The Algonquin Cruelly Responds to Threats Made by New York City by Trussing Up Matilda III and Bombarding Her with Shock Therapy
"People miss seeing Matilda moving around the lobby. They miss that part of the connection they've previously enjoyed. But this is the right thing to do. As we know, everything changes."
-- Gary Budge of the Algonquin
Ever since a waif known as Rusty wandered in the front door on West Forty-Fourth Street way back in 1932, cats had always been welcome in the Algonquin Hotel's ornate front lobby. The good times came to an abrupt end recently when New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) banished the current resident feline, a four-year-old, blue-eyed Ragdoll named Matilda III, from the area because food is served there at the famous Round Table restaurant and lounge.
Matilda, who arrived on the scene in early 2011 courtesy of the North Shore Animal League (NSAL) in Port Washington on Long Island, is now restricted to the arrival area, front desk, and coat room. Tant pis, she has been tethered to a leash. (See photo above.)
The Algonquin further claims to have installed an invisible electronic fence in order to curtail her rambles. Although no particulars have been disclosed, it is impossible to regard such an odious device as being anything other than the very epitome of cruel and inhumane.
Compounding the deplorable situation, the hotel initially lied to the public about being leaned on by the DOH and instead tried to pack off the blame on poor Matilida. "People seem more aggressive toward her, and she's responding in a way that's not helpful," general manager Gary Budge told the New York Post on November 23rd. (See "'Meow' Trage at Algonquin.")
If true, that would have been a first since, as far as it is known, none of Matilda's nine predecessors over the past eighty years ever was assaulted by guests. Likewise, none of the Algonquin's illustrious felines ever have been accused of harming any of the tony hotel's guests.
Next up, Matilida's publicist, Alice de Almeida, scandalously accused her of behaving like a voyeur. "She was going everywhere, including the men's restroom, so now she is on a strict training schedule," she told the Daily Mail on November 23rd. (See "Cat-astrophe! Algonquin Hotel's Famous Pet Put on a Tight Leash after Health and Safety Warning.")
Her interest in the men's toilet can be easily explained by cats' inherent distrust of standing water and corresponding preference for running water. Moreover, Matilda is a female and, unlike former United States Senator Larry Craig, never has been accused of doing any toe tapping.
When pressed, Budge finally made a clean chin of matters. "The (Health) Department in the past months suggested to us that pets in food service facilities are no longer commingled," he confessed to the New York Post in the article cited supra. "The lobby is an area where we serve food and beverage. We always want to be respectful of the Department of Health."
For whatever it is worth, the hotel insists that Matilda has adjusted well to what Charles Dickens euphemistically would have called her reduced circumstances. "Much to my surprise she doesn't mind (the leash)," de Almeida confided to People Magazine on November 23rd. (See "Matilda the Algonquin Cat Loses Special Privileges.") "Matilda is getting used to her new areas and was very happy posing this morning for the press. She is a quick learner and soon we will be able to take the leash off. (See photo below of her at the computer.)
Like her boss, de Almeida most likely is shading the truth. As former governor of Illinois Adlai E. Stevenson once observed, "It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming."
To their eternal credit, cats additionally do not have any use whatsoever for silly property laws that have been established by individuals and corporate entities who, at one time or another, have stolen at the barrel of a gun everything that they now claim an exclusive right to own and occupy. Just as importantly, it is difficult to restrict the behavior of cats once they have grown accustomed to coming and going as they please and having the run of the premises.
What de Almeida probably meant but was too timed to say is that the Algonquin is planning on relying upon a combination of shock therapy and police tactics in order to bend Matilda to its will. "She is closer to a watchable eye from the team that works here, and they happen to like that," Budge admitted to MSNBC on November 23rd. (See "Me-Out! Famed Hotel Cat Evicted from Lobby.")
Although her eviction from the lobby marks an end to one of the Algonquin's and Gotham's most cherished traditions, Budge not only is categorically refusing to put up a fight but he is not shedding any tears either. "People miss seeing Matilda moving around the lobby," he told MSNBC. "They miss that part of the connection they've previously enjoyed. But this is the right thing to do. As we know, everything changes."
