A Voice for the Loews Cats – My Exclusive Interview With Caretaker, George Ricci

Gracie at her feeding station - one of the Loews cats in jeopardy of being relocated.

Sometimes in life you do something for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. As the weeks continue in the Loews Portofino Resort battle versus the feral cats residing on the property, it appears no real compromise has been made as groups such as CARE Feline TNR, Alley Cat Allies, and Orange County Animal Services try to reason with hotel management to keep the cats safely on the property rather than relocating them as planned. The hotel has no legal obligation to provide for these cats, other than the implied fact of moral responsibility that they have knowingly allowed these cats to remain on premises since 2004 when Bellman, George Ricci, first discovered a wet, cold, hungry, and motherless kitten at the Loews Royal Pacific location (it should be of note that although we refer to the Loews Portofino in debate, the feral cats in both the Royal Pacific and the Portofino are subject to relocation).

Realizing that this story has much more to it than meets the eye, I decided to go to the source himself, George Ricci, for an exclusive interview to get a firsthand account as to the background of this now very complicated situation to try to make sense of it all. George first started at the Loews in Denver, Colorado in 1992 and moved to the Orlando Royal Pacific location in 2003 and then transferred to the Portofino in 2008. He was a Bellman in all three locations and at the end of 2011 he voluntarily went to “on-call” status to devote more time to his studies at becoming a court stenographer.

Deb: How, when, and why did a TNR program evolve at the Loews properties?

George: I had been at the Royal Pacific for about six months when myself and a co-worker had discovered a 4 week old kitten separated from her mother. I cleaned her up, took her home, and searched for other kittens that might be motherless and found her brother. I nursed both of them back to health and named them after two guys in my department – Moochie and Otto. I was able to find homes for them and continued to search for other cats.

In my search, I discovered that some traps had been set that had been unattended for quite a while – one trap that was buried deep in the bushes had a possum skeleton in it. Since no one seemingly had claims to these traps, I used a few of them to try to save more cats. At this time, I wasn’t very familiar with the TNR concept, but was compelled to get some of the ferals spayed and neutered. A friend suggested free services through CARE Feline Rescue of Orlando and a relationship was established with them by making appointments for trapping, sterilization, and releasing.

In the beginning, the more I trapped, the more cats I discovered. We would regularly find kittens and I turned my bathroom into a one-man rescue center and would take in about 2 – 3 rescues a month.

Moochie and Otto

Deb: It is clear once you understood the concept of TNR, that it became a part of your daily life. Who took on the financial and physical responsibly of these cats?

George: I was funding the entire operation myself – paying for food, transportation, advertising, and vet bills when I couldn’t get in to CARE. I would feed the cats every day and fellow co-workers would pitch in to help. Hotel management did not sponsor the project, but they clearly knew what I was doing and just let me continue.

Deb: Current debate keeps referring to the cats on the property as being a liability. Did you ever feel threatened by the cats or did guests ever complain?

George: I never felt threatened or afraid of contact with these cats. I felt it my duty to help them and did not alert hotel management about what I was doing. I’ve always been the kind of person that just minds his own business and felt the less people who knew, the more effective I could be. As far as the guests, I have never heard of any complaints from them and gained a reputation as the “cat guy” and workers in every department have adopted a kitten from me. Furthermore, feeding was done in a controlled area away from popular guest areas. Because Loews is part of a branded program called “Loews Loves Pets,” the only complaints I ever heard about were from barking dogs left in a guest room or pet odors in rooms.

Deb: When you transferred from the Royal Pacific to the Portofino, what was the transition like, and who took care of the Royal Pacific cats?

George: When I first transferred to the Portofino, it was difficult to manage the Royal Pacific colony on a daily basis, but I had many cat-friendly connections that continued the feeding for me. Once I was established at the Portofino, naturally I kept an eye out for cats roaming the property and inevitably turned up more ferals. To date, I have probably removed a dozen cats from the property and returned about 10 after TNR. I even have a Portofino cat as my forever pet, Speck.

Speck - one of George's furever cats that he adopted from the Loews grounds.

Deb: Just how successful have your efforts been with TNR on the properties?

George: The success is very evident in the reduction of the number of cats on property. I have adopted out over 30 kittens from the Royal Pacific and the colony is down to 12 cats. The Portofino had about a dozen cats and currently has 8 on the grounds.

Deb: I notice that there is a sign on one of the cat housing shelters that says “Loews Loves Pets.” It really seems to be the symbol for the whole heated debate between Loews management and cat advocates across the country. Why would this sign be posted if Loews did not agree or support this concept?

