Willie Ortiz felt a tug in his heart back in 1995, when he witnessed the suffering of feral and stray cats in his Connecticut region.
“I saw the cats that were abused, neglected and hungry all the time,” says Willie, now 79 and a resident of East Hartford. “I prayed, hoping for a way to help them.”
There was one big problem: Willie needed money to feed, spay and neuter all of these few dozen Hartford-area cats. So, he started CT Feral Cats Metal for Meals, a 401(c)(3) nonprofit that collects scrap metal to sell for cash that provides for the cats.
For about 25 years, Willie (or a paid substitute, if he is unable) has driven around the Hartford area and provided food for feral and stray cat colonies. Now, he serves about 45 to 55 cats that live near 17 stops — a project that costs about $300 every 10 days, funded by the sale of scrap metal he either collects or gets donated.
Each night, Willie puts down 72 cans of wet cat food and sometimes additional food.
“I would keep going down to the same place,” says Willie, who retired in 2004 from his welding job in the engineering department at a Hartford hospital. “They wait for me; they hear my car, and they come right out.
“In rain, snow, wind — whatever the kind of weather is, I go,” says Willie, a native of Puerto Rico who moved to the United States in 1960.
In 2016, a GoFundMe campaign started — and today, it has raised money from more than 7,000 donors. As word spreads about his project, Willie continues to receive donations even from other countries.
Kathleen Schlentz, Willie’s longtime friend and secretary of CT Feral Cats Metal for Meals, does the organization’s paperwork and wrote stories on the GoFundMe page. She and her husband, Bill, are close to Willie and his wife, Aleja.
“I just have a lot of respect for Willie, and it’s very humbling having him as a friend,” Kathleen says.
She wasn’t a cat lover until this project came along; but now, she has two kitties and has had as many as six. Kathleen and her husband ask each other, “What did we laugh about before we had cats?” Some of her friends have also adopted cats rescued by Willie.
“Willie has really softened my heart,” Kathleen says. “I’m just really happy to be a part of this.”
Most of the cats are feral rather than friendly strays, but after about five years, even the ferals grew to trust Willie and let him touch them occasionally. When he encounters a friendly cat, he puts the kitty in a carrier and gives the cat to a rescue organization that puts the cat up for adoption. He also traps feral cats and takes them to get spayed and neutered, and receive other veterinary care.
Willie plans to feed and serve the Hartford cats for the rest of his life, and he has left instructions that any money remaining after he dies goes to animal rescue. Willie says he considers his mission his spiritual ministry.
“I pray to do it,” he says. “I do it for (God) and not for me.”