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Strong Island Animal Rescue

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

With the growing issue of feral cats in Suffolk County, local animal rescue groups have told the Town of Brookhaven its current programs are not doing enough to stem the tide.

The rising population of feral cats on Long Island has been an ongoing issue for the past few years. In 2018, well over 300,000 cats lived in Suffolk County, including both feral and domesticated cats, according to data from the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

Erica Kutzing speaks on cats to the town board. Photo from TOB video

While trap, neuter and release programs have helped in combating the increasing population of feral cats, animal rescuer groups from the North Shore say the Town has not done enough to provide assistance in getting cats spayed and neutered.  

Erica Kutzing, vice president of North Shore-based Strong Island Animal Rescue League, asked town officials at a board meeting Nov. 19 to consider creating a trap, neuter and release task force to assist local rescue groups in the ongoing feral cat crisis. 

Kutzing said the rising population of feral cats has overwhelmed many animal groups’ resources, especially citing the lack of manpower and cost they themselves incur.

Since speaking at a previous board meeting, she posted a message on Facebook asking people who have unfixed feral cats to reply with the number of felines they need to get spayed and neutered. 

Within 24 hours, 23 individuals had contacted Kutzing and among them they had a total of 324 unfixed feral cats that could “breed over and over again.” 

She said if those 23 people got two free vouchers from the Town, as the current trap neuter return program allows, it would leave about 278 of those cats still untreated. A task force, she added, could be an effective partnership with the Town, adding they could bring in volunteer trappers to teach others and help facilitate the task force.  

“Now they’re [the cat’s treatment] on nonprofit organizations and homeowners’ dime — who don’t usually want to spend their money on situations like this,” Kutzing said. 

The vice president of the animal rescue group said the proposed task force would help bridge the gap between nonprofits and municipal shelters and cut feral cat numbers down.  

As of now, two vouchers can be issued at a time to a resident, which critics said are not enough to handle the influx of feral cats. 

The vouchers are redeemed at Integrative Veterinary Therapies in Ridge, though residents must first call the clinic to make an appointment at 631- 924-7700. That policy has been criticized by animal rescue groups. 

Brookhaven Town Animal Shelter Director Christina Tormey said she does not speak to press and referred all questions to the Town
of Brookhaven.

A Brookhaven spokesperson said town officials could consider some of the proposed ideas brought up by the animal rescue group members, but added that the Town already has its own trap, neuter, release voucher program in place and at the moment the town doesn’t foresee making any major changes to it. 

Kutzing said if half of the 278 cats are female, the current voucher program would do very little to stop the proliferation of feral felines. 

“Multiply that by the average amount of kittens in a litter — five, that brings us to 695 kittens that will be born by the end of kitten season that normally occurs around February and March,” she said. “We don’t have room for 600 kittens, does Brookhaven Animal Shelter have room for this amount? Or hundreds more?”

Sue Hansen, Rocky Point resident and former Smithtown Animal Shelter supervisor, said the problem with feral cats is a community problem in need of local government support. 

“We have and will continue to offer our time, experience and services but we need your assistance … an effective program that works with the volunteers is the solution,” she said.  

A Selden resident asked the board to reconsider changes to the town’s TNR program.   

“I have many kittens in my home because there is no place for them to go but I have to keep them isolated from my other animals, we need some help,” she said. 

The Selden resident also mentioned the out of pocket cost to take care of these animals. 

“I’m not a trapper, I’m able to reach out to see if I can get a trapper for those cats that are not chipped but who’s going to pay for that?” she said. “Who is going to take care of them when they recover? It is a serious problem … something has to get done.”

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

By Kyle Barr

Smithtown volunteers hopped to saving nearly 30 domestic rabbits that were left alone and abandoned in a tick and poison ivy infected stretch of forest last week in Ronkonkoma.

Smithtown-based nonprofit Guardians of Rescue received a tip about the illegally released rabbits and reached out to local animal rescue groups for help. Volunteers spent close to two full days overall, May 27 and 28, capturing 27 rabbits that had been marooned in a forest near the Ronkonkoma train station commuter parking lot. One was found dead in the forest and another died while receiving care.

“These particular rabbit breeds were not suited for the wild,” Robert Misseri, the president of Guardians of Rescue said. “There is no telling how long they would have lasted, but it would have not been long.”

After Misseri got a tip from a local feral cat rescuer, he said he put the call out to several local animal rescue groups including the Sound Beach-based nonprofit Strong Island Animal Rescue League.

Whoever abandoned those rabbits should be ashamed of themselves.”

