By Lenore Fedow
On a recent Friday afternoon, Belinda Cooper was arguing with a client in her Crown Heights apartment. Her client, an orange and white cat named Paul, was ignoring her calls from the kitchen
Cooper wanted to feed him before she left for the day, but Paul refused to budge from atop the dining-room table. In the next room, his sister Jaya was asleep, the mid-afternoon sun warming her black and white fur.
Those who know Cooper might think the cats would treat Cooper with a greater affection, considering all she does for them and their homeless brethren.
Cooper is co-founder and vice president of Brooklyn Animal Action, a nonprofit animal rescue that she started in 2010. Since its founding, BAA has placed thousands of stray cats, dogs and even pigeons in welcoming homes across the city.
“We aren’t a shelter and can’t take in every cat we are asked to help, but in many cases we can provide support, access to inexpensive vet care, and aid in adopting for people who want to help the animals in their neighborhoods but don’t know where to start or can’t do everything themselves,” said Cooper.
Before fighting for the rights of animals, Cooper defended human rights around the world, campaigning for women’s rights in Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tanzania.
During a visit to war-torn Georgia, Cooper asked an animal rescue group a question she’s been asked many times since:
“Why are you fighting for animal rights instead of human rights?”
A rescue worker replied, “A country that mistreats its animals will mistreat its people.”
Years later, Cooper remembers these words and firmly believes there is room for both. Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that advocates for progressive policies on global issues, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Cooper worked with opponents of the East German government in Berlin in the late 1980s, before the reunification of Germany, appearing on numerous German radio shows and panels. Cooper now teaches at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
After teaching on a typical weekday, Cooper returns to her Brooklyn apartment to scour emails and respond to adoption requests from potential pet parents across Brooklyn. While many queries come from potential adopters, some are from apologetic owners looking to give their pets away.
Cooper has heard a laundry list of reasons people can no longer keep their pets. One of the most frequent is that an owner’s new partner has pet allergies.
While Cooper said she sympathizes with that difficult situation, she stressed the large commitment potential pet owners must take on. For those unsure whether they are ready, Cooper advised, “If you don’t think you can make that commitment, you should consider short-term fostering instead. That helps us very much and gives you the chance to see if you really want to take on a long-term responsibility.”
The organization does not have a set location as its shelter. Instead, volunteers foster animals until a home is found for them. Maria Moyser, BAA’s graphic designer and photographer, fosters cats for the organization. Moyser said she was concerned that her impact is limited, because more animals are in need than she can care for without more fosterers.
“You learn a lot quickly from fostering animal. The greatest reward is seeing an animal find a loving forever home, and knowing that happened because you were there to help when they were at their most vulnerable,” said Moyser.
Committed volunteers are crucial to Brooklyn Animal Action’s mission. A permanent 12-member team keeps the organization running, from rescuing animals to maintaining its social media presence.
Another frequent reason animals are left in BAA’s care is the “no pet” policy in many New York City apartment buildings. The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates that approximately 1.1 million dogs and cats live in New York City, about 600,000 dogs and 500,000 cats, an ownership rate of about one pet for every three homes. The corporation speculates that the reason the city‘s pet population is below the national average of about 60 percent is because of buildings’ “no pet” policies.
A 2014 survey conducted by Apartments.com found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said they were required to pay a pet deposit, a fee paid to landlords to allow a pet to live in the apartment, up from about 60 percent in 2013. According to the survey results, 50 percent of renters paid more than $200 annually in pet deposits and monthly fees.
In its housing projects, the New York City Housing Authority permits no more than one cat or one dog in an apartment. Tenants are required to pay a one-time, non-refundable fee of $25. This fee is waived for residents in communities exclusively for the elderly, “Section 8” affordable housing and verified service animals. Pets must be spayed or neutered as well as vaccinated (the ASPCA Mobile Spay/Neuter Clinics charge $5 for people with proof of public assistance and $125 otherwise).
Dogs are more strictly regulated than cats. Since 2010, dogs may not exceed 25 pounds.
The BAA devotes special sections of its website to hard-to-place animals, including cats infected with the so-called feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, which weakens cats’ immune system.
The website also has a “Silver Whiskers” section for older cats. While many people may want an energetic kitten, BAA recommends older cats for older owners, because of the cats’ gentler personalities and lower energy levels. The “Little Panthers” section offers black cats, which many people pass up for superstitious reasons; black cats spend more time waiting to be adopted and are at a higher risk for euthanasia than lighter-colored or multicolored cats, the BAA says.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates approximately 1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats are euthanized every year in the United States. Cooper pointed out that the largest shelter in New York City is Animal Care and Control, which is not a no-kill shelter. ACCNY’s website says the shelter takes in 18,000 cats alone every year.
Cooper and her fellow volunteers oppose the euthanization of animals but acknowledge that not all animals are meant to live with people.
Through a Trap-Neuter-Release program, the BAA traps and spays or neuters unadoptable street cats, then returns them to where they were found.
These cats also undergo a harmless process known as “eartipping,” in which the tip of the ear is removed for identification purposes. Volunteers in the neighborhood look after these cats, providing them with food and shelter.
Cooper emphasizes working with people in the community to rescue cats on their own.
As BAA’s graphic designer, Moyser writes a detailed description of each animal, gives her or him a cute name and posts videos showing off their playful side.
During a break at Coffee Bites, a shop in Crown Heights, Cooper sees a ceramic bank shaped as a cat – a Chinese symbol of luck – with the BAA logo. The barista says she’s seen people throw some change in. On her way out, Cooper shakes it and hears nothing.