Chris Arsenault has a nightly ritual. Before going to bed, Arsenault, 56, shoos out the six or seven cats that have gathered on his mattress, a tough task when you have 300 felines living in your home.
“It’s like when you kick five out, 20 more come in,” Arsenault said.
Arsenault’s Medford home doubles as the nonprofit Happy Cat Sanctuary, where he cares for cats that have been abandoned or taken from abusive owners or that are blind or sick. The cats prowl on the concrete structures in the backyard or perch on the dozens of “cat shelves” Arsenault has nailed into the walls.
“These guys are in heaven,” he said.
Arsenault started Happy Cat Sanctuary in 2007, and since then has been renovating the property to accommodate the growing colony. The house has practically no furniture, no kitchen or living room. Almost all the living space is devoted to the cats, save for a 12-foot by 8-foot bedroom where Arsenault eats and sleeps.
The floors throughout the house are laminate because they are easier to clean, but pillows and cushions cover the floor of his basement, where he keeps new arrivals. Recently, 28 kittens huddled together in a corner there after Arsenault helped the Nassau SPCA rescue them from a condemned house.
“If he didn’t take those cats in, they probably would have had to be euthanized,” said SPCA spokesman Gary Rogers, who has placed rescue cats with Arsenault for several years and has inspected the sanctuary. “He’s a devoted person. This is his calling.”
Arsenault started rescuing cats as a way to distract himself from his grief, he said. In 2006, his son, Eric, then 24, died in a motorcycle accident after he was thrown from his bike on a stretch of the Cross Island Parkway, Arsenault said.
After the accident, Arsenault quit his job as a conductor for New Jersey Transit and his volunteer position with the Port Washington Fire Department. He spent his time campaigning for better signage and lighting in the area where his son died.
During that time, Arsenault said he found a colony of about 30 kittens that had been dumped in Great Neck. He took them in and cared for the animals, which joined the four cats he already had. He needed more space for them, so he left his home in Roslyn and moved to Medford.
“It was a tough, tough time. And it changed my life, because now I’m doing this,” Arsenault said as Matsui, a longhair cat named for the former Yankees outfielder, squirmed in his lap.
Arsenault starts his day around 6:30 a.m., putting fresh water in the dozens of bright orange water bowls repurposed from old buckets, putting food out for the cats, which he said costs about $1,000 a week, and cleaning cat cages, bins, sheds and cushions. Arsenault said his operation is almost completely dependent on donations.
Arsenault vaccinates the feral cats he brings in himself and sends the ill or injured ones to Grady Veterinary Hospital in Sayville, he said. He makes some of the cats available for adoption. The sanctuary does not require a special permit, said Jack Krieger, Brookhaven Town spokesman.
“He never stops moving,” volunteer Michelle White, 34, of Medford, said of Arsenault, who regularly sips from tall cans of Red Bull while he works.
White said Arsenault’s love for the animals is apparent. He has an uncanny ability to distinguish among the 300 felines, though he said he stopped naming them after receiving his 100th occupant.
“I know it sounds crazy to most people, but they come first,” he said. “I feed them, take care of them before I take care of myself.”
Last summer, Arsenault overhauled the outside of his property, which sits on about a third of an acre, with a $400,000 gift from a woman on Staten Island. Over the course of 14 months, he covered the ground in concrete, which he hoses down daily, and built about a dozen heated structures for the animals. His front yard is surrounded by a low fence and mesh net to keep the cats from escaping.
For the most part, the neighbors don’t seem to mind sharing the street with 300 felines. Edith Mack, who lives two doors down from the sanctuary, said every once in a while she finds a cat or two roaming around her lawn, but that doesn’t bother her.
“We’ve never had a problem here,” said Mack, who has lived in her home for 46 years. “That man takes very good care of his animals.”
Ron Williams, 31, lives across the street and occasionally helps Arsenault with small projects.
“He’s got a caring heart,” Williams said, as he cleared leaves from Arsenault’s driveway. “I wish there were more people like him out there.”