– Frankie Floridia

The first rabbit that Erica Kutzing, vice president for the Strong Island rescue group, saw when she arrived at the forest was larger than any wild rabbit should have been. It was a Flemish Giant, a huge breed of rabbit known for being extremely calm around humans. Kutzing got down to its level and laid out rabbit feed in a line and the rabbit loped toward her. From behind her, Frankie Floridia, the president of Strong Island rescue, flashed out with a net and caught the rabbit. Kutzing held it as she brought it back to their car. It was nearly as big as a small dog.

“Whoever abandoned those rabbits should be ashamed of themselves,” Floridia said. “They were giving those rabbits a death sentence.

Many of the rabbits found were of different breeds including Lionheads and Flemish Giants. Some had obviously interbred with each other, which makes the rescue groups believe all these animals were held together in only a few small cages.

“Black ones, white ones, gray, brown, there were all different kinds,” Kutzing said. “It was like shopping at Macy’s, you could get any color you wanted.”

Misseri said he suspects the person who abandoned the rabbits might have been breeding them.

Black ones, white ones, gray, brown, there were all different kinds. It was like shopping at Macy’s, you could get any color you wanted.”

– Erica Kutzing

Many of the animals were sick with pneumonia. Others were injured by the cage they were kept in and the rabbits they were caged with, according to Misseri. Several had cysts on their skin and many were suffering from malnourishment. The first rabbit Strong Island rescue captured is currently being nursed back to health, and they have named it André the Giant after the famous French wrestler and actor.

“Once we caught him we were running through the woods, it was just net after net after net,” Kutzing said. “And you have to be careful picking these guys up because if they kick strong enough they’ll break their backs, if they get too frightened they can have a heart attack. They have paper-thin skin so if you handle them wrong you can tear the skin.”

The rescued rabbits have been sent out to multiple animal rescue operations in the surrounding area. Six were taken in by Guardians of Rescue, but all those have already been fostered out. Several more were taken in by Long Island Orchestrating for Nature from Malverne, the Connecticut-based Hopalong Hollow Rabbit Rescue and Queens-based All About Rabbits Rescue.

The Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has put out a $3,500 reward for a person who leads them and authorities to the person who abandoned the animals. Several local animal rescue groups donated money toward that reward, namely Guardians of Rescue, Strong Island Animal Rescue League and Long Island Orchestrating for Nature who  put up $500 each, while the SPCA and All About Rabbits Rescue put up $1,000 each.

This is a sad, pervasive problem in Suffolk County.”

– Vivian Barna

“We at the SPCA take this very seriously, especially in cases of abandonment like this,” Suffolk SPCA President Roy Gross said. “This is a case of abandonment and animal cruelty, and so the person or persons involved in this are up for criminal charges. All that person had to do was to pick up a phone, call any of these organizations and we would have found a home for them, but instead he abandoned them.”

Vivian Barna, who runs All About Rabbits Rescue, took in six of the rabbits, and said that rabbit abandonment on Long Island, especially in Suffolk, is endemic.

“This is a sad, pervasive problem in Suffolk County,” Barna said. “This is about our fourth or fifth recent rescue. We had rescued 25 in Bohemia back in December 2016, another set in Northport not too long ago. These rabbits were just deprived. They had illnesses including upper respiratory problems, intestinal parasites, and these six rabbits are costing us close to $2,500 to give them that care.”

Gross said there have been instances of rabbit abandonment recently not too far from where the rabbits were dumped in Ronkonkoma.

“We had a case just recently of other rabbits dumped in Lake Ronkonkoma,” Gross said. “This may possibly be the same person, but there’s no way right now to be sure.”

All rescue groups mentioned in the story said that if people were interested in fostering the rabbits or wished to donate to call to call and inquire. People inquiring about the rescued rabbits can call the
Guardians of Rescue at 888-287-3864.

The SPCA said that any tips about the person who abandoned the rabbits can be sent to their phone number 631-382-7722. All calls will be anonymous.

Suffolk County Executive presents Setauket pet with proclamation

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone presents Storm, an English golden retriever, with a proclamation for rescuing a drowning deer from Port Jeff Harbor. Photo by Kevin Redding

A local English golden retriever has earned a lifetime of “Good boy!” declarations and belly rubs, but Suffolk County recently threw him another bone to add to the accolades.

