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A giant heart in the meadowlands

Firefighter cares for felines at New Jersey sports complex

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

Twenty years ago, when Michael Marra began working as a firefighter at Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J.—home to MetLife Stadium, the Meadowlands Racetrack, and Izod Arena—the 16 racetrack barns weren’t just full of horses. They were full of cats. More cats lived in the backstretch of the racetrack and in other areas of the complex.

He’d never given much thought to them. Then came Sparkle.

A pregnant cat Marra rescued in 1994, she lived with Marra for 16 years. “Sparkle never forgot that I took her home,” Marra says.

It wasn’t until eight years ago when he started feeding a pregnant cat he found near the Meadowlands firehouse that things got out of hand. She had kittens, and then they had kittens, and soon Marra was caring for about 35 cats in four colonies. He realized that in addition to feeding the cats, he needed to get them spayed and neutered. After many phone calls, he finally found help.

Patti Opromollo from Save the Animals Rescue Team helped trap the cats and get them spayed and neutered at the group’s low-cost spay/neuter clinic in Elmwood, N.J. She even helped trap and sterilize cats around Marra’s home.

Another connection happened when a Meadowlands security guard happened to meet Bonnie Wilson, an independent trapper and volunteer with Friends of the County Animal Shelter in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. Wilson eventually helped Marra trap 52 cats, and her group paid for their spay/neuter surgeries at its clinic. She also helped secure fostering and adoption for many of the cats. “I can never say how great she has been,” says Marra.

Unfortunately, things went south in the fall of 2011 when the state closed the harness racetrack, and the horses and harness racing people moved out. They left about 40 barn cats and almost 100 chickens. Marra assumed care of the additional cats and cared for the chickens until they were relocated to Barnyard Sanctuary in Blairstown, N.J.

In the summer of 2012, the racetrack got a new owner, Jeff Gural, and Marra wasn’t sure what would happen to the cats. But around that time, cans of cat food mysteriously appeared at Marra’s feeding stations, and another employee told him that someone was “snooping” around his cats. Marra jumped in his car and drove to the Meadowlands, where he encountered a woman who said she was concerned about the cats. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. These cats are the fattest cats you’ve ever seen in your life,’ ” Marra says.The woman, Monica Thors, was a horse trainer, groom, and equine photographer, and she also runs Monica Thors Animal Rescue and Monica Thors Feline Division. She was a lifesaver that summer, presenting a comprehensive plan for the Meadowlands cats to the new owner, who decided they could stay. The racetrack continues to support Marra’s work by allowing the cats to shelter in an unused barn on the backstretch. It also contributes money for cat food to Marra’s nonprofit, Kitty Cause, which he formed in 2007 in order to get a tax break and to be eligible to apply for grants. Thors’ rescue provides supplies and occasional manpower for the cats’ care.

Now, every night, Marra feeds more than 50 cans of wet food, kibble, and chicken to about 70 cats in 10 groups. “I drove myself actually broke, really, doing it,” Marra says. It takes him about three hours to deliver his meals on wheels. Although he originally put out food at night because the complex frowned on his activities, he continues his nighttime rounds to avoid the swarm of seagulls who would eat the cat food during the day.

Marra says he worries a lot about the cats, and there is some sadness in the work, such as when the cats just disappear and are never seen again. “Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t name them,” he says. But he says the cats don’t seem to care about whether they have names. “They just want to eat.”

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.