s design, won’t make it. “We attempt to get them their health back and retrain them to survive in the wild,” he says. “And if they can’t accomplish that, our options are either: We keep it; or we find it a home; or euthanize it.”
For her part, Cathy is more or less resigned to these realities. “I can’t raise every baby bird in America,” she says, almost as if she is still trying to convince herself of this. “They have to fend for themselves and figure it out.”
Cathy has countless stories of animals she has rescued, and after a while, listening to them, they start to blur together, the pain and the violence, the blood and the broken bones and the sheer, unrelenting agony of it all. And while many of the animals’ injuries come naturally, many others are inflicted by people. Cathy says that the cruelty to which she must bear witness—animals mistreated, neglected, tortured—can be heartbreaking, infuriating.
“Sometimes,” she says, “it’s embarrassing to be part of the human race.”
It can also be overwhelming.
“I never say I won’t take something because I’m tired,” says Cathy. “I feel that if we don’t take it in, it’s got nowhere else to go, and I couldn’t live with myself if I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, I’m tired.’”
As it is, she sleeps only about three hours a night. She claims to need only about three hours. But sometimes, at 5 a.m., when the baby birds are crying out for food—because that is what baby birds do in the wild, they cry for food at 5 a.m.—and Cathy thinks about what she has ahead of her—making formula, soaking dog food, picking worms out of a cup—sometimes, at that moment, she would like to lie there for just five more minutes. But the animals say no. (Continued…)