Animal League America sees opening of cat addition

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Gabe Gill of Queens pets one of the new tenants in Bianca's Furry Friends Center at North Shore Animal League. (Photo by Rose Weldon)

Cats and kittens on the North Shore will have a new place to go with the opening of North Shore Animal League America’s Bianca’s Furry Friends Feline Adoption Center.

The latest major addition to the league’s headquarters in Port Washington, the center comprises a newly constructed second floor, where over a dozen rooms allow rescued cats to wander in cage-less surroundings.

Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations for North Shore Animal League America, said  the addition is not meant to be evoke a “traditional” shelter.

“This is more of a habitat for cats, so to be able to have the opportunity to provide a natural, stress-free environment for the cats is just great,” Yohannan said.

The “Bianca” in Bianca’s Furry Friends is Bianca Stern, the late bulldog of Beth Ostrosky Stern and her husband, radio broadcaster Howard Stern. Upon the dog’s death in 2012, Beth Ostrosky Stern, a frequent foster parent and adopter of North Shore rescues, approached Yohannan with an idea.

“She said to me, ‘Joanne, I want to do something special for Bianca in her memory,'” Yohannan said.

The same year, Animal League America received hundreds of animals displaced by Hurricane Sandy and the cages in the cat rooms became full. Stern and Yohannan thought up a cage-less solution, one that would allow rescues to roam around in rooms equipped with beds, litter boxes, scratching poles and structures to climb.

“Beth and I wanted big windows, natural sunlight, we wanted an airy, bright feeling with high ceilings, we wanted it to be peaceful,” Yohannan said. “Cats always get overlooked, and oftentimes in animal shelters, they’re the first to die, and we wanted to change how they lived.”

Stern then spearheaded a capital campaign for Animal League America that raised over $12 million. It  took six years to raise funds, acquire permits and construct the new addition.

The resulting structure, built by Clearwater, Florida-based Bacon Group Inc., is a 14,000 square foot, 12-room floor that houses over 100 cats and kittens.

Donors included Northwell Health lifetime trustee Sandra Atlas Bass of Great Neck, as well as other prominent names.

Singer-songwriter Billy Joel donated the proceeds from his 65th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, according to Yohannan. His donation saw the addition of two themed rooms, with one including a functioning piano and another themed to New York City. Celebrity chef Rachael Ray, a longtime supporter of animal rescue organizations, was surprised last month on her daily TV show with her own room in the facility, which has a wooden tree with climbing-friendly limbs stretching across the walls.

“It’s not easy to raise the money, and I don’t think it could have happened if the Sterns hadn’t spearheaded the capital campaign,” Yohannan said. “They opened many doors to many of their friends, and that’s really what catapulted us to making this dream a reality.”

The Hallmark Channel, which borrows cats from Animal League America for its annual Kitten Bowl, also sponsored a cat habitat room, which Yohannan said will host viewing parties for the event, which airs a few hours before the Super Bowl each year.

Other rooms are dedicated to Julia Belle Mason, a Make-A-Wish child whose wish for a kitten was granted by the league, and the Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt Charitable Trust, which provided funds for a feline nursery.

The addition also provided positives for the non-felines at Animal League America, Yohannan says, with the dogs continuing to be housed on the first floor.

“It not only benefited cats and kittens, but also dogs and puppies because now we’ve opened up more space to rescue more animals,” Yohannan said.

She added that the center’s improvements may set a standard for fellow shelters.

“This could be a model for other organizations, so that if they’re doing expansions or want to have a capital campaign, it’s a nice model to follow to have habitats instead of cages,” Yohannan said.

Next for the league will be the seventh annual Kitten Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 2, on the Hallmark Channel, and in May the Global Adopt-A-Thon, which will see the center unite with 2,000 shelters across the world to stay open for over 36 hours and offer 700 animals for adoptions.

Those in the Port area who enjoy animals but can’t adopt are also welcome, Yohannan said.

“Come for a visit, even if you don’t want to adopt,” she said. “Even if you just want to see what’s going on and socialize with the cats and dogs. The more interaction they get, the better a chance for adoption they have.”

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