House call: Pet palaces

Some New Yorkers just can't say no to cute little creatures: four homes where animals take precedence.

Sterling and Griffith Iffith's East Williamsburg loft reads like a natural history museum: Soaring walls display taxidermied geese (outfitted with Falcon helmets), antique medical charts and a host of doll--sized furnishings (Sterling, a nurse, makes intricate dolls, which the pair use in a variety of short films—Griffith is a technician at IFC). The focal point, though, is the couple's real--life birds: A greater vasa parrot from Madagascar named Grimsby; a pair of Australian star finches named Hester and Nestor who inhabit a home complete with eensy curtains and gold framed photos; and, most bizarre, a Gibber Italicus, which is a canary inbred to look like a turkey vulture (Sing Sing, whose cage is wallpapered with a bird's--eye view of the prison, hunches like a vulture and is losing his feathers). The most recent addition, Egads, a chameleon, lives in a massive plant in the kitchen, against a wall checkered with Tillandsias: A sprinkler mists the area twice a day, as he'll drink only water that drips from the leaf. "To us, our pets aren't exotic; they're legal to keep and breed," Griffith explains. "They are not, however, domestic—and for that reason you never know what's going to happen."

How did a self--professed dog lover become the guardian of 360 pellet--hoarding nocturnal rodents? For Jessica Wells, her transformