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Erica Kutzing

Katrina Denning, Erica Kutzing and Jenny Luca are the three in charge of Brookhaven’s new TNR task force. Photo by Kyle Barr

A new pilot trap, neuter and release program will look to stem the tide of the growing feral cat population in the Town of Brookhaven. Such has been the efforts of local animal activists who for months have advocated for official help in what seemed an insurmountable problem. 

Erica Kutzing, a Sound Beach resident and vice president of North Shore-based Strong Island Animal Rescue League, said she and others believe it will allow for better outcomes and success rates for feral cats. 

Strong Island Animal Rescue joined with local animal activists and Brookhaven town to set up the new task force. Photo by Kyle Barr

“It meant a lot to us to help solve this real issue,” she said. 

Kutzing, Katrina Denning, founder of the Jacob’s Hope Rescue, and Jenny Luca, among others attended a number of Town Board meetings from October to December 2019, discussing the need for Brookhaven to provide more assistance to local animal rescue groups in the ongoing feral cat crisis. 

“The TNR [Trap-Neuter-Return] program at that time was broken and needed to be fixed,” Kutzing said. 

At the end of December, the trio were given the opportunity to meet with Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Town Board members to talk about the status of the program. In two separate meetings, animal rescue advocates discussed ways they could improve the program and ease the burden on local rescue groups.

After some weeks of negotiations, town officials agreed to put the trio in charge of the task force. The town also decided to increase the original program’s budget from $40,000 to $60,000, began a partnership with Medford-based veterinary clinic Long Island Spay & Neuter, and will pay professional trappers to help capture feral cats. 

The pilot program was officially announced at the March 12 board meeting, classified as a “Program for the Public Good,” thereby qualifying it for coverage under the town’s public good insurance. 

“We are moving in a direction to reduce the population of feral cats — we believe the best way to deal with this issue is to work with nonprofits, who are extremely committed people,” Romaine said. “Limiting the population is the right thing to do for the community.” 

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said the feral cat population on Long Island has been increasing drastically over the years, with a significant amount being located in Council District 1. 

“The town was able to develop the pilot program with significant community input from the rescue organizations,” she said in a statement. “We are anticipating success of the pilot program and we appreciate the community groups working collaboratively with the town.”

Denning said they were pleasantly surprised that town officials put them in charge and supported their ideas. She expects to see improved results once the program is set up, especially with Dr. John Berger, a veterinarian at Long Island Spay & Neuter, in place to perform the procedures.

“The way it was done before was just not working,” she said. “We needed someone who was skilled with dealing with a high volume of feral cats. Dr. Berger is trained to do a large number of surgeries.”

In turn, Denning said it will allow them to get more cats fixed and treated than before. 

“We will be doing clinics and specifically have a block of time where Dr. Berger can deal with a mass quantity at once,” she said. “We will be able to treat 20-30 cats and deal with entire colonies.”

Feral cats in a wooded area in Mount Sinai eyes humans entering its habitat. Photo by Kyle Barr

In addition, the group will come up with a list of approved trappers who will “go out and capture these feral cats instead of the homeowners who are not as experienced,” Denning said. “We will be paying them for their work and incentivize them to go out more, now they don’t need to spend their own money on supplies.”

Luca, who has been an independent rescuer for the past 10 years, said the new program will allow them to do more in helping feral cats. 

“Cats are on every block on Long Island — we were very limited in what we could do before,” she said. 

Luca said with added support they will be able to use funds to buy new equipment like drop traps to ensure they’ll be able to capture more feral cats. 

Another aspect of the program is public education. 

“Educating people is huge — we are looking for individuals/volunteers who are interested in learning what we do and help us, it would be great,” Luca said.

Kutzing said surgery appointments will be twice a month at the clinics and they expect the program to be up and running sometime in April. 

In the meantime, the trio is excited for
the opportunity.

“It is incredible what we’ve been able to do,” Kutzing said. “It has been such a rewarding experience.”

Mark Freeley with Storm
Facebook video reaches over 20 million worldwide

By Melissa Arnold

Two years ago, a peaceful walk down by the water in Port Jefferson brought 15 seconds of fame to injury attorney Mark Freeley and his English golden retriever, Storm.

You might have read an article about Freeley and Storm in the New York Times or People magazine, or maybe you’re one of more than 20 million people who saw the pair’s dramatic viral video online.

Storm made a splash in 2017 when he spotted a fawn struggling to stay afloat in the waters of Port Jefferson Harbor. 

