We all have our heroes – people who inspire us to be our best selves through their courage, their goodness, and their accomplishments. For NYC’s TNR community, Debi Romano is unquestionably among our greatest heroes.
“Working with Deb on any project is inspiring,” says Jane Hoffman, President of the Mayor’s Alliance. “She is one of my heroes.”
Debi has had many passions — her joy of karaoke…her awesome Barbie doll collection…her cherished red Camaro. But above all, Debi’s greatest passion has been the community cats that she has devoted her life to.
For decades, Debi has demonstrated through her tireless, selfless efforts on behalf of community cats what a true hero looks like. As far back as 1976, on her way to a 4th of July rock concert, Debi took a detour to rescue a mom cat and her kittens before continuing on to the concert.
Since then, Debi has gone out of her way countless times to help cats. Always willing to step up and tackle any challenge where a cat was in need – to trap the most elusive cat, to help a fellow caretaker in need of guidance or assistance, to brave inclement weather to get a cat to safety – Debi could always be counted on to get the job done.
A trap-neuter-return (TNR) pioneer (before it was even a concept), Debi at 17 began trapping cats one-by-one and taking them to be spayed or neutered. Later, she created SaveKitty Foundation to provide a permanent source of care for community cats and a vehicle for adoptions. As a result of her trailblazing efforts, more than a thousand at-risk cats who might never have survived on the street found their way to loving homes. And by doing TNR on thousands of cats, Debi prevented the birth and suffering of tens of thousands more.
Mike Phillips, founder and President of Urban Cat League recalls a project in which he and Debi vaccinated 40 cats in an apartment at Amsterdam Houses. “Beyond Debi’s legendary TNR work, she is also an ingenious cat wrangler of really menacing indoor cats. She has helped countless people to get their fractious housecat to the vet when no one else could get the cat into a carrier,” says Mike.
“Then there were the daring rescues that no one else would, or could, do,” says Rosary Immordino, Executive Director of SaveKitty Foundation. “Stopping traffic on the Grand Central to rescue a giant turtle, netting a cat trapped on the wall of the BQE, again stopping traffic. Or running into a burning building or climbing a 40-foot tree to save a cat. It was well known that ‘firemen don’t rescue cats; Debi Romano does.’”
Even after receiving a devastating cancer diagnosis, Debi persevered with courage and determination to continue TNR, feed and care for, and, when necessary, relocate any community cat in need. Her pride and joy is the massive colony at Ravenswood Houses, the NYCHA housing community in Long Island City. For years, Debi overcame relentless obstacles and bureaucratic resistance to ensure that the Ravenswood cats received the consistent and humane care they needed to survive under less-than-ideal conditions.
Over the years, Debi shared her knowledge and experience with countless TNR caretakers and rescuers. Debi and Rosary together have formally trained close to 500 individuals in TNR, and informally, hundreds more. Debi and Rosary were among the talented slate of trainers for the NYC Feral Cat Initiative (NYCFCI) TNR workshops presented by the Mayor’s Alliance. (The Alliance founded the NYCFCI in 2006 and transferred the program to Bideawee in 2019.)
Sadly, Debi’s illness has progressed, and she is now in hospice care. But she is determined not to leave us without sharing her dying wish for the future of the Ravenswood cats. Debi posted this on Facebook:
“I’m terrified of leaving behind the cats I have been feeding each night for the past twenty years. There are about 50 of them at the Ravenswood Houses in LIC. These cats wait for me. I know their names and I look into their eyes and I feel overwhelmed with fear for their well-being. I literally drag myself out to Ravenswood and other locations each night, even when I’m in agony. I don’t know how long I can continue to do this.
My dying wish is to make sure that these cats I leave behind will be taken care of. It would mean the world to me to know — before I pass on — that there is a successful plan in place for these cats so that I can go in peace.
This is so difficult for me but, in desperation, I feel forced to ask for your help now. I’m asking each person reading this post to please set up a recurring monthly donation of $5, $10 or more if you are able. If you can’t do a monthly donation, please give any amount that you can. This would help immensely with the ongoing care of this colony and will mean more to me than I can ever express.
Rosary Immordino is my other half at SaveKitty Foundation and she, along with Alexia Vullis (NYC Pet Nanny), will oversee this project.
Your gift will provide food, medical care, trapping, and all that’s needed to ensure that the cats will continue to be cared for after I’m gone. Ultimately, our plan is to safely relocate these cats to appropriate settings where they can live out the rest of their lives away from the filthy crawl spaces that have been their homes.”
Rosary recently shared in a message to the community: “We are losing a unique and special human being, and an essential member of our rescue community. Debi has touched so many of our lives. She has trained, mentored and helped so many of us. The thought of losing her is unbearable. Debi has expressed regret that she is unable to respond to the enormous outpouring of love from so many of you but wants us to know that, just as we are thinking about her, she is thinking about us.”
To donate to the project and make Debi’s wish come true, please donate online or send a check, payable to SaveKitty Foundation, to 87-02 30th Avenue, East Elmhurst, NY 11369. Thanks to the generosity of the Linda and Alan Kahn Foundation, your donation will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, up to a total of $10,000 for all donations. SaveKitty Foundation is a 501(c)3 and donations are tax-deductible.
The Mayor’s Alliance salutes our brave hero, Debi Romano, and extends our gratitude to Debi for all the good she has done, for the inspiration she has provided, and for the love and care she has shared with her community and its cats.
Photos provided by Rosary Immordino, SaveKitty Foundation.