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