Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Brooklynite Debbie Zhang was working in a hospital, isolating from friends and family to keep them safe, and having a particularly difficult time.
Then, one night, while on a video call to drink wine and chat with two friends, they suggested she adopt a cat. She started searching, and came upon the Brooklyn Bridge Animal Welfare Coalition’s website, and their pages of cats looking for a home. One little gray and white face caught her eye, and, soon after, she brought home Hotaru — and the two have lived together happily ever since.
Last week, their story won BBAWC a $25,000 from Petco Love, an annual grant competition that collects happy adoption stories from rescues and shelters nationwide and awards funds to their favorites.
Alongside rescuing cats and finding them foster families and new homes — often through their Brooklyn Cat Café on Montague Street, which opened in 2016 — BBAWC runs a discounted veterinary and spay and neuter clinic for the borough’s independent rescuers.
“Most rescue work in New York City is done by individuals and small rescue groups, and in fact they take about half the cats out of the city shelter system,” said Adelia Honeywood Harrison, manager of Grants and Outreach at BBAWC. “These groups, a lot of times just single people, or a small group, spend a lot of their own money, so we provide those low-cost services to help them out.”
Individual donations, café admission, and merchandise sales all contribute to the organization’s income, but they struggled last year when the café had to close, and it’s still only open for three days a week, rather than the pre-pandemic six.
“Prior to the pandemic we had a lot of events, we haven’t had so many events since,” she said. “We had a film festival, we had yoga with cats called ‘Stretch and Snuggle,’ game nights and movie nights. In 2019 we had 30,000 visitors from around the world, and since we opened in 2018 I think the number’s something like 75,000.”
While Harrison and the rest of the team at BBAWC were worried about funding, Zhang was having a hard time dealing with her work and the isolation during the worst of the pandemic. She couldn’t meet Hotaru in-person at her foster home before adopting her, but that didn’t stop the two from becoming fast friends and writing a $35,000 story together.
“She made it known that my place was her place now, her first day,” Zhang said. “I was looking back at photos, and she was already sleeping on my bed that first night.”
Once they had settled into a routine together, Zhang slowly started to realize how much Hotaru’s presence was helping her day-to-day.
“Before I got her, it was basically like, wake up early in the morning, get ready for work, go to work, not knowing how many hours I would be at work,” she said. “Even then, I brought home work, I’d go to sleep, wake up, hopefully get at least five or six hours of sleep, and then go back to work. It was just like a cycle, and having her just like, broke that cycle for me.”
Slowing down to make sure Hotaru’s needs were being met forced her to take real breaks, she said. Even just having a little furry friend hanging around, waiting for her to get home — when Zhang is walking up the stairs to her apartment, she can see Hotaru’s paws walking back and forth in front of the door as she waits for her to get inside for dinnertime — was a boost. Even her doctor noticed that she was doing better.
After a few months, Zhang, who had grown up only with carnival-prize pets, decided Hotaru needed a friend, and she adopted Haruka from BBAWC.
Once the Cat Café opened to the public, Zhang started volunteering there — she’s become one of BBAWC’s “most dedicated” volunteers, Harrison said.
“I didn’t think my story was gonna get picked, but it’s great to know, that like, they helped me by rescuing her and helping me adopt her, and this money would help with so many more, for theme to keep doing what they do, hopefully they can expand and hopefully we can get more cats into homes,” Zhang said.
The money is a relief to BBAWC, and one of the biggest financial burdens it will ease, Harrison said, is pricey dental care for the rescued cats.
“Dental work is very expensive, and it’s actually very important because it causes all kinds of health problems for them,” she said. “Each one of those dental exams, or dental surgeries, can cost between $800 and $1,000. And we usually have many cats who need it. So that’s tens of thousands of dollars in dental work.”
This isn’t the first time BBAWC has won a Petco Love grant, and, in addition to the $25,000 awarded because of Zhang and Hotaru’s winning story, they got an additional $10,000 because of the high number of people who submitted their stories of adopting from BBAWC — 97, according to Harrison.
“We get to hear these updates, and hear how happy people are with their cats, and we just love hearing those stories,” she said. “Just how happy people are, and how happy those cats are. Some of those cats came out of horrible situations, and are in wonderful situations now, and that, of course, is very rewarding.”
The number of foster homes and cat adopters has declined since 2020, Harrison said, but the number of cats BBAWC has not, and they’re always looking for new homes, whether they’re temporary or permanent. Brent Spiner, Bedlam and Lassie, and Papi, along with dozens of other cats, are looking for a home this holiday season! Get more information and find a furry friend on the Brooklyn Cat Café website.