RIDGEWOOD — Dozens of cats — abandoned by their hoarder owner — were found emaciated, injured or dead inside their old home, as the landlord began tearing down the building with them inside.
A handful of neighborhood volunteers spent hours Sunday trying to trap the skittish and traumatized cats and kittens inside an open construction site at 778 Onderdonk Ave., and they guess there are still two dozen more cats inside, all left behind by the old tenant who was bought out of her apartment.
They're desperately seeking homes for the ones they've rescued and donations to pay for the mounting veterinarian bills.
Dolores Benefatti, 62, who lives around the corner, knew the woman who'd left the cats behind and said she had asked for help getting rid of some of them before she took a buyout to leave her apartment.
But Benefatti never imagined the woman had dozens of cats sequestered up in her third-floor apartment. When construction began in mid-July, neighbors started to smell the odor of cat urine coming from the building.
After a neighbor saw a cat leap out of a dumpster where workers were unloading debris from the construction site, Benefatti and several other neighbors started complaining to the Department of Buildings to try to get the construction halted.
They called and texted the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals multiple times. But when no one showed up they eventually went into the building one evening when it was left open last week to survey the damage.
"We went in with lanterns. There were cats everywhere," she said, describing stepping over clumps of debris in the gutted building. "Every two steps you took, there were cats flying by you."
They even found a kitten with an umbilical cord still attached. It was alive when they rescued it though it later died, she said.
But as Benefatti's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she started to see something even more horrible.
"We saw parts of cats as we were walking in the debris. There was a jaw. There was a tail. There was a paw in another place. It was a horror movie going on in there," she said.
She and three other neighbors guessed there were more than 40 cats throughout the building, and realizing they needed help, put out a call to cat lovers in the area on Facebook. On Sunday, they had about a dozen rescuers volunteer from all over the city and beyond to help them trap the cats.
"[It was a] call to arms," said Jacqueline Skaggs, of Kitty Riot, a local trap-neuter and release worker, who showed up to help on Sunday after hearing about the building on Facebook. She found a cat cowering in the hollow walls. She guesses it has broken bones because it's not moving very much, she said. "At least a dozen people [were] helping in small and large ways."
They trapped around a dozen cats Sunday and they estimate that many cats have already fled the building into the neighborhood.
Volunteer rescuers peered into the Ridgewood Avenue building where they're still trying to save two dozen cats. (DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan)
Locals have paused rescue efforts because they need more foster homes, said Carissa Aguirre, a 15-year Ridgewood resident, who took in three cats. The Department of Buildings and Animal Care and Control were on site at the building on Monday.
"They probably all have ear mites, worms. fleas. A lot of them have gashes on their faces from the debris from the nails. They’re all cut up," Aguirre said. "The two kittens that I have are bone thin. They were not taken care of even when the woman was living there. She just picked up and left them there like trash."
Mier Fried, an employee reached at the office of Y&Z Developers Inc, the head contractors at the building, first said that the cats were hidden in the walls when they started construction.
"They were hidden. As soon as they started demolition they came out. They were hidden in the walls," Fried said.
"When he saw the cats he said to stop the work," Fried said, referring to the manager at the site.
Hershy, an employee of the landlord Benjamin Silberstein of D Onderwood LLC, who declined to give his last name brushed off a reporter's request for comment in front of the Onderdonk Avenue building Monday saying, "I don't have time for this."
Silberstein bought the eight-unit apartment building in 2014 for $1.07 million, property records show.
But Michael O'Neil, another Ridgewood resident who aided in the rescue, doubted the construction company's claim to have not known the cats were there when they started knocking down walls.
"They went to town and got caught red handed," he said.