Whereas change may be inevitable, it is not always for the best, especially where the animals and Mother Earth are concerned. The goal therefore should be to embrace only those changes that are beneficial as opposed to running willy-nilly after every new fad that happens to be temporarily en vogue.
As a consolation, de Almeida points out that Matilda still is able to receive her many admirers both at the hotel and online. "She has a little bed with her food and water where people come in to see her, not just those who are staying at the hotel but those who pass by on the street," she told the Daily Mail in the article cited supra. "Matilda gets plenty of e-mails too."
Inmates at Rikers Island in the East River also are free to receive guests but no one in either his or her right mind ever would want to exchange places with any of them. What de Almeida is so unwilling to acknowledge is that there is a huge difference between having guests visit and true freedom.
The latter additionally would allow Matilda to get out from underneath the thumbs of both staffers and guests alike whenever she chooses but under the regimen now in place she is held hostage to the whims of others. Her life no longer belongs to her and cats desperately crave their freedom and space.
"Acquérir l'amitié d'un chat est chose difficile. Il est une bête philosophique qui ne place pas ses affections à l'étourdie," Théophile Gautier once observed. "Si vous êtes digne de son affection, un chat deviendra votre ami mais jamais votre esclave."
As far as her multitudinous e-mail correspondence is concerned, it is important to bear in mind that is only a cute public relations gimmick. Matilda does not have the capacity to surf the web and therefore is unable to derive any intellectual stimulation from that technology. The peephole to the world therefore remains every bit as closed off to her as the Algonquin's front lobby.
From what little has been revealed about Matilda's predilections, she apparently also likes cadging rides in the service elevator to the thirteenth floor in addition to hanging out in the lobby and men's room. "I don't know why it's always that floor," de Almeida confessed her ignorance on that matter to the New York Post on April 4th. (See "Hotel Mascot Has Ten Lives.") "I've gotten several calls to come get her and bring her back downstairs."
Hopefully such activity will not reignite all that ancient tomfoolery about cats and the occult. (See photo below of Matilda in the hall.)
Although Matilda had not been doing anything different than her predecessors, she unwittingly became a pawn in Mayor Mike "Dirty Bloomers" Bloomberg and DOH Commissioner Thomas Farley's halfhearted attempt to clean up New York's notoriously filthy restaurants.
Although the city's health code always has banned animals from most eating establishments, it nonetheless allows the presence of live edible fish, shellfish, and crustaceans as well as service dogs. While no one ever would wish to deprive the visually impaired of their surrogate eyes, it is difficult to understand how the presence of canines ever could be considered to be hygienic while cats routinely continue to be labeled as unhygienic.
Much more to the point, DOH inspectors have a long history of being corrupt to the bone. In a celebrated case dating back to the 1980's, one of them longed to ask a Chinese restaurateur for a small token of his appreciation but, unfortunately, did not speak a work of Guangdong hua whereas the proprietor only spoke a few words of English.
From the file labeled "Where There Is a Will There Is a Way," the quick-witted inspector grabbed a napkin and hurriedly sketched a picture of a mouse. Demonstrating that he, too, was equally quick on the uptake, the restaurateur immediately understood and reached for his wallet.
To make a long story short, the restaurant inspection business in New York City is so thoroughly corrupt that, as Ecclesiastes 1:15 teaches, it can never be made straight. New Yorkers simply accept the fact that every meal consumed contains a certain amount of dirt and grime, spittle, snot, rat turds, ground-up cockroaches, and God only knows what other unsavory ingredients.
The latest crackdown is the byproduct of a letter grading system inaugurated in July of 2010 by the DOH. Individuals who have spent their entire lives in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere where sanitary conditions are either lax or nonexistent do not realize that in states where public health is taken seriously restaurants always have been graded by letters. For example, in North Carolina anything except a grade A posting on the window is tantamount to a coup de grâce for any restaurant.
