Rock n’ Rescue Promises a Match Made in South Salem

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By Christine Carpenter

South Salem photographer Juli Cialone has a knack for matchmaking, but not in the traditional sense. Her organization Rock n’ Rescue pairs animals (mostly cats and kittens) with their perfect foster parents. With over 2,000 adoptions completed last year and a return rate of less than 1%, Cialone is accomplishing more than just saving animals; she’s saving their owners, too.

“As a photographer, I had to read personalities all the time,” Cialone says. “Whether it was a rock star, a pope, or whoever I was working with, there are certain ways you just read people. I photographed a lot of animals as well. Every animal that I photograph, you have to read the animal to know how to get the image to tell you that story.”

Cuddle time with kittens. (Photo courtesy of Rock n' Rescue)

In 2008, Cialone founded Rock n’ Rescue as a partner rescue to relieve other animal shelters of an abundance–primarily of felines–that would otherwise be ignored. With the help of her children and other young kids, Cialone coordinated fostering and events for other rescues. Using her connections, she had rock stars sign pet collars and gift them to the adopter of that animal. Once the pet collar was signed, the pet assumed the star’s name. To this day, the collars are still given to the new pet owners.

Nine years later, with a move from Rochester, NY to South Salem, the rescue took on a different shape. Cats in southern states, namely Kentucky and Alabama, would typically face euthanization, but Rock n’ Rescue gave these animals a second chance. Instead of the organization existing as a partner rescue, it achieved 5013c (nonprofit) status and further developed as its own entity. Cialone met Marla Valentine, a master social worker who was working as a director of social services in a long-term care facility, and who always had an interest in animal-assisted therapy. Valentine began volunteering and fostering for Rock n’ Rescue. With her background in psychology and a strong intention to incorporate animal-assisted therapy, the organization’s mission shifted to “we rescue pets to rescue people.”

With a new mission in place committed to not only saving rescue cats but their owners as well, combined with Valentine’s extensive therapy background, Rock n’ Rescue added recreational therapy programs to their resume. Hence, “Kitty Club,” was born. This monthly program involves a visit to nursing homes where residents can both cuddle with kittens and discuss specific cat-related topics.

Ann’s Place in Danbury, Connecticut also benefits from Rock n' Rescue's community outreach programs. On the first Tuesday of every month, cancer patients and their families are invited to go “fishing for kittens,” where kittens are contained in a playpen and members of Ann’s Place can try to “catch” the kitten with a toy. Once a kitten is caught, the kitten is swaddled and handed to that participant for cuddle time. Valentine describes the feline’s innate ability to connect with the members at Ann’s Place; “It’s very interesting how our animals seek out those participants in need and they know instinctively what they need to do.” She described how a kitten gravitated toward a child with cancer who was wheelchair-bound, “the kitten climbed out of the swaddle and snuggled up into his neck and kept nuzzling into him. It was a 45-minute session and she didn’t leave his side.”

Residents "fishing" for kittens. (Photo courtesy of Rock n' Rescue)

“​​People assume cats are aloof,” Cialone adds, “but they [are] so in tune to each of the people in the room.”

Possibly the most symbiotic match was that of Beaver, the one-year-old British shorthair born with a hole in her heart. Beaver’s birth defect caused a heart murmur and nothing could be done to correct it; at any moment she could die. Cialone reached out to a family in Connecticut who had a six-year-old son with terminal brain cancer. The boy had one wish; a gray cat with yellow eyes, and thus, a perfect match was made. Beaver and the young boy shared common ground– they were both on borrowed time. After the tragic passing of the little boy, “Beaver instinctively knew that she needed to be there for the boy’s father,” Valentine says. Over time, Beaver began gravitating toward the boy's stepmother. It turned out she had recently become pregnant after a long period of trying to conceive. Beaver now sleeps in the crib with the little boy’s sibling.

Rock n’ Rescue continues to serve a sizable population in Connecticut, New York, and the five boroughs, Long Island, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Throughout the pandemic, curbside meet-and-greets allowed adopters to play with their potential new furry family member in their car. This procedure will continue even as pandemic numbers decline. Cialone explains that the car meetings were an unexpected positive: the car is a sound-proof area that smells like the individual and is without distractions.

“It is a natural, personal experience,” adds James Scova, Rock n’ Rescue’s director of communications. “There’s no pressure and no time limit. You take your time and get to know the cat.”

Rock n’ Rescue intends to expand, with plans in the coming months to open a wellness center that will change the narrative of a typical shelter filled with sad cats awaiting adoption. Instead, the organization aims to offer an experience that uplifts prospective pet parents. Designated therapy rooms will provide a space for community psychologists, social workers, and clinicians to implement therapy for their patients with the support of animals. Art therapy with pets and kitten yoga are just two of the many programs that Rock n’ Rescue will provide.

“We hear people all the time say, ‘I’m not a cat person,’” Cialone says. “Well, then you haven’t met the right cat.”

Juli Cialone (left) and Marla Valentine (right). (Photo courtesy of Rock n' Rescue)
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