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Rescue group looks for a new home with HEART

Sharon Gorman, vice president of HEART Animal Rescue & Adoption Team Inc., among the oldest private rescue groups in the area, can't help but laugh.

At the huge window in one room of the HEART adoption center at 48 Buffalo St. in the Village of Hamburg, "People walk their big dogs by, golden retrievers and labs, and there is a line of cats on the windowsill watching the dogs go by. The dogs are looking in and the cats are looking out."

The group had big plans for the space when it moved the adoption center into the former Pennysaver Sun building last September. The staff planned to build a narrow shelf near the ceiling in one room to give the cats a place to roost and peer down; comfortable two-level condos could line the walls to give cats spots to play or rest. A handful of cats roam the area, settling into the laps of volunteers or romping with the group's homemade catnip-stuffed kick sticks.

With the increased visibility and the convenience of the adoption center, says Gorman, who also serves as rescue coordinator, "Our adoptions have boosted, our volunteers have increased and people are thrilled with it."

But HEART (formerly the Hamburg Eden Animal Rescue Team) recently learned that the building has been sold and the new owner plans to renovate it, so the group is looking to move into another spot as soon as possible.

"We are devastated that we have to move," says Gorman. "We had such high hopes and things were going so well."

The board, which includes president Charlene Frasca, treasurer Carol Rich, and Gorman, knows finding a new place won't be easy.

"Our standards are pretty high after this one. We want that storefront right on a main street that has pedestrian traffic," says Gorman. "I don't know how we're going to get it, but we would love a storefront right in the village, either Main Street or Buffalo Street." They also need reasonable rent -- the group's nonprofit status, Gorman says, could be a boon to a landlord looking for a write-off.

There are plenty of places to adopt cats -- private rescues, SPCA Serving Erie County, the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter. But the cats at HEART are special. Their spirits are beautiful, but their stories are complicated and sometimes hard to hear.

Take Snowball II. To be honest, he's kind of a mess. He drools constantly because of the painful dental disease stomatitis. His back end is hunched under because of two dislocated kneecaps, so he moves more like a bunny than a kitty. He was abandoned and starving when he was found close to death.

But at the bright, airy HEART adoption center, Snowball showed his true loving nature. The still-thin cat raced to the front door, happily greeting people -- children, seniors, anybody -- who came in, looking up at them with his bright blue eyes, then purring and almost trembling with pleasure if they spoke to him or gently stroked him.

Snowball's magic worked. A woman from Collins who brought in a pregnant cat that had been dumped on her property fell under the spell of this strange-looking and utterly irresistible creature. Last week, Snowball went home. His new owner called to report that he "will not leave her lap and all he does is purr," says Gorman.

If he were confined in a steel crate, nobody ever would have looked beyond Snowball's drool-darkened chin, his sore mouth and his crippled back legs.

Snowball II was one of about 25 cats in the adoption center last week, with many more in foster homes for socialization or medical care. "We are getting ready for the annual influx of cats and kittens," says Gorman.

HEART was formed in 1984, in the very early days of animal rescue, with a similar goal to the one it has now -- to save the "underdogs," the sick, injured, homeless and hurting. The two founding members, Anita Lowell and Marcia Gerwitz, worked with the group for years before leaving to start more specialized rescues. Lowell runs, which helps people find safe, loving homes for their pets; Gerwitz runs Piece of Heaven Kitten Adoption in Hamburg, which specializes in intensive-need orphaned kittens. Also active early on was Edie Offhaus, who runs Feral Cat Focus, which offers humane management of feral cat colonies. "It's wonderful, because we all work together; the networking is awesome," says Gorman, who has been with HEART for 13 or 14 years and has seen "thousands of animals" in that time.

Although Gorman and the other volunteers at the adoption center listen with compassion to all callers, she says, "If somebody calls us about a neighborhood stray that is healthy and that several neighbors are feeding," HEART may refer the caller to another agency, reserving its homes for others that are far more critical.

HEART works closely with veterinarian Eladio Adorno of Adoring Pets Vet Health Center in Hamburg, and Gorman cannot praise Adorno's work highly enough. Some of the staff also volunteer as foster caretakers for HEART animals (there is the occasional dog, but it concentrates on cats).

Last week, two perfectly cute, wide-faced, short-tailed kittens snoozed in hammocks in kitty condos, stretching out a paw to touch a visitor's finger. But many of the cats in the HEART center have ailments, physical or behavioral or both. Blue-gray Pixie has been passed up repeatedly because she has a scarred eye from an eye infection. Taco, who suffered from a huge abscess when found, is touchy about being handled and will go to a rural home where he can live in a barn, the group's website says, as a "rodent control technician."

A few of the cats at HEART came from the Wyoming County SPCA. George, a sleek orange tabby with white markings, dodges the people in the room and jumps to the sill of a high window. "Without having a shelter or a lot of foster homes, [17] was all we could take," says Gorman. "They were tough little cookies, because they weren't handled a lot and some of them were a little aggressive. We still have a couple of those guys left; they're fine, but they needed a little work.

"The nice part about our group is that we are small and we can work with the animals if they need it. There are so many people who come in and sit and socialize with the cats. It is definitely a community thing."

At the present spot, "We get so much walk-in traffic," says Gorman. "Our volunteers come in to hold the cats and interact with them, and they also get to meet people off the street."

After a rough start in life, the cats at HEART want for nothing now, but the volunteers who care for them are hoping that their housing problem will be solved soon.

"It would be just wonderful if somebody stepped forward," Gorman says.

HEART can be reached at 821-1915 or by visiting Its current adoption center at 48 Buffalo St. is open for visitors from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.