When DOH inspectors visited the Algonquin on November 10th they assessed its twenty points, which is more than sufficient for a grade B rating unless the violations are promptly ameliorated before the next once-over. Interestingly enough, none of the violations had anything to do with Matilda.
It is assumed, however, that if the Algonquin had not complied with its directive and removed her from the lobby that the DOH would have assessed the hotel additional points. Without having either read the inspectors' report or been inside the hotel's kitchen it is impossible to gauge sanitary conditions at the Algonquin but, given the large number of violations cited, it would be fair to conclude that diners have considerably more to be concerned about than cat hairs.
It is even more astounding that soup runs, of which New York City has more than four-hundred, mobile food vendors, temporary food service establishments, primary and secondary schools, hospital cafeterias, jails, charities, and food services operated by not-for-profit membership organizations are exempted from the letter grading system. That is absurd in that those institutions and establishments are precisely the ones that cater to what is largely a captive clientele.
If the chow served up at the Algonquin and other similarly situated restaurants is not to the liking of their well-heeled patrons they are free to express their dissatisfaction by taking their business elsewhere, but that option is foreclosed to the majority of those who regularly dine at the exempted food providers. Also, should they become sickened by the cuisine they, unlike captive diners, doubtless have plenty of moola in order to procure qualified medical treatment.
Soup kitchens, in particular, are notorious for poisoning and, perhaps, even killing people. Old food that is improperly refrigerated and inexpertly prepared by untrained, filthy-as-a-dog personnel who do not know the difference between a spatula and a suppository is the norm. Likewise, the memory alone of schoolhouse chow consumed half a century ago is sufficient to make many a bloke nauseous whereas the slop served up to jailbirds has been known to spark deadly riots.
When viewed against that backdrop, the DOH's going after Matilda seems to be not only petty but frivolous as well. "Dirty Bloomers" sans doute hopes to derive some political mileage out of the effort as is the case with his siccing of the DOH's on Sardi's in the Theater District for handing out cheese at its bar.
"Thus do two more New York traditions fall victim to Health Commissioner Tom Farley's food fascists," the New York Post blasted both the DOH and "Dirty Bloomers" in a November 25th editorial. (See "Mike Hates Cats.") "It's all about the power, don't you know? Free cheese! Free Matilda!"
The Post's defense of Matilda is made all the more amazing in light of the fact that its resident cat-hater, Andrea Peyser, rarely passes up an opportunity to express her antipathy for the species. (See New York Post, October 31, 2011, "Beating a Dead Horse.")
If the tone of several letters received by the Post is any indication of public sentiment on this matter, the Algonquin's steadfast refusal to come to Matilda's aid in her time of greatest need may boomerang and wind up costing it some business. (See New York Post, November 30, 2011, "Algonquin's Furry Fury: Bloomy's in the Doghouse.")
Another famed Manhattan establishment to run afoul of the DOH was McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village which in August of 2009 was fined a whopping $1,000 for allowing Minnie II to pussyfoot across the bar. Since then she has been confined to the back rooms during business hours. (See Cat Defender post of August 24, 2011 entitled "Self-Defense Is Against the Law in Australia after a Woman Who Attacked a Cat Gets Away with Her Crime Whereas Her Victim Is Trapped and Executed.")
Since restaurants, bodegas, and other establishments that sell food are fined if mouse droppings and urine are found on the premises, some of them have elected to cut their losses by keeping cats and paying twice yearly fines that can range from between $300 and $2,000. That is, for example, what Peter Myers of Myers of Keswick at 634 Hudson Street in the West Village has elected to do. (See Cat Defender post of April 20, 2006 entitled "Molly Is Finally Rescued After Spending Two Weeks Trapped Inside the Walls of an English Deli in Greenwich Village.")
"It's hard for bodega owners because they're not supposed to have a cat, but they're also not supposed to have rats," is how Jose Fernandez of the Bodega Association of the United States summed up the dilemma faced by members of his trade group to The New York Times on November 21, 2007. (See "To the Dismay of Inspectors, Prowling Cats Cats Keep Rodents on the Run at City Delis.")
