Connecticut Veteran Collects Scrap Metal to Feed Stray Cats
For nearly 30 years, retiree Willie Ortiz has managed a split shift. During the day, he travels throughout Hartford, Conn. in his old but reliable truck in search of discarded scrap metal. His daily collections happen regardless of the weather, and an average haul might only net $20–$40. Ortiz relies on these funds to support his evening work—feeding and caring for the city's feral cat population.
A former soldier, welder, and school bus driver, Ortiz's mission is a monumental task. There are 19 colonies of strays, more than 70 cats in all. Every night, he makes approximately 14 stops to feed them and check on their welfare. In the blustery winters of Connecticut, there are a few evenings when even the most scrappy cats don't venture out. Ortiz uses the 'belly gauge': if the snow is high enough to reach the bottom of a kitty's stomach, she'll stay hidden. He leaves extra nibbles the next evening to compensate. He's also built little cubby holes in some areas to help keep his cat pals out of the elements.
This grandfather of five, now 79, tackles other animal caregiver responsibilities besides feeding stray cats. Ortiz uses 'Have a Heart' traps to capture some feral felines, especially expectant mothers. A fellow rescue friend fosters the cats until the babies are weaned, and then all of them are spayed or neutered and placed for adoption. Ortiz also oversees the strays' vaccinations and injury care.
When his friend Kathleen Schlentz learned the average cost for spaying, neutering, and feeding stray cats totaled roughly $80 per cat, she encouraged him to set up a donation page through GoFundMe. The monthly food cost alone for that many kitties is approximately $600—Ortiz pays for his gasoline and truck upkeep out of his pocket. What started as a modest request of $5,000 in 2017 has exploded into a cascade of donations totaling more than $290,000! They've founded a nonprofit to ensure Ortiz's legacy protects the cat colony for years to come.
Earlier in 2020, Ortiz suffered a setback. He accidentally dropped a heavy piece of scrap metal on his left foot, and later discovered he'd broken most of the bones in it. After multiple surgeries to correct the problem, he wasn't able to walk or drive during his lengthy recovery. Nevertheless, the kitties still received their care—Schlentz and her husband handled the nightly feedings.
"This isn't just a hobby or something Willie does to fill his time. This is a part of who he is," Schlentz writes on their donation page. "I've asked him if he ever dreads having to go out every night. He said, 'No, I miss them when I don't see them and they miss me.' Does he ever want to skip a night? 'I eat every day, so they eat every day'. He makes life seem so simple. I love that about Willie."
In 2016, the Hartford Courant followed Ortiz on his rounds. Watch how he interacts with his feline friends and explains his mission. You'll want to hug him through your screen!