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Newsday Magazine - PETS ANIMAL HOUSE

Denise Flaim
Animal House

Sewing a Security Blanket
Animal lover's 'cage comforters' give strays hope for a new home

September 25, 2001

A BLANKET STATEMENT isn't always a positive thing. Unless it's being made by Alice O'Neil.

O'Neil, an animal-loving Brooklynite, is one of those impassioned, determined people who makes a difference the old-fashioned way: by actually doing something. For example, last year, when a group of boys in her neighborhood tortured a possum, O'Neil started a humane-education campaign (the Compassionate Action Institute, which has an image of the tiny marsupial as part of its logo), a Web site (the wrenchingly named www.pleasebekind.com) and a local children's organization (The Gerritsen Beach Kind Kids Animal Lovers Club).

So when O'Neil signed on as a volunteer at the Center for Animal Care and Control, which runs the city's municipal shelters, she took to heart a project dreamed up by Jody Jones, the CACC's director of volunteers: Wouldn't it be great to have little quilts in the "showroom" cages in each shelter? Not only would they afford some much-needed comfort to the cats and small dogs that occupied them, but they would add a "homey" touch and make the animals more adoptable.

"Alice latched hold of this piece of paper and an idea, and has turned it into something so phenomenal," says Jones. "She is such a gem."

O'Neill started by making 30 quilts for the cages in the CACC's Brooklyn shelter.

"The transformation of those animals," she remembers, was instantaneous. "They got on their beds, they kneaded the material. I remember there was a big old cat whose owner had dumped him off, and he was hiding under newspapers in the back of the cage-nobody knew there was a cat there. By the time I left, there was a crowd around his cage."

Since May, the Cage Comforter Program has generated 1,200 quilts, about a quarter of them hand-sewn by O'Neil, who can turn one out in a half-hour, despite the fact, she says, that "I don't know how to sew." Recently, on her bus ride to her job as the director of modernization for the New York City Housing Authority, a fellow commuter volunteered to give her a used sewing machine. She figures eventually she'll get proficient at using it, though right now, she admits, the unfamiliar machine is slowing down her quilt-making, to which she devotes 35 to 40 hours a week.

Flea markets, eBay auctions and garage sales are good sources for fabric, O'Neil says. Baby quilts and old clothes are nice finds, and "we get old sheets that people donate, which is wonderful-you can make 20 beds out of one."

O'Neil has enlisted the help of individual volunteers as well as a handful of senior centers to help sew the 12-inch-by-18-inch batting-filled quilts. She is hoping to persuade some Girl Scout troops and sewing guilds to take on the project. But given her goal-providing a quilt for each of the 60,000 animals that make their way through the CACC shelter system every year-she needs more. More volunteers to cut fabric and batting, more selfless sewers, more drivers to transport the quilts, more donations to cover the cost of materials.

O'Neil admits that sometimes volunteers are put off by the idea of the CACC, which is a kill shelter and must have an open-admission policy. But she puts the blame squarely where it belongs: on irresponsible owners who let their sense of commitment falter.

"They have to make room-there are just too many animals," she says simply. "I've been there on a Saturday when they get 200 animals. It's like getting rid of an old chair. You should hear the excuses: New boyfriend. New baby. Getting married. Too busy. Too many."

She's "been to the shelter enough times," she says, "to know they use the quilts." When an animal is adopted, the quilt goes home with him, a little swatch of continuity. If an animal is not that lucky, then the homemade fabric squares serve a different, but just as important purpose.

"It can give them some kind of comfort," says O'Neil. "They have to have a bed, even if it's for the 48 hours they're there."

To get involved in the CACC's Cage Comforter Program, e-mail Alice O'Neil
(email link is at the bottom of this page)

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