He then went on to drive the final nail into the coffin of the DOH's faulty reasoning. "If cats live in homes and apartment where people have food, a cat shouldn't be a threat in a store if it's well-maintained," he sagely told The Times.
New York City certainly is not alone in banning cats from establishments that serve food. In recent years, Comma Coffee in Carson City and the Blunsdon Arms in Swindon have gotten into hot water with health inspectors for keeping cats. (See Cat Defender posts of February 17, 2009 and October 23, 2008 entitled, respectively, "Health Department Banishes Smallcat from Popular Carson City Restaurant but Her Feisty Owner Is Putting Up Quite a Fight" and "Pecksniffian Management at Swindon Pub Plies Ember with Food and Then Gives Her the Bum's Rush.")
The Clipper Ship Inn in Salem, Massachusetts, even lost its food license because it had cats on the premises. (See Cat Defender post of May 21, 2007 entitled "Salem, Massachusetts, Is Going After Cats Again Much Like It Did During 1692 Witch Trials.")
Despite all the draconian legislation in situ, many enterprising cats still are able to procure gainful employment as mousers and mascots at various eating and drinking emporiums around the world. It is unclear, however, whether this is due to either tolerance, lax code enforcement, or baksheesh. (See Cat Defender posts of December 13, 2007, December 15, 2006, and December 12, 2007 entitled, respectively, "Tanker Ray Survives Being Abandoned as a Kitten in Order to Become the World Famous Mascot of a Tampa Bar," "Minnesota Cat Named Baby Celebrates His Thirty-Sixth Birthday; English Pub Cat Named Daisy Turns Twenty-Two," and "Bored with Conditions at Home, Carlsberg Stows Away on a Beer Lorry for the Adventure of a Lifetime.")
Despite the tribulations suffered by the cats at the Clipper Ship Inn, others have found homes, albeit not necessarily humane ones, at the Anderson Inn in Wabasha, Minnesota, and Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris. (See Cat Defender posts of May 15, 2008 and December 14, 2010 entitled, respectively, "Predatory Capitalism Rears Its Ugly Head as Minnesota Bed and Breakfast Sacks 'Overnight' Cats, Morris and Fred" and "Hôtel Le Bristol Saddles Fa-raon with the Odious Task of Playing Nursemaid to the Spoiled Brats of the Rich.")
Returning to the matter at hand, Matilda's deteriorating situation at the Algonquin is not only untenable but should not be allowed to continue. That is first and foremost due to the hotel's utterly barbaric use of electrical shock in order to control her.
If so much as one legitimate animal rights group existed in Gotham it would have immediately instructed the Algonquin to either stop this inhumane abuse or face the prospect of losing custody of Matilda. The fact that this sordid business is allowed to continue is an indictment of not only all animal welfare personnel in the city but of NSAL as well.
Secondly, although accustoming a cat to walk on a leash outdoors is regarded by some as acceptable behavior, keeping Matilda so tethered indoors is surely almost as cruel as administering jolts of electricity to her. Since the Algonquin is willing to go to such lengths in order to avoid paying a fine, it is highly likely that it also is segregating her in rooms by herself and confining her to a cage as well.
The simplest solution would be for the hotel to follow Myers' example by paying the DOH's fine and thus restoring Matilda's freedom to her. Failing that, it is incumbent upon management to find some other method of keeping her out of the lobby that does not include electrical shock, leashes, cages, and segregation.
At the very minimum, she deserves her own living quarters and access to an area, ideally either a garden or a yard, where there is intellectual stimulation, fresh air, and sufficient space for her to stretch her legs. Whereas these requirements possibly could be satisfied by the hotel's allowing her free access to most public areas, they most assuredly cannot be met by keeping her tied up like a hostage behind the front desk.
If management is so unwilling to respect Matilda's prerogatives as a cat, she should be removed from the hotel and placed in a good home. In England, for example, Cats Protection will only allow individuals with either yards or gardens to adopt its cats. It is, after all, Matilda's well-being that should come first and not the hotel's bottom line. (See close-up photo of her above.)
