HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT – He walks toward the back of an auto body garage’s yard, passing cars, vans, and even a boat, left there to rust. It seems nothing’s alive back there.
But then, as soon as Ortiz lifts his voice, they come.
Cats, at least 10, perhaps of them. They dart out from the safety of shadows, flashing in and out of the light from the Puerto Rico native’s headlamp.
Ortiz has a long resume: He was a soldier, a school bus driver, a mechanic, a welder at Hartford Hospital. It’s his latest gig quite honestly, that makes him truly happy.
The 75-year-old is part forager and also part feeder, but he’s certainly all heart. He drives around collecting scrap metal to sell, earning the money he needs to ensure Hartford’s street cats don’t go hungry.
His house in East Hartford is like a shrine to his work: A backyard full of scrap metal in various stages of disassembly and a dining room which is loaded with pallets of cat food, piled nearly as high as the table where he eats his own meals.
“I do this because I know no one likes the cats,” Ortiz said recently in his home as Whitney, a black longhair, lounged nearby. “I see them, and I see they need help.”
Ortiz’s philanthropy started in 1995, when he noticed a stray cat, hungry for attention, rubbing up against customers at his friend’s auto-body shop which is located in Hartford.
“People were pushing it away, and I could see it needed help,” Ortiz said. “So I said to the Lord, ‘I know these cats can’t understand my accent, but I need to do something,'” he added, with a laugh.
And so, Ortiz began feeding that stray, as well as a few others behind Hartford Hospital. One of his former co-workers saw his routine and donated $40 to the cause.
Ortiz’s mission continued to grow as he slowly discovered places where stray cats tend to gather. Eventually, as word spread, animal-care activists and residents he befriended started calling in tips.
And in 21 years, Ortiz says he hasn’t missed a single day — when the snow gets deep, he digs out a path to the food.
“People ask me why I feed them every day, or tell me I feed them too much,” Ortiz said. “You eat every day, no? You get three meals; they eat once every 24 hours.”
Now, his nightly route takes him through East Hartford and parts of Upper Albany, Clay Arsenal and Downtown. There are a total of 14 stops that serve about 70 cats, he estimates.
The operation runs on solely scrap metal, and Ortiz spends his mornings gathering it.
A contractor friend in Newington saves him light fixtures, wiring and other random bits. Some businesses even unload old appliances on him.
“Aluminum is good,” Ortiz said, “but copper is ideal, practically gold to him.”
No matter the size, he hauls all the scraps in his pickup to recycling plants like A&B in East Hartford or City Auto Parts on Fishfry Street near Weston. A good day’s haul nets him $20, and it’s closer to $60 on a great day.
Every 10 days, he spends about $200 on cans of the Friskies shredded food. He’s a stickler for that brand, or, rather, it seems his “clients” are.
“I had a friend order me a case of food one time, but it was no good,” Ortiz said. “She got chunky food; these cats, some of them don’t have any teeth.”
When he has the (correct) food in hand, Ortiz takes off, pulling out of his driveway around 6:30 every night. He usually isn’t back until about 10 pm.
The timing is no coincidence. Ortiz, like his four-legged friends, is very wary of strangers.
“Some people, if they see where the cats are, will try to bother them,” he said. “At night, they don’t find them as easily.”
It’s crystal clear Ortiz is more worried about the cats’ safety than his own. He goes where the cats are, and they don’t always live in the best neighborhoods.
“I pray before I leave,” said Ortiz. “And if I see people coming up to me, I talk to them, show them I’m not afraid.”
Despite Ortiz’s confidence, the location of his travels still worries William Haines, who is a doctor at Hartford Veterinary Hospital who has worked with him since day one.
“I do what I can to help, but he’s the one going through the back alleys and back streets, trying to take care of them,” said Haines.
Feeding the cats is only half of Ortiz’s overall mission, according to Haines.
Over the years, Ortiz has brought many ailing cats to Haines. Some which needed a quick booster shot, others need spaying orm neutering.
“He’s a good person doing God’s work,” Haines said. “It’s like Mother Theresa: She couldn’t do everything, but she could do something.”
Some of the more docile cats are easier to cart to the vet, like Leo, whom Ortiz started feeding after his family left him behind after being evicted. More feral ones require the use of wire traps which are painless, which Ortiz orders online.
He usually releases the cats after they have undergone several treatments. But if the cats seem to be friendly, Ortiz helps find them permanent homes. He’s got “a sense” for just which cats can function with a family, he said.
“Animals are my passion, too, but this is Willie’s life,” said Roberta Faltus, owner of Freedom Paws Rescue, which is an organization in Vernon that Ortiz partners with.
Ortiz’s home is littered with photo albums of adopted cats, names and addresses written on the back of each snapshot. They’re souvenirs, reminders that the hungry street cats who once relied on him to survive are now healthy and have forever homes.
“We’ve helped hundreds of cats find homes, but there’s always more work to be done,” Faltus said.
And Ortiz agreed; it’s why he still rises early to collect scrap and stays out late to feed the cats.
But when he’s asked how long he’ll keep up the routine, he laughs.
“It’s up to God,” he said. “If He wants me to keep doing this, I’ll do it as long as I can.”