The first thing you notice is the smell. There isn’t any. The place is that clean, even though there are 100 cats in residence. Next you notice the furniture. People are welcome to sit on the comfy couches, but the cats have first dibs. Then there’s the executive director, Jonathan Rosenberg. His stepdaughter Melanie, a hairstylist in Flemington, gave him his regular trim the other day—and for the tuft in the middle he chose, this time, “rocket fire.”
“The red I can handle,” says his wife, Sharon. “Some of the other colors…”
The irony is that Jonathan—who founded Tabby’s Place, the palatial, one-of-a-kind sanctuary in Ringoes for seriously injured, ill, and otherwise unwanted cats—is, like the animals he has devoted the second act of his life to saving, colorblind.
“He once tried for a shade of blue, but it turned green,” says Sharon, sitting in the community room as staffers arrive for a meeting. “None of us really cared for that.” Chuckles and nods of assent ripple around the room.
Jonathan catches the tail end of the titters as he enters, and people fill him in on the joke. He doesn’t mind at all. He fires up his laptop, adjusts the projection on the wall, and starts opening data files. Tabby’s Place runs on TLC, donations, and hearts of gold. But records of intakes, adoptions, medical histories, supplies, and other crunchables are tracked in a database—one legacy of Jonathan’s years as the first chief technology officer of CNET, the pioneering tech-news-and-reviews website he joined in 1994.
By resigning from CNET in 1999, cashing in all his stock options, and selling a bundle of stock he had in another tech company, Jonathan managed to amass the sizeable nest egg that enabled him to create Tabby’s Place and bring it to the brink of breaking even—probably next year. He figures he has sunk about $2 million into the project so far.
“I didn’t know it was the height of the dotcom bubble,” he admits. “I thought it would still go up, but it turned out to be fortuitous.”
The Rosenbergs didn’t start out as cat people. Sharon, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was highly allergic to cats and needed shots from age 9 to 13 before she outgrew that sensitivity and began to discover her inner cat lover. Jonathan, who grew up inside the Washington Beltway, got his first dog at age 3 and remained firmly a dog person. “I didn’t dislike cats,” he says. “Just, you know…” His voice trails off.
In the early 1980s, Sharon and Jonathan met and married in Pittsburgh. She had earned a master’s in education and was teaching remedial reading while raising her two young daughters, Marissa and Melanie, from a previous marriage. He was completing a PhD in computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University.
“We were married about a year when we started talking about getting a pet,” Jonathan recalls. “I assumed we would get a dog, but she wanted a cat. One day this stray cat showed up at our house, and I said, ‘Don’t feed him, he’ll go away.’ Of course she started feeding him. One day he came in, ate, and went and lay down on the couch.
“That was Tabby. He turned me into a cat lover. He moved with us to New Jersey. We had him about 15 years. He was about 16 or 17 when we found out one day that he had untreatable cancer in the bones in his cheek. It’s a fairly common cancer in cats. I was told he had about four months to live, which turned out to be right. And it just changed everything for me. I felt like I had been hit in the head with a sledgehammer.
“So I did what I call the deathbed exercise. I imagined I’m on my deathbed, looking back at my life. I thought, What would I be sorry I hadn’t done? I thought of a lot of things, and they were all okay. But then I thought, If I don’t do something in Tabby’s memory, I will really be sorry. So a short while later I resigned to do this.”
On its website, tabbysplace.org posts pictures and descriptions of all the cats available for adoption. The descriptions are not sugar-coated. Molly, a sweet, 14-year-old bluepoint Siamese, is in early renal failure and has arthritis. Coconut, a handsome, 2-year-old black-and-white domestic shorthair, “loves to play with both cats and people; however, he doesn’t seem to have any manners and will often play too rough or bite and scratch…In addition, we believe Coconut has a chronic herpes infection for which he is currently receiving medication.”
Would anyone adopt these cats? “We’ve had people adopt cats with terminal cancer, cats with missing limbs and eyes, cats with diabetes, cats with inflammatory bowel disease,” says Jonathan. “The most amazing adoption was just a few months ago, a cat named Bagheer. He was very nice, but his rear end was paralyzed, he couldn’t walk, and he needed his bladder to be expressed by hand three times a day. I just assumed he’d live here forever.”
Jonathan shares his office with Sinbad, who is in early renal failure, and Pepper, who has intestinal cancer. “We didn’t expect her to live more than a month, so we moved her in here,” he says, sitting at his desk. “Now it’s been almost a year. She’s doing incredibly well. We have no explanation for it.” Pepper likes to snooze in Jonathan’s inbox. As he speaks, she saunters over and plops down on his right arm. “I’ve learned to type with one hand,” he says, with a laugh. “I’m trying to get Pepper to relax. How do you think we’re doing?”
Tabby’s Place was built with infrastructure to support two more buildings, expanding the capacity to 500 cats, a number Jonathan says he could fill in a day. Eventually he would like to build those buildings. “People say, ‘If I had your money, I would have done this or that,’” he says. “I go, ‘You know what? I hope you get that money and do it. That’d be great.’”
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