All of this could be a moot point by the time that New Year's Day rolls around and the Algonquin closes for four months in order to accommodate $15 million worth of renovations. Since the hotel has not said one way or another, it is unclear whether Matilda will remain on the premises or be relocated elsewhere. After all, it is not possible to simply store her in a display case like the Savoy in London did with its resident feline, Kaspar, a few years back when it closed for renovations.
It she stays, she faces many dangers. For example, Hamlet IV, who graced the hotel's corridors from 1968 until 1982, disappeared during renovations and is believed to have been accidentally sealed up alive inside one of its walls much like Fortunato in Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado." If there is any credence to that story, it is a staggering indictment of the hotel's uncaring attitude toward him.
Easily frightened by both loud noises and the hustle and bustle churned up by loutish construction workers, cats often seek refuge in small places that easily are transformed into death traps. (See Cat Defender post of September 8, 2008 entitled "Bonny Is Rescued at the Last Minute after Spending Seven Weeks Entombed Underneath a Bathtub.")
Should management elect to relocate her elsewhere, that very well could be the last that the public ever hears of her. Under such a scenario, she could wind up either back at NASL, in another home, or on death row at any one of Gotham's notorious hellhole shelters.
The numerous problems relating to the DOH, procuring a suitable temporary home for her, and retraining her even if she is brought back to the hotel are conspiring to make her tenure a brief one indeed. Like McSorley's and no doubt countless other establishments in the city, the Algonquin is far too cheap to pony up for any fines that Matilda might incur as well as being totally unwilling to be hassled by the city on the other hand.
Finally, and on a somber note, Matilda owes her position to the untimely demise of her illustrious predecessor, Matilda II. (See photo of her immediately above.)
For reasons that never have been made public, the fifteen-year-old Ragdoll was unceremoniously dismissed by the hotel last year during the holidays. Her abrupt departure came despite the fact that as late as September the hotel had been lauding her as its most valuable asset.
"She stays, of course!" the Algonquin's Marissa Mastellone pledged at that time. "She is what makes us unique and signature enough to make the (Marriott's) Autograph Collection. Matilda is imperative!" (See Cat Defender post of October 16, 2010 entitled "The Algonquin Undergoes Changes at the Top but Management Wisely Decides to Retain Its Most Loyal and Beloved Employee, Matilda.")
In particular, she had been immortalized in Val Schaffner's 2001 tome, The Algonquin Cat, as well as being the recipient of the Westchester Cat Show's prestigious "Cat of the Year" award in 2006. Plus, the Diva, as she was known, had been charming guests and visitors alike since 1998.
Unless Mastellone was just blowing it out both ends for the sake of having something to do with herself, something surely must have gone terribly wrong between September and Christmas. Her age could have been a factor but so too could have been her penchant of transforming the lobby into a race course each evening. Even her tendency to venture out into the street in order to chase pigeons during the summer months could have gotten on management's nerves.
It is even conceivable that the DOH already may have been breathing down the hotel's neck and it deduced that a newer, younger cat would be more pliable to its whims. Since the hotel is not saying, the public likely never will know why she was removed.
The official word from the hotel is that she was adopted by a staffer and spent the last year of her life watching the birds, squirrels, and leaves fall through the window of an apartment in Brooklyn. Tragically, she died of cancer in September.
What role, if any, her work environment contributed to the onset of that deadly killer is unknown. (See Cat Defender post of October 19, 2007 entitled "Smokers Are Killing Their Cats, Dogs, Birds, and Infants by Continuing to Light Up in Their Presence.")
The Algonquin is not, and never will be, the same without her. During her tenure she became its heart and soul and without her, and her successor trussed up and out of sight, it is just another hotel out for the almighty dollar.
If he were still alive today, Oliver Herford might have eulogized her as follows:
"Gather kittens while you may
Time brings only sorrow;
And the kittens of day
Will be old cats tomorrow."
Photos: Chad Rachman of the New York Post (Matilda on a leash), Jonathan D. Woods of MSNBC (Matilda at the computer), Gothamist (Matilda in the hall), J.C. Rice of the New York Post (Matilda up close), and the Algonquin (Matilda II).