George: I made that sign on my own and it was done because I was proud of what I was doing to help the cats and because I was proud to be an employee of Loews. As a matter of fact, because of my reliable work ethic and dedication to benefiting the grounds of the hotel, I was recognized by my department manager and was nominated as “Employee of the Month” for January, 2007. I won that award, and at the presentation, my manager noted my cat rescue efforts to the room full of hotel executives. That same manager nominated me for “Outstanding Employee of the Year” to the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association. I did not win that one, but there were only 20 nominees from the lodging industry in Central Florida.

A lovely sentiment... it's a shame the signage is nothing more than an empty promise for the once happy cats residing on the Loews property.

After wrapping the interview up, the issue that everyone is most concerned with is the well-being of the cats. According to George, everyone is walking on eggshells and currently employees do not have official permission to go forward with the TNR program. No one is managing the cats to make sure they are fed and more importantly, that no new cats are immigrating on to the grounds to multiply. The critical aspect to TNR is the newest adjunct, “Manage.” Without this key aspect, George knows firsthand the cats will just continue to populate and the problem will escalate.

The crux of the issue is simple. No one is asking Loews to be a breeding or dumping ground for feral cats. All cat advocates are asking for is moral and ethical responsibility for the cats that have already been on the property for years and consider it their home. The point that Loews did not instigate the program does not absolve them of responsibility. If they truly want to stand by their brand – that they love pets, then they should be proud of that and set an example that other communities can embrace and endorse. TNR is successful if managed properly, cat overpopulation can be reduced, and the numbers of cats entering shelters can also be reduced. This is not a situation like cancer where we are looking for a cure. This is a circumstance that man actually created many, many years ago and it is one we have a viable solution for. Millions of dollars do not need to be spent in research, we already know TNR works.

The economy is in shambles, political rhetoric is thick in the air like a cheap perfume and the country is plain fed up with corporate America. How about Loews takes this as the opportunity to be the hero rather than the villain? Perhaps Loews could hire George or other trained people to teach informative classes on how to manage feral colonies within a community. Why not fully embrace the “Loews Loves Pets” to such a level that it brings public awareness to the forefront and causes people excitement to help make a difference. Florida is a state renowned for cat history – Hemingway House in Key West and Disney both embrace TNR programs. Why not a have a champion like Universal stand alongside of these great icons and make Florida known for its innovative and supportive TNR programs.

This is not over. We will not quietly go away so that the problem can be swept under the rug until we all forget about it. Relocation is dangerous and should be a last resort. This is a proven fact. Cats are an instinctual creature and they will try to find their way back home with about a 50% survival rate of that happening. New cats will happen upon the Loews property and all of this will be for naught without proper TNR programs in place.

I thank George for taking the time to reach out to me. Please continue to voice your concerns with Loews in any way you can – you can visit Riverfront Cats Miami or Catster for updated information and ways to help the cause. There is also a page on facebook called Stop Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando From Killing Cats where you can voice your concerns.

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  1. Deb your interview and writing skills are exceptional and your determination to educate America about the Loews cats and feral cats in general is most admirable! You are making a difference and I can’t thank you enough. and neither can the kitties!!!

    George thank your for shedding more light on this story. You are a Cat Man! A Hero!

    • Deb says:

      Christine – it is my pleasure to help out. These cats may have faces and names, but they do not have a voice and what is happening to them is unfair. But, truly, people like you and George are the heros for what you do each and everyday to help these cats. Onward we march!

  2. Cheysuli says:

    Oh I think this is a man after my own heart. What a great guy.

    • Deb says:

      I agree Cheysuli!! He really made a difference without asking for a single thing in return. He should be commended instead of having to fight for the rights of these animals…

  3. I HAVE CAT says:

    George, you are a kind soul. Thank you for all you do.
    Nice work Deb! As always!
    We CANNOT let up on the pressure re: LOEWS! we must have them act responsibly and humanely!

    • Deb says:

      Tamar at I Have Cat – thank you for stopping by and showing your support! I know this cause means a lot to you as well and we are doing everything we can to keep the pressure on them. This is a fight for all cats as far as I’m concerned and I also thank George for all he does for the kitties!

  4. George is an amazing individual and Deb this was a beautifully written interview.

    I have an idea, why doesn’t Loew’s build a giant enclosed “catio” and give the remaining cats a furever home on their property? They could enlist the help of an outside source to handle adoptions (of course after TNR), if they are worried about them roaming the property they could build a “Loew’s Kitty City” with a play area, etc.

    In my opinion they are blatantly discriminating against cats, when dogs are welcome on their property and cats obviously are not.

