urban fauna

How to Turn a Church Full of Cats and Raccoons Into a Coveted Wedding Venue

Photo: The Sanctuary

The new “destination wedding” is on Roosevelt Island, per the New York TimesStyle” section. The Sanctuary, a former church on the island’s north end that dates back to the 1920s, is now a go-to venue for New Yorkers looking for something a little more creative than the Prospect Park boathouse. But before any of that, it was overrun by cats and raccoons.

The cats were part of an existing sanctuary run by the Wildlife Freedom Foundation on the lot, while the raccoons were interlopers nesting in the attic. It took a full year of cajoling the property’s 15 cats to move them to a new spot nearby. (“They come to sleep at our sanctuary, but they still go visit the church every single day,” says Rossana Ceruzzi, the founder of WFF.) Left unaddressed by the Times: How one goes about relocating a cat sanctuary, ushering out said raccoons, and getting rid of the smell. I called up co-owner Frank Raffaele, who oversaw the renovation, to talk about how he turned the space into one where only humans are allowed inside.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell me about the renovation and relocation. 
There was the church portion and a large house that’s still there, and the cats were living in what is now the backyard, with full access to the inside of the sanctuary. They were inside and outside, pretty much all around the place. The cats and raccoons were living in harmony from what I can tell. They were in some sort of symbiotic relationship. When we took it over, we needed to have a cat free environment — and I say that as someone who loves cats. We worked closely with the Wildlife Freedom Foundation and found a location for the new cat sanctuary super close to us, probably 50 yards away. The WFF dealt with the lion’s share of it. Cats are super-smart, they go where the food is, so it wasn’t hard for them to realize when they had a new place to camp out in.

Now raccoons are a different thing. I really had no experience with raccoons beforehand; I was a little bit jarred.

Photo: Frank Raffaele

Oh no.
It was a hard effort. The main thing we had to do was close off all spots of entry. They would go into the steeple, the attic, the rafters of church, they were living in the bedrooms — they pretty much had free rein around the entire facility. I’m from Queens, so I knew nothing about racoons before this. But every day around dusk, when the sun went down, the raccoons woke up and left the house — you would see a procession of raccoons walking on the roof of the church, leaving the steeple.

Okay, this sounds like a fairy tale. 
It was incredible! We had to wait for them to leave every day to close the holes. We did it piecemeal. Every night they’d be gone for hours so we had plenty of time. They’re still on the island doing well — we see them around.

Was the raccoon smell hard to get rid of? 
Yes, we had to completely mitigate it. They can climb anywhere and get in anywhere. You can’t clean it. The only way you can do it is to replace the walls and floors.

What did it smell like?
Very wildlife-y. I’m a vegan, I love all animals, but people often refer to meat as gamey, I think it was a sort of very non–New York City wildlife smell. Here you’re in a different world with different wildlife. I didn’t know this going into it, but Roosevelt Island is known for its wildlife.

Cats and racoons seem like a nice change for your clientele, who I assume are more used to rats and pigeons. 
This is incredible, but I’ve never once seen any sort of rodent. I don’t know if it’s because of the cats, but it could be.

The new cat sanctuary that’s just a stone’s throw away from the human Sanctuary. Photo: Rossana Ceruzzi

Do the cats still visit? 
The new home is a stone’s throw away. They come around the outdoor areas, but not indoors anymore. I’ve seen brides take pictures at the new cat sanctuary in their wedding dresses. But the indoors is closed off for all wildlife except for human beings — that’s the only species allowed in currently.

A Cat and Raccoon Filled Church Becomes a Wedding Venue