Freeley, who lives in Stony Brook, walks at least five miles each day with the retriever and his younger adopted “sister,” Sarah, a mixed breed. On a steamy July morning, they headed to Harborfront Park and Centennial Park in Port Jefferson where they spent time walking along the shore and then started heading to Pirate’s Cove. Suddenly, Storm, who was off-leash, made a beeline into the water. 

Storm is well-disciplined and rarely takes off so suddenly, said Freeley, 55. He recalled being puzzled by his dog’s behavior at the time. 

“Storm never brings anything back to me, not even a tennis ball. So it was weird to see him run off into the water,” he joked. “I grabbed my camera and wanted to see what he was doing, and then I noticed an animal’s head bobbing in and out of the water. Storm hesitated for a minute and looked back at me like, ‘What do I do now, Dad?’ I tried to encourage him and keep him calm.”

Storm swam roughly 100 feet from shore and tenderly grabbed the fawn by the scruff of its neck before bringing it back to dry land. Freeley’s video captures the stunning rescue as he continually cheers, “Good boy, Storm! Bring it in!”

Frank Floridia carries the deer out of the water on July 16

When he reached the shore, Storm nervously let go of the fawn, which ran only a few paces before collapsing with apparent exhaustion. The video ends as Storm gently paws and nudges the animal with his nose in an attempt to revive it.

Many people are unaware of what happened next: Freeley took a close-up video of the male deer and attempted to send it to Frank Floridia at Strong Island Animal Rescue League in Port Jefferson Station, but spotty cell service hindered the call for help. Freeley had no choice but to leave the exhausted animal behind and head back toward the village.

Once Freeley picked up a cell signal, he was able to send the video to Floridia. Together with co-owner Erica Kutzing, Strong Island responds to calls involving injured and abused animals in emergency situations. They’ve rescued dogs, cats, possums, deer and a variety of other animals, sometimes performing several rescues in a day.

Floridia met Freeley in the village, and the pair headed back toward the cove. The trip takes around 20 minutes on foot and is full of slippery, rocky terrain. Kutzing drove to nearby Belle Terre, which provides faster access to the cove.

It wouldn’t be an easy task.

“We went back to the spot where the deer was left, but he got spooked when he heard us coming and actually ran back into the water again,” Floridia said. “We tried to get Storm to retrieve him a second time, but he wouldn’t go, and the deer became distressed — he was probably 100 feet out at least. I knew we either had to go get him or he was going to die.”

Floridia and Freeley waded out into the water, flanking the deer on each side. They attempted to reach for him, but he continued to avoid them. Finally, he grew tired and Floridia was able to secure the fawn with a rope, bringing it to shore. 

Their initial assessment found that the fawn had cuts and scrapes, was infested with ticks and severely dehydrated. Kutzing took the animal to STAR Foundation in Middle Island, where he was promptly named Water and underwent rehabilitation for several months. He was ultimately released back into the wild with a clean bill of health.

Erica Kutzing prepares to transport the deer to the STAR Foundation in Middle Island

“We think he must have come down the cliff in that area, and there was really nowhere else for him to go. He had no choice but to swim,” Floridia explained. “Deer are good swimmers, but this fawn was only a few weeks old. He was so exhausted that he didn’t even put up a fight.”

Storm’s brave rescue graced local and national headlines for several weeks. But Freeley wasn’t ready for their story to end.

In his spare time, Freeley and his family volunteer with Last Chance Animal Rescue based in Southampton. The 501(c)3 charitable organization rescues animals from high-kill shelters in the Carolinas and Georgia on a weekly basis. Upon arrival on Long Island, the animals spend a week with volunteer foster families before being adopted by their new owners. 

“Mark came to us as a volunteer leading adoption events and also offering us pro bono legal support. Once Storm had a following, people would come out to events just to see him and take pictures with him,” said Judith Langmaid, director of adoption for Last Chance Animal Rescue. 

“We couldn’t believe it when the video blew up. We thought it was crazy, but it was so exciting. As it got traction, Mark wanted to do anything he could to promote Last Chance and animal rescue in general. He said, ‘If I can use this for good, I want to do it.’ He’s genuine and dependable. We’re so grateful to have him,” she added.

Freeley began to use Storm’s Facebook page, called Good Boy Storm, to promote Last Chance events and animals in need of adoption. “I saw this as an opportunity to raise awareness for other animals fighting for their lives in kill shelters,” he said. The page has helped connect many animals with forever homes.

“There are very few things in life that you can watch make an immediate difference like this. To see a family come in and adopt an animal that would have been euthanized is a great feeling,” Freeley said.

