NEW YORK — Irene Edwards long enjoyed the way the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center dominated the view from her Jersey City apartment. "I love that whole downtown area," she says. "I have so many memories of shopping there, having dates there."
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, though, Ms. Edwards says, "With those two towers gone, there's a hole in my heart." But quickly she fixed on a remedy that would be altruistic as well as therapeutic: "I'm going to fill that void with two cats."
Edwards is one of many New Yorkers who rapidly turned their thoughts to concerns about animals after the attack. There had been fears that not only would pets be stuck in empty apartments in evacuated areas, but also that the victims of the blast might leave behind large numbers of "orphaned" animals.
As a result, animal-welfare groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), based in Norfolk, Va., were flooded with calls from volunteers eager to take in needy pets.
"People want to donate money, to donate food, to donate booties for the rescue dogs," says Doug Mansfield, deputy executive director and general counsel for the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC) in New York City. "It shows you the kind of role animals play in people's lives."
But for some New Yorkers, the desire to connect with an animal in need ended up transcending the immediate impact of the events of Sept. 11. In the days since the attack, says Pam Nelson, adoption supervisor at the CACC's Manhattan shelter, there has been a sudden spike in the number of New Yorkers looking to adopt homeless animals.
"They're not looking for World Trade Center orphans, because fortunately we hardly had any of those," she says. "But they're just suddenly interested in any animals we have."
On any given day in New York City, about 200 lost or homeless animals - mostly dogs and cats - arrive at shelters. The CACC facility in Manhattan - one of the largest shelters in the country - takes in about 60,000 animals a year. There is always a desperate need for families or individuals willing to adopt.
Getting a dog from a shelter is something Pam Genovese and her boyfriend have "thought about for years." But suddenly, she says, since the attack on the World Trade Center, "it seemed like the right moment is now."
She's in the shelter on a recent Thursday afternoon, fondling both an earnest German shepherd mix and a playful Rottweiler, but she says her boyfriend needs to come back with her to meet the dogs before she can make any final decision.
Constance Mesnick is visiting the shelter on the same afternoon, peering into the cages holding dogs eligible for adoption, hoping to find a small one that might live peacefully with her two cats.
"I've been contemplating this anyway, but when the attack happened, I just thought there'd be so many displaced pets that maybe by taking one I could help to empty out the shelters," she says. "I wanted to volunteer in some way, to help with the crisis, and this is something I can do."
However, she adds, in visiting city shelters over the past few days, she has been relieved to discover that they are not anywhere near as crowded as she had feared. But that hasn't changed her desire to bring a dog home with her.
"It's also because of the way things feel right now," she says. "I've been going up to strangers on the street and asking if I can pet their dogs. I just really need hugs and kisses from a dog."
Ms. Mesnick has also been putting up posters about the shelter and the adoption program in her office, and says that at least a couple of her co-workers have also become seriously interested.
Ms. Nelson couldn't be more thrilled about the kind of traffic she's seeing in the CACC's adoption rooms right now. "Volume is definitely up, and getting more people in here has got to be a good thing," she says. "If people want to save a life, this is one way to do it."
Also, she says: "The companionship and unconditional love these animals offer is unbelievable. People really need that right now."
Animal advocates in the city mobilized quickly after the attack on the World Trade Center to try to remove animals trapped in evacuated apartments. The ASPCA began working with city authorities to allow downtown residents to get through security barricades and into their apartments to rescue their pets.
"About 99.9 percent of the rescues had happy endings," says Ruth First, a spokesperson for the ASPCA. The group brought more than 200 pets out of the empty buildings and almost all have since been reunited with their owners. Ms. First says she knows of only a couple of cats still waiting to be claimed.
The number of people willing to adopt them, she says, is overwhelming.
Kathleen Ross is one of the happy pet owners the ASPCA was able to aid. When she was rapidly evacuated from her downtown apartment building at the time of the collapse of the towers, she was forced to leave behind Tweety-Pye, a 5-year-old cat with thick gray hair and yellow eyes.
"I was going nuts," Ms. Ross says. "She was all I could think about." She was tremendously relieved when she learned the ASPCA was working to get groups of residents back into barricaded areas to rescue their pets.
But it was five days before a police officer - aided by the ASPCA - was able to reach Tweety-Pye. What he discovered, however, was that the resourceful cat was living quite well.
She had managed to pry open the kitchen cabinet where her bag of cat food was kept. She dragged the bag into the living room and tore it open, and between that food and water that had been left in the sink, she was well-nourished.
In addition - perhaps in response to the constant sirens and frightening events outside the building - she had pushed a sliding closet door open, nudged a pillow inside, and fashioned a safe nest for herself in a quiet corner.
Although not all pets were in conditions as comfortable as those of Tweety-Pye, "most [that] came were in better shape than we had feared," says First.
Loretta Spates says a sympathetic police detective helped her get back into her apartment a day and a half after the attack.
She found her rat terrier, Lolly, exhausted and scared but healthy. Once liberated, her pet licked all the rescue workers and later fell into a deep sleep.
"We feel so blessed," Ms. Spates says.
There still could be instances of animals that were owned by those who died in the disaster and might be left behind in apartments outside the city, warns Daphna Nachminovitch, manager of the domestic animal issues department for PETA. But on the whole, she characterizes the rescue efforts as successful. She knows of only one story of a pet killed by shrapnel while marooned in an apartment.
She remains concerned, however, that more could be done to educate the public about how to deal with animals in a crisis. Pet owners should know, for instance, never to turn animals loose to fend for themselves. And she would like to see lists of shelters be made more widely available. Also, equipment such as leashes and carrying cases were in short supply during the crisis and would have been helpful.
In general, however, she says: "I would really credit everybody with having done a great job to bond together and bring the animals to safety." For many people, aiding animals has been one means of "bringing the world back to what it was."
She also hopes that a heightened awareness of the needs of abandoned animals caused by the devastation in New York will perhaps end up benefiting some of the more than 10 million animals left in shelters each year in the US.
Mr. Mansfield agrees that the need for more adoptions of stray animals is urgent at all times and not just in times of crisis. At the CACC Manhattan shelter, adoptions have increased since February, when pictures of the adoptable animals began to be featured on the shelter's website (www.nycacc.org). Yet, sadly, he adds, the shelter still ends up destroying almost two-thirds of the animals brought to it each year.
Some are ill or unadoptable for other reasons, but most, he stresses, are beautiful, loving animals that would make excellent pets. It's just a matter of finding families or individuals willing to take them - a process he hopes has been stimulated by the events of the last few weeks.
Edwards inspected animals at four different New York City shelters before she found the cats that were right for her. Last Thursday, on her lunch hour, when she stopped at the CACC's Manhattan shelter and saw one black and one calico kitten huddled together in a cage, she knew her search was over.
Edwards lives alone, and says among the many other emotions she felt at seeing the destruction of the World Trade Center came a strong feeling that it was time to expand her family. She sees the kittens as a means of taking that step.
"There's been so much loss, so much sadness," she says. "I thought to myself, 'There's got to be some way of making a blessing come from this.' These kittens are going to be that blessing."
For more information, see www.aspca.org, or write ASPCA Animal Disaster Relief Fund, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128.