David Stone
Boohooing & Evasion - RIOC Responds to the Cat Sanctuary Crisis

We expect governments to be the grownups in the room, agree with them or not, when disputes arise. We expect them to be domestic peacemakers, not instigators or inflexible combatants. If you think this refers to Trump, it doesn't. Disappointment accelerated late Thursday when RIOC refused to back down from a crisis it created, worsening an already difficult situation at the cost of its own credibility.

Ever Evolving Stories

Ever experience the cliche about how hard it is to hit a moving target in real time? If so, you'll appreciate how hard it is to pin RIOC down to a consistent explanation about the cat sanctuary crisis. If you haven't, you get a clear, disappointing view of why citizens increasingly distrust government, especially here on Roosevelt Island.

Trouble started when Parks & Recreation Director Mary Cuneen told Wildlife Freedom Foundation leader Rossana Ceruzzi that her group must stop using a tap in Southpoint to get water for the adjacent cat sanctuary.

The reason: it was impacting the sprinkler system.

That's right. Water for drinking and sanitation in the 7 year old sanctuary was suddenly cited as inhibiting the perfection of RIOC's watering of the park, which is supposed to be natural and hasn't suffered any kind of drought. Well, never mind.

After a series of meetings and while volunteers from the sanctuary unsuccessfully tried to get RIOC President Susan Rosenthal to step in and be the adult needed to impose common sense, Cuneen ordered the tap shut off. This left WFF without an established water supply for the sanctuary.

Cuneen pushed three solutions harder after throwing the rescuers into crisis mode.

  1. Volunteers could use water from a tap to be installed at some future date at the Southtown comfort station. That would require lugging buckets of water over the full width of the Island, roughly the length of a football field, and was more a lump it or leave proposition than a solution.
  2. RIOC would build a rainwater catchment tank for the sanctuary. Not only would this be impractical, since rainfall is not steady here as it is in places like Oregon where these solutions are popular, but the Wildlife Freedom Foundation worried about attracting mosquitos, putting everyone in the park at risk of exposure to dengue fever during a hot summer.
  3. The nonprofit foundation could lay a pipe from the comfort station across the Island to the sanctuary, at their own expense of an estimated $10,000, the State agency with a $28,000,000 annual budget offered. They'd just bragged of spending $24,000 on a single plinth for sculptures in the back of Good Shepherd Plaza. This was a ridiculous, unaffordable option, which RIOC surely knew or should have.

Conceding that any sensible accord with RIOC wasn't likely, RIRA Common Council members reached out to The Daily, three weeks after RIOC precipitated the crisis, hoping to arouse the community, concerned about the welfare of the cats without a ready source of water.

That's when the (lets call it) fun started.

RIOC: Answer #1

RIOC Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson was assigned to answer our inquiry in RIOC's behalf.

"Contrary to the claims of your sources, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is not shutting off the water for the feral cat sanctuary," Roberson wrote, but that was untrue. The water had already been shut off three weeks earlier.

"What we are doing is asking that the Wildlife Freedom Foundation, Inc. get the water it needs from a different, but nearby source," he went on, referring to the comfort station on the opposite side of the Island as "nearby."

"Most recently, the cat sanctuary near the east seawall area by Strecker Laboratory was using a water tap that was connected to the Southpoint Park irrigation system. That tap, according to experts, was causing substantial plumbing issues."

The "substantial plumbing issues" gambit struck us as odd, inconsistent with our experience. So, we asked Robertson to describe the problem in detail and supply us with contact information for the "experts" that would allow us to dig a little deeper.

Which brought us to...

RIOC Answer #2:

"When they (WFF volunteers) tapped into the irrigation system they never disconnected their hose or nozzle," Robertson wrote. Rather than plumbing, the problem now was "significant flooding and waste water issues."

"It was like running a faucet on full blast all day long," he concluded, without explaining the switch. (Related - See Perspective: RIOC Waters the Promenade After Cutting Off Sanctuary)

Contacted by us, Ceruzzi denied this, pointing out that the water was accessed via a tap that could be easily turned on and off. The hose and nozzle are irrelevant. "No flooding," she added.

Why not work with WFF to make sure volunteers turned the tap off when finished?

"Well, according to the information I have received," Robertson answered cautiously, "that has been tried to no avail." (Italics ours)

 Starting to get the feeling that RIOC's making it up as they go along? We did.

And then, elaborately, came...

RIOC Story #3:

After two days of rigamarole, in a lengthy official statement (full text attached below), RIOC went full circle in contradicting itself. The problem all along was, they now said, "pressure-related problems," just as Common Council Members told us and RIOC initially denied. They wanted more pressure for their sprinklers, not comfort for the sanctuary.

Someone at RIOC's been lying, but instead of a goodwill gesture or a mea culpa, RIOC struck a combative tone.

(In a gratuitous bit of snark, RIOC's statement included numerous distribution copies, but none to Ceruzzi or other sanctuary volunteers.)

Remember? No grownups in the room.

RIOC's Boohoo Chorus

"The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) has a long history – more than seven years - of supporting the Foundation’s efforts by building several cat sanctuaries, providing locked storage facilities, installing car speed bumps near the cat colonies and just today, awarding the first half of a $5,000 public purpose grant to help subsidize WFF’s program and administrative costs," the State agency declared in a statement.

(The Public Purpose Grant was awarded six months ago and just now released, but never mind.)

"But now RIOC - in trying to find a compromise over a water use dispute with WFF - is slandered as an animal cruelty corporation by a few who’ve only heard one-half of the story," the $28 million a year State agency with its own community liaison department and public information officer whined.

No false statement, as required to identify any "slander," was offered as evidence.

But then, as if the tantrum wasn't sufficiently over the top already, RIOC tossed up something strange, slapping WFF and its volunteers with the back of its hand with an accusation of negligence.

The Sanctuary Feeds Cats Contaminated Water

Here's how RIOC closed out its statement:

"And there’s one last point we should make. Irrigation system water, like the one WFF was using, is not potable; that means the water is not suitable for drinking by humans or animals since it’s contaminated by fertilizer, pesticides, feces and other contaminates.

"Nobody wants the cats ingesting those types of pollutants. Let’s find a solution for the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary that makes healthy sense for everyone."

In a follow up, Robertson elaborated, "I should say the sprinkler heads often reabsorb the excess run-off water from the lawn. And thus whatever is on the lawn gets back into the water and into the water supply line." (Italics ours)

Do the math. If this is true, RIOC is contaminating, not just the sanctuary, but if they are using a municipal water supply, it's doing the same to public drinking water. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, in-ground sprinkler systems require backflow prevention devices to avert such hazards in the domestic supply.

We immediately asked RIOC to identify the source of their contaminated water, and since they'd pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat, we asked them to tell us when they first became aware of it and when WFF was warned.

Similarly, we'd like to know when RIOC plans to notify the community in general about contamination they may have introduced into the City water supply.

We're waiting for RIOC to answer questions offered 2 days ago:

If we know our RIOC, they will never answer in full. They are not going to be the grownups in the room that do the right thing and settle disputes equitably.

Do we really have a contamination crisis as RIOC described or did they just paint themselves into a corner? 

Good luck on that one too.

  1. RIOC Statement on the Cat Sanctuary Crisis (113.03 KB)