    • Deb says:

      Caren – I love your idea of a “Loews Kitty City” and I think anything Loews does in a postive light to help these cats would only help them in the long run. As far as the dogs, they are welcome, but guests do have to sign a waiver to allow them in the rooms. The same is true of pet cats that a guest is bringing. They are allowed with a signed waiver. The discrimination is against the feral cats and what determines what a “pet” is. In my opinion, the Loews cats are pets of the community and should have the same rights and respect as a pet cat. Feral cats are afraid of humans by nature and clearly are not intermingling with guests for socialization. As George stated, they are kept in areas that are not frequented by guests, so I really do not understand what the issue is.

  5. Deb, this is such a well-written, thoughtful post. George must feel absolutely heartbroken. How sad to see all your work to help other living beings take a turn like this has. Thanks you for all you are doing to bring all the facts to light! I really enjoyed this!

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Angie – on the one hand, it is very sad for George, but on the other, he is so proud that his story is bringing to light just how wonderful ferals are and how much help they need from us to help dispel the misconceptions about them…

  6. Carolyn says:

    Hi Deb, thanks so much for this interview. It has made it very clear what the problem is. To be honest, I really didn’t get what exactly Loews was!! I probably should have taken the time to research!! George is a very tenderhearted guy. And it looks like Loews should shell out some cash to help the TNR program and also it would give them some kudos with the community at large if they accommodated the feral cats. In the scheme of things it’s not a great deal of money. What price kindness?

    • Deb says:

      Carolyn – I think you hit the nail on the head and that is why I have been so relentless with this effort. First of all, me, cat lover extraordinaire, did not know a lot about ferals, so how can we expect the rest of the world to fare much better. That’s why I have been educating myself with such passion, so that when I support a cause, it is becasue I understand it. As far as the problem, I agree, I don’t think a lot of people truly understood what the crux of the issue was, other than “we must save these cats.” By interviewing George, it gave us the personal background and insight we need to really enlighten ourselves as to how and why we need to help. There is no price on kindness….

  7. Marg says:

    That is such a good interview with George. What a wonderful guy he is for sure. That sure was great of him to help those cats. I sure hope someone can get through to those people at Loews, that it is so much more positive to keep the cats there rather than get rid of them. It would make them stars for sure.
    Wish I could do more to help. This is a great post Deb. Well done.

  8. [...] George Ricci, the caretaker for the feral cats at the Loews Portofino Resort.  The result, “A Voice for the Loews Cats” is well worth the read, as George shares some great insight into the Loews vs. feral cats [...]

  9. Well said! Wonderful article – thank you so much for taking the time to seek George out and to keep the “fires” burning under Loews.

  10. Vicki Cook says:

    Deb – thanks for another great interview! Loews may not have a legal responsibility here, but they do have a moral and ethical one. They have known for years that this program has existed. As George mentioned, he has even been praised by his supervisors for conducting this program. Loews claims to be the most pet-friendly hotel chain. How about standing behind that claim and allowing the cats to remain in the only home they’ve ever known?

    • Deb says:

      Thank you Vicki – you are absolutely correct. This is an issue of moral responsibility and Loews has a golden opportunity to turn this into something positive and educational.

  11. Wendy. S says:

    Yayyy for George, we need more angels like him. I think that Loews has a real opportunity to make a difference in THEIR economy if George was highlighted as a spokesperson for them and saying to the public that Loew’s isn’t just a faceless greedy corporation. Thank you Deb for highlighting the positives with people like George in a really grim situation.

    • Deb says:

      They sure do have an opportunity Wendy and it would really benefit cats worldwide if a giant like them could take a strong stance about educating people about ferals. George really is an angel and it was my pleasure to bring his story to light.

  12. Brian says:

    That was a great interview Deb! Yes, we cannot let up, no matter what it takes, those evil humans in charge don’t need to be!

  13. Deb, thanks so much for sharing this hand-on interview with George and the plight of the ferals. Keep at it and I’m happily sharing.

  14. Thank you for continuing to write about this very important issue. George sounds like a wonderful man. I’m still hoping this can end well for the cats.

  15. meowmeowmans says:

    Thank God for people like George. It is really unconscionable what Loews is doing!

  16. Deborah says:

    I’ve been monitoring the situation at the Loews Portofino Bay, re: the feral colony. They have decided to relocate the cats to the County Animal Services Center. I received this message from them today:

    We have reviewed our practice involving feral, free-roaming cats and have talked with numerous agencies including Orange County Animal Services. The Florida Department of Health states that feral, free-roaming cats pose a continuous concer…n to communities due to the persistent threat of injury and disease.

    The priority at our hotels is the health and safety of our guests and team members. As a result, the cats will be relocated to the county animal services center.

    We appreciate all the feedback we have received on this important matter and are grateful for your understanding as we implement this policy.