Suffolk County’s newest hero Storm, the brave, 6-year-old dog, who became a national celebrity last week after a video of him pulling a drowning fawn from Port Jefferson Harbor Sunday, July 16, spread like wildfire online, rolled around in the grass outside the Save the Animal Rescue Foundation in Middle Island July 19 as he and local animal rescue members were honored for their efforts to save the baby deer.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) presented proclamations to East Setauket resident and injury attorney Mark Freeley, Storm’s owner who captured the heroics on his cellphone, Strong Island Animal Rescue League co-founder Frankie Floridia, who aided in the rescue, and Save the Animal Rescue Foundation Director Lori Ketcham, who is rehabilitating the 3-month-old male fawn now referred to as Water. He is currently in stable condition.

Storm, an English golden retriever from East Setauket, became famous for saving a drowning deer from Port Jeff Harbor last week. Photo by Kevin Redding

Despite an attempt to present an official proclamation to the man’s best friend of the hour, Storm seemed much more interested in a large bone provided by the county executive’s staff.

“We’re here to talk about some of the heroes we have here, both canine and human, for what they’ve done to really remind us of the importance of compassion and giving to others and helping others,” Bellone said, acknowledging the selfless initiatives of the animal rescue groups.

Looking down at Storm, he said, “And this dog here is no ordinary golden retriever. He really did something important and special for us. The inspiration that Storm has given to all of us should inspire us to support the work of people like this that is happening each and every day. If that happens, then what Storm did will not only help save one fawn but will help save countless other animals here and others that will be here in the future.”

It was just another normal Sunday morning walk out to Pirate’s Cove for Freeley, 53, and his dogs, Storm and Sarah, a rescued Border collie, when he said the golden retriever suddenly got ahead of him on the empty beach.

The next thing Freeley knew, Storm was paddling out into the water about 100 feet offshore toward “a brown head bobbing” he quickly realized was a drowning fawn. As captured in the video seen around the world, Storm held the deer in his mouth and carried it towards the beach “like a lifeguard would with their arm,” Freeley said.

After the fawn got on the sand, it ran around wildly before collapsing. Storm gently nudged the deer’s face and belly and pawed his leg.

“He won’t even play fetch with a tennis ball,” Freeley said, laughing. “I just feel like he thought he had to do something for this deer. Storm’s a very well-adjusted and socialized dog. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body and he gets along with all animals. People on Facebook were saying he was going to kill the deer, but if you meet this dog, you know that was not going to happen. He’s not prey-driven.”

Freeley quickly posted the video to his Facebook and then called the nonprofit Strong Island Animal Rescue League to inform its members of the fawn.

Floridia, the group’s leader, said when he and his colleague Erica Kutzing tried to approach the deer with leashes and nets, “it totally went AWOL” and ran back into the water and paddled more than 200 feet out. Floridia said it was a do-or-die situation and it didn’t take long before he was swimming out to save the deer.

“He went into the water and followed the example that Storm set earlier and brought that fawn back in and brought it to safety,” Bellone said of Floridia, who he called the animal rescue cowboy.

Storm, an English golden retriever from East Setauket, became famous for saving a drowning deer from Port Jeff Harbor last week. Photo by Kevin Redding

The deer was then transported to the Middle Island animal rescue center.

“The deer was saved and that’s really the best part of the whole thing,” Floridia said. “It’s wonderful that this is bringing awareness to what really happens behind the scenes. Of course I want to thank Storm for helping us ride this wave to get awareness for what we do every day.”

Since the video was posted, the courageous canine’s heroics has accumulated nearly 5.5 million views on Facebook, has been the top story on several talk shows, including ones overseas.

“We’ve been going from one interview to the next and Storm’s been a champ at everything,” Freeley said. “Yesterday, a lady out of the blue called me to tell me just how much of an impact the video had on her, and I could hear her crying a little bit. It’s just amazing and I think people just want to see a simple, basic act of kindness by a dog because news is so hostile today.”

Ketcham said she appreciates the attention her center has been getting from this, which she admitted she isn’t used to.

“It’s been a crazy couple of days since the fawn came here,” Ketcham said. “We have several hundred animals here in our care all being taken care of by a dedicated bunch of volunteers. We hope to get the fawn outside with the rest that are there in a couple days and then back out into the wild in September.”

Freeley, who fosters rescue dogs, provides pro bono legal work for a local animal rescue group, and runs adoption events every Saturday with his daughter, reiterated the biggest takeaway from this.

“It’s really important to support people like Frankie and [these foundations] because they’re the front lines of animal rescue and everybody wants animal rescue, but without your support, there can’t be animal rescue,” he said. “So if Storm has one thing to ask you today it’s to donate to Strong Island and Save the Animal Rescue Foundation to help them continue to save the lives of animals in Suffolk County and on Long Island.”