As workers started to demolish a derelict apartment building, they got the feeling that they weren’t alone. Then, they heard noises coming from the dark. That’s when they found dozens of creatures hiding in the walls.
At 778 Onderdonk Avenue in Queens, New York, sits an empty apartment building. It had been derelict for some time and by 2017 was in a bad state of disrepair. As a result, its owner, Isaac Silberstein, decided to have it demolished.
Not only was the building falling apart, but, according to Silberstein, it also smelled bad. So, he decided that the block was a lost cause and approached a demolition company to dispose of it. Consequently, in July 2017 workers and their bulldozers moved in.
As they began knocking down the former apartment block, however, they got the feeling that they were not alone. From inside the walls and corners of the building they could hear strange muffled noises. So they downed their tools and started searching for the source of the sounds.
But nothing could have prepared them for what they’d discover on their quest to solve the mystery. Because, as they searched, cats began to emerge from every nook and cranny in the building. It seemed that the animals had taken over the building.
“When they opened the walls, they jumped out — cats, baby cats, big ones, you can’t imagine,” Silberstein told the New York Times in August 2017. As a result, he told the workers to halt the demolition. First, though, they opened up the remaining walls. “What if there were dead cats in there?” he said. “Then it would be my problem.”
Silberstein solicited the help of a private company to remove the cats. However, when they attempted to drive the cats out by spraying the building with bleach, the local community was outraged. Neighbors consequently rallied round to save the cats themselves.
They believed that there were around 40 cats squatting in the empty apartment building. According to some people in the local area, the animals had belonged to a former tenant. The woman loved the animals, but was somewhat of a hoarder – hence the extreme number of cats.
As the community stepped in to rescue the kitties, they realized that the animals had been through hell. According to one local resident, Dolores Benefatti, they found a cat jawbone and a piece of tail during their search. Moreover, many of the animals that had survived sported some kind of injury.
“A lot of these cats had injuries, gashes in their faces,” Benefatti later explained. “One had to be put down eventually because of a respiratory infection. Once we went in and saw what was going on, we were devastated.”
The locals subsequently began retrieving the cats one by one. Some of the rescuers adopted animals themselves. However, they sent the majority of the kitties to local rescue organizations. Ridgewood-based shelter A Tail of Two Kitties was among the groups to open its doors.
According to shelter worker Carissa Aguirre, the staff there were working hard to place the cats in loving forever homes. She added that it was important to focus on the animals’ futures rather than dwelling on their pasts. After all, if the shelter couldn’t place the cats in homes, they faced euthanization.
For Aguirre, getting all of the animals adopted was a frantic race against the clock. “We desperately need fosters and adopters to help save them,” she told The Dodo in August 2017. “That is the most important thing here.”
Before long the homeless cats’ story had spread around New York. People started referring to them as the “Onderdonk Orphans” after the avenue in which they lived. As a result, the city’s authorities soon decided to intervene.
The Department of Buildings said that it had inspected the site to see if it was safe. “We were deeply disturbed by reports that construction work was taking place with abandoned cats in the building,” spokesman Joseph Soldevere told the New York Times. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to protect vulnerable animals, and we will continue to monitor this site closely.”
New York’s animal control agency eventually seized the building. “We are working with the manager of the property, who has promised us that no more work will be done until all the cats are out,” spokeswoman Katy Hansen explained.
She admitted, however, that saving all the cats in the building would be a long and arduous task. In fact, the agency wasn’t even sure how many remained inside. “There are so many crawl spaces,” Hansen said. “There are so many places they can hide.”
Meanwhile, as the search continued, the first batch of rescued cats began settling into their new environments. At A Tail of Two Kitties, one terrified black cat finally began to relax. Soon she even learned to enjoy head scratches from her carers. “This Black Beauty has let down her wall and is ready to put her horrific past behind her and start fresh in a forever home,” read a post on the shelter’s Facebook page.
However, the post added that the shelter’s hard work was far from over. “We desperately need to place ten cats and the number grows DAILY,” it read. “When all the smoke clears and the story is forgotten, these abandoned animals will still be here waiting to be saved. We can’t do it alone, this is a community affair.”
Thankfully for the Onderdonk Orphans, they have a fantastic community around them. Given the way that locals fought to rescue the cats, they’ll stop at nothing to find all of the animals a home. So, hopefully, the cats’ nightmare is over and they’ll live out their lives in comfort and happiness.