To learn more about Mark Freeley and Storm, search for Good Boy Storm on Facebook. To learn more about animal rescue efforts in our area or to adopt, visit www.lcarescue.org or call 631-478-6844. Strong Island Animal Rescue League can be reached at 631-403-0598.

Photos from Mark Freeley and Frank Floridia

Director pulls 15 felines from condemned home, waiting on adoptions to help more in cat colony

Three cats emerge from the bushes at a house in Port Jefferson after Save-A-Pet volunteers put out food Monday for the numerous cats living on the property. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Erica Kutzing has already pulled 15 cats from a condemned house and its surrounding property on Oakwood Road in Port Jefferson, but she said there are between 20 and 25 more left.

“And that’s of the ones that we can see.”

There could be more hiding — the property has a lot of foliage and the house is a mess. There are flies and cobwebs all over the junk inside, the ceiling is coming down in some places and there is a strong smell, partly of cat urine.

Dori Scofield nets an injured gray kitten, and Frankie Floridia and Erica Kutzing help her put it into a crate. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Dori Scofield nets an injured gray kitten, and Frankie Floridia and Erica Kutzing help her put it into a crate. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Kutzing, director of operations at Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station, would like to continue taking the friendly cats back with her to the shelter, but it is full. Her operation on Oakwood Road is partly on hold until some people start adopting the animals and free up space. Until then, with the permission of the owner, she visits the site every day to deliver food and clean water, and to help the cats that need it the most.

The first day she brought food to the house, she said, “they swarmed us,” and the cats tried to chew through the bags of food. “They were starving.” In the roughly three weeks since she started feeding them — with donations from the community — she estimates they’ve each gained about five pounds.

On Monday, Kutzing brought the usual five cans of wet food and full bag of cat food to Oakwood Road. A couple of cats watched as she cleaned aluminum trays filled with muddy rainwater from a storm the night before and replaced the dirty water with the food, with the help of volunteers Frankie Floridia and his son Dylan Inghilleri. Then other felines started to emerge from bushes and windows and below a dumpster on the front lawn.

Cats eat at a house in Port Jefferson after Save-A-Pet volunteers put out food. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Cats eat at a house in Port Jefferson after Save-A-Pet volunteers put out food. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Most of the animals, Kutzing said, are the property owner’s pets. While he loves them and his pet ownership started with the best intentions, “cats can breed faster than you can stop them.” Some of those still at the house are friendly, but they have become wild because of their living situation.

The Port Times Record reported in November that there once also were four Alaskan huskies on the property, but they were removed when firefighters investigating smoke found unsafe conditions inside the house. That’s when it was condemned.

According to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, four misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty are still pending against the owner.

Dori Scofield, director of the Town of Brookhaven Animal Shelter and Adoption Center and founder and president of Save-A-Pet, said there are many houses like this all over the town and the country, where people have good intentions that “go haywire,” and their properties are overrun with animals. “They get in over their heads.”

Scofield was the one who first received a call, in her role with the town, about the house and went to investigate.

She was also at the site Monday, and netted a 6-month-old gray kitten that Kutzing said had a broken tail and possibly a broken pelvis.

A female kitten at a house in Port Jefferson named Pinot came out to see rescue volunteers, who visit the property every day. Photo by Elana Glowatz
A female kitten at a house in Port Jefferson named Pinot came out to see rescue volunteers, who visit the property every day. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Kutzing explained that it was painful for the kitten to walk and “with every step her lower end drops to the floor.” She added when the kitten eats her daily deliveries, usually she will lie down in the aluminum tray.

Monday, the cat ate from outside the tray, but she sneezed multiple times throughout her meal. Kutzing explained that the kitten also has an upper respiratory infection.

After Scofield quickly threw the net over the gray kitten, Kutzing and Floridia helped her put the kitten into a carrier to take back to Save-A-Pet for treatment. Afterward, she will likely be released back at the house.

Scofield said she didn’t want to see the cats stay at the condemned house permanently, and it would be ideal for someone with a barn to take in the feral cats.

Kutzing stressed the need for adoptions and that the cats at Save-A-Pet that had been pulled from the Oakwood Road house have been medically cleared and are good with other cats “because it’s all they know.” The organization needs homes for both the young cats and the older ones, she said, adding that older cats can be positive because they know how to use a litter box and owners will already know the cats’ personalities.

Scofield also stressed that people who find themselves with a large number of animals “shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help,” either from Save-A-Pet or Brookhaven Animal Shelter. “We’ll do whatever we can to help them.”

Kutzing urged against concerned residents visiting the Oakwood Road property on their own. She said it would be trespassing and she doesn’t want anyone “to hinder our trapping by scaring the cats,” because they are now comfortable around the volunteers.