For maybe a decade, Antonio Garcia lived in an alley in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood. He made a shelter from wood scraps and mattresses, and he had as his companions dozens of feral cats, which he considered family.
He befriended a few people in the upscale community, Fulton River District, some of whom took to stopping by with food for him and the cats. Nearby restaurant owners liked that Garcia kept away any riffraff, and they liked that the cats scared off rats.
Garcia, 65, died of hypothermia in January after a particularly cold spell. A few of his neighborhood friends tearfully cleaned up his alley, but there was the problem of the cats — dozens of them, hungry and skittish now that their protector was gone.
And that is how four women ended up caring for a colony of about 30 alley cats. The women stop by twice a day to feed and check on them. One made “cat condos” constructed in part from old yoga mats.
“These cats were his family, they were all he had. He was a very devoted cat owner,” said Cynthia Doepke, 28, who was a friend of Garcia’s and helps take care of the cats. “They meant the world to him. The thought of being separated from them brought him to tears.”
Leona Sepulveda Less, 40, a friend of Garcia’s who lives in the neighborhood, made the “cat condos” — small insulated structures — for the felines after Garcia died.
Sepulveda Less, a former contestant on “The Bachelor,” befriended Garcia a year and a half ago. She was strolling with her daughter and saw some cats peer at her from an alley. Sepulveda Less, a stay-at-home mom who had worked in animal rescue for years, followed the cats and encountered Garcia. He had an outdoor living room set up in the alley with a couch and chairs.
“He put out his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Antonio,’ ” Sepulveda Less recalled. “I shook his hand. That began our friendship.”
She asked him whether all those cats were his, and he said yes and promptly introduced her. “This is Lorena, this is Chicharito, Alfredo, and so on,” she said.
She sensed that he loved the cats. But he was homeless, and she was worried about whether the cats were being fed enough, so she returned another time. And then again and again. Their friendship blossomed. They didn’t talk about much other than cats, but that was enough.
She would ask him if she could bring him a tent or sleeping bag, and he would always decline, saying please just feed the cats. “If my cats have food, my heart is full,” she remembers him saying. He once gave her a stuffed animal, a lemur, for her daughter.
Through the animal rescue and pet community in her neighborhood, Sepulveda Less learned that Garcia had other friends who helped with the cats. After a time, some of them pooled their resources and got the cats spayed and neutered.
Stray cats are a problem in Chicago, with hundreds of thousands of them roaming the streets, she said. Once the cats were sterilized, the friends were able to have them designated a “colony,” which protects them from being caught by the city and potentially euthanized.
Doepke, who has worked in the pet and rescue community for years, spearheaded the effort to get the cats spayed and neutered. She said she was “speechless” when she learned that there were at least 30 cats in the alley. “A cat colony normally is not more than eight,” she said. “Thirty cats is way off the charts.”
In January, the women noticed that the alley was becoming more unkempt, and soon they learned that Garcia had died. Even though the temperatures were below freezing, he did not ask for or accept help. “He didn’t want to be a burden on others, he kept his struggles to himself,” Doepke said.
She said she and the others agreed right away what had to be done.
“We had to honor his memory,” Doepke said. “Being rescue workers, we were like, ‘We’re going to throw ourselves straight into this and take care of them.’ ”
The friends got together and made a schedule. One friend would stop by at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. to feed them during the week, and Sepulveda Less would do it on the weekends. The others would help get the food and offer other support.
They started a fundraising page, and the Chicago Tribune published a story about the cats and their caretakers. Almost $4,000 poured in, more than enough to feed the cats for several months and enough to buy materials for more shelters and a food station.
The friends say they’re committed to caring for the alley cats that kept Garcia company.
“He died with the things he loved most, his cats,” Sepulveda Less said. “We should all be so lucky to be around the people and animals we love.”