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Windy city whirlwind

A tribute to the “cat man” of Chicago’s West Side

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015

In the Chicago community of North Lawndale, Arthur Burrell worked hard to ensure that none of the neighborhood cats went hungry. “Even when his health wasn’t good, he would still push himself to make sure they had what they needed,” says his wife, Yolanda Bell. At the grand opening of the Pets for Life Chicago office in September, Burrell discussed cat care with The HSUS’s Betsy McFarland. The event was “all he talked about until he got sick,” says Bell. ”Two days later, he was still wearing his name tag on his shirt.”With boundless energy and a huge heart for animals, Burrell devoted most of his waking hours to taking care of neighborhood cats. “He’d always have cat food and a jug of water,” says Bell.Burrell had big plans to help more cats, which he meticulously recorded in his notebook.

A few years back, while knocking on doors in North Lawndale—a neighborhood that struggles with poverty, foreclosures and drug-related crime—Annette Bellezzo and Kris Badillo met Arthur Burrell.

An Army veteran and lifelong animal lover, Burrell got started in feline rescue when he took in two tiny kittens he’d found on the street.

By the time he ran into Bellezzo and Badillo—staffers with the HSUS Pets for Life Chicago team—Burrell had eight cats at home. And he would wander the streets and alleyways, sometimes after midnight, looking for others to help. He gave them names like Smoke-a-Dope, Ooka Nooka, Sparkle Treadwell, Bubbles, False Face, Short Body, Squirrel and Weasel. In a spiral-bound notebook, he meticulously documented each cat’s history and medical issues.Bellezzo and Badillo were even more impressed when Burrell invited them inside the basement apartment he shared with his wife, stepchildren and several rescued cats. In one bedroom, Burrell had created a feline playground, fashioning jungle gyms and cat trees from recycled cardboard and rope that he strung from the ceiling. He made teal-colored cat toys from empty Newport cigarette packs, and cat beds from empty boxes and old T-shirts. Each cat had her own brush and feeding bowl labeled with her name, remembers Badillo, community organizer for PFL. And partly because his wife, Yolanda Bell, insisted that there be “no cat smell,” everything was spotlessly clean.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knew him as ‘the cat man,’” says Bell. Neighbors would knock on his door or stop him in the street, asking for help placing kittens, assistance getting pet food or advice on cat care.

In the two years the Pets for Life team knew him, Burrell rescued 51 cats and kittens from the streets. Pets for Life provided him with flea and tick medications and other supplies and helped sterilize and find homes for the kittens he found. In turn, Burrell introduced the team to pet owners in the community and spread the word about the program to other community cat caretakers.

He was “like a whirlwind,” remembers Bellezzo, coordinator for the HSUS Pets for Life Chicago program. “He had an infectious, positive attitude about animals.”Although he lived on a fixed income, Burrell spent a lot of his own money caring for North Lawndale’s community cats. And limited resources didn’t stop him from dreaming up ways to help more of them. In September 2014, he started sketching out plans for a program he called Caring About Felines Everywhere. The CAFE program, he wrote in his notebook, would “get stray cats off the street and get them spayed/neutered.” It would share information with people about cat care and help owners in underserved areas with food and veterinary care. It would find homes for friendly strays.

Sadly, Burrell, who was 57 and suffered from pulmonary disease, died a month later. While he didn’t live long enough to make his CAFE program a reality, because of Burrell “a lot of people in the neighborhood started getting into their pets,” says Bell. Now neighbors and family members are pitching in to care for the animals who meant so much to him.“He was really this Pied Piper one-man cat program,” says Kenny Lamberti, Pets for Life program manager. “He became our response team.”

“He was so happy before he died,” Bell remembers, “because he thought he was really going to get a chance to do something” for the cats.

We give thanks for Arthur—because he already had.

About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of The Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.