By Claire Walla
“Do not buy the rabbits! Do not buy the chickens!”
Just about this time of year, when baby animals are born and images of fluffy white bunnies mark the onset of Easter, East Hampton resident Pat Lillis gets extra upset.
“I know, ‘they’re sooo cute,”’ Lillis mocked with a strained, high-pitched inflection. “But, who’s going to take care of them?”
If you’ve ever met Lillis, then you know this dialogue, written as it is, does little to capture the full spectrum of her husky, Irish, curse-word-ridden speech. And it does nothing to convey the passion she has for this issue.
Wearing Ugg boots, ripped cargo shorts and a t-shirt with the phrase “Defend human rights today, prevent tragedy tomorrow” — a year-round look for the 61-year-old — Lillis tended to the animals in her home as she railed against a segment of the population she has many issues with: “animal lovers.”
“There’s a reason why these cats are here,” she continued, referring to the posse of felines lounging in her kitchen. “It’s because people ‘fell in love’ with them.”
Twelve years ago, Lillis founded a non-profit organization called Elsa’s Ark, which raises funds to care for injured or abandoned animals. The organization is run out of her home in Springs, and can best be described by a hand-made sign she has hung on a bulletin board in her garage: Only one question allowed, how can I help?
“I had another one, but it fell down and the cats pissed on it,” she explained.
Lillis herself has cared for rabbits and chickens over the years, and is now caring for precisely two dogs, 15 chickens and nearly three-dozen cats, only one of which — Houdini, whom she described as “a thug” — is her own.
Lillis goes through roughly 574 cans of cat food a week. She counted.
“I don’t go looking for animals,” Lillis was very quick to explain. “And I don’t buy them.”
This is one of the many talking points that flips her lid. Lillis believes nobody should ever buy an animal. And even if they have plans to adopt, she urges interested parties to think long and hard before bringing a cat, a dog or even a chicken into their home.
Every now and then, she said, a “brave soul” will knock on the window of her Volvo and ask for her help. Lillis gritted her teeth before continuing: “If I meet you and you tell me you’re going to give up your animal, you’d better be in the ready position to start the 100 meters.”
According to Ginny Frati of the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons, located in Southampton, the center sees about 12 domesticated rabbits each year. It is currently caring for two baby bunnies, in fact, which, at three inches long, she estimates are about two-and-a-half weeks old. They were allegedly found in East Port.
The Center also sees its fair share of chicks and ducks. Last year, she said there were two domesticated geese found along the banks of Otter Pond right here in Sag Harbor. Rescue crews were able to secure the animals, rehabilitate them and find them new homes.
However, Franti said most are not so lucky.
“People often bring them to a pond when they don’t want them anymore,” she explained. “Usually a fox or a raccoon will get them in the first year.” And with domestic ducks, she added, “Dogs will attack them, then we get them after they’ve been attacked.”
More than two decades before Elsa’s Ark was established, three East End residents created the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons (ARF) to address the growing population of abandoned animals on the East End.
ARF’s executive director Sara Davison said the situation has improved dramatically for Hamptons cats and dogs. Now, only about 15 percent of the dogs at ARF are abandoned. However, about half the cat population at ARF is there due to “owner abandonment.”
According to Director of Operations Michele Forrester, the shelter can keep up to 160 dogs and cats at one time, and it’s almost always at capacity.
“We’re now approaching kitten season,” Forrester further explained. Around this time of year, the feral cat population has an explosion of new litters, many of which end up at ARF. She said there are hundreds of volunteers throughout the community who not only help to feed feral cat colonies, but help locate new litters of kittens and bring them to ARF to be spayed or neutered.
“We call that ‘breaking the feral cat cycle,’” Executive Director Sara Davison added.
Because of these practices, Forrester said ARF has seen a decline in the number of kittens it’s seen for the past four years. However, she added, there are still too many cats for ARF to handle on its own. Because it is a private facility, ARF is able to pick and choose which animals it keeps for adoption. There’s a waiting list for the rest.
“You can’t overwhelm the staff, we have to stay at a level we can handle,” Forrester continued.
Like ARF, Pat Lillis is a big proponent of “breaking the feral cat cycle.” Elsa’s Ark provides free spaying and neutering services for anyone wishing to sterilize their cat.
But, she acknowledges that curbing reproduction is only half the battle.
In the backyard of her home, surrounded by her chickens Charlie Brown, Bertha, Red Red, Jeanne, Aggy, Mattie and Phyllis Diller (a light brown bird with a feathery ‘fro), Lillis explained that people’s attitudes toward animals are a big part of the problem.
For example, several of Lillis’ birds came from a man in Westhampton Beach who had moved from Mastic with 11 chickens in tow. He abandoned the birds when his neighbor complained.
“People don’t think before they get animals,” Lillis railed.
The cleaning, the feeding, the going into the chicken coop at dusk with a flashlight to check every nook and cranny for threatening four-legged species with an appetite for breast meat, she said it’s all part of the job.
At the beginning of January, Lillis said two cats were left in their cat carrier with a note: “We know you will give them a home.”
Just repeating the story put Lillis on edge.
“F— that!” she roared. “I’m a spinster at 61-years-old, how much longer am I going to live?! The nerve!”
“People make the mistake of saying I love animals,” she continued. But, she she said it’s not love.
“I believe everyone should be looked after,” Lillis said. “You have to be part of this world you’re hanging out in. I pick up everything. I pick up people, I pick up animals, I pick up garbage… If you see something that has to be done, it’s your civic duty to do it. It’s just your civic duty.”