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Doomed Ducks, Cats Find Dignity, Food in Hudson Valley Hospice

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Bruce Van Bramer
Bruce Van Bramer at his animal hopsice in Saugerties, NY, U.S., on April 26, 2011. "Forty or so" cats and almost as many dogs reside in the Catskill home. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- The old country house in Saugerties, New York, would be the picture of bucolic serenity if not for the racket raised by ducks, geese, and guinea hens patrolling the yard.

“Somebody dropped off a box of them here,” says Bruce Van Bramer, referring to the hens. “I don’t know how many -- ten or twelve maybe. They roost in the trees.”

Such is life at the Animal Hospice of NY Inc. Van Bramer, 60, is the sole occupant here, though he would hate that characterization, as he shares the place with dozens of dogs, cats, goats, pigs, and noisy fowl.

A sign by the front door -- “Journey’s End,” inscribed under the silhouette of a pointer -- expresses the bittersweet sentiment of this end-of-life hospice. A hand-written note on the door adds, “We Welcome Strays.”

Like the guinea hens, a lot of the animals were simply dumped here. Others are pets that outlived their owners and had nowhere else to go. The hospice is the last stop for the terminally ill, the neglected and even a few saved from court-ordered execution.

Last fall Van Bramer took in a female goat. “She was emaciated,” he says. A couple of months later, he learned she was also pregnant, but not until she actually gave birth.

“It was 18 below zero at the time,” he says. “The mother, the kid, even the afterbirth were freezing.” Van Bramer brought them inside his house until the cold snap passed. Today, mother and kid, named “Winter,” are both quite hale, greeting me with incessant nibbling at my jeans and camera bag.

Exotic Element

There is an exotic element here: Muscovy ducks, Chinese and black African geese, and a magnificent cashmere goat named Carlos.

The birds may be raucous, but it really is a peaceful spot. The house, once a Catskill Mountains resort, dates from the 1850s. Vestiges of an earlier time still linger, notably a large swimming pool, now so decayed it could be a natural pond.

“There are some snapping turtles in there that are incredibly large,” says Van Bramer. “I watched one pull one of my geese under and disappear with it.”

That was four years ago. When it happened, Van Bramer jumped in but couldn’t save the bird. After that atrocity he fenced off one end of the pool. Besides predator reptiles, the birds face threats from coyotes, raccoons, foxes, and red-tailed hawks.

Names, Not Numbers

Inside the house there are somewhere around 40 cats, Van Bramer estimates, unsure of the total. “They all have names, not numbers,” he says, introducing me to Gabriella, Socks, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

On the other side of the walls, “30 or so” dogs are barking up a storm. Van Bramer is reluctant to take visitors in there, as some of them are aggressive and not so socialized. “If they don’t like people,” he says, “that’s fine because there are no people here.”

He seems oblivious to the odors and unapologetic about the disheveled space, much of it cluttered with bric-a-brac collected in his previous life as an antiques dealer. “It will never look like Martha Stewart’s,” he says, holding up a cat. “It’s their house.”

The indoor animals go through about 15 pounds of dry cat food and 40 to 60 cans each day; the dogs consume more. The hospice relies on the largess of Price Chopper, which donates all the food -- as well as kitty litter, disinfectant, and laundry soap.

Medical Bills

Van Bramer reckons his operating costs run between $6,000 and $9,000 a year. With two washers and dryers humming nonstop to keep bedding clean, his biggest expense is the electric bill -- a price one pays for taking in senescent dogs and cats. There’s also a substantial veterinary bill, though he gets special treatment from the nearby Ulster Animal Hospital. Volunteers also help out with the endless upkeep required of the two acres here.

The fates of old and infirm animals, even beloved pets, is not something we think about much. Many languish and eventually die from neglect; a lucky few end up at places like Van Bramer’s. If you’d like to help out, donate through the hospice website.

Though the hospice gets by on donations (just), this year Van Bramer had to sell his beloved 1977 Harley-Davidson motorcycle to pay his property taxes.

“My priority is not the Harley,” he says wistfully, “it’s the animals.”

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at mdipaola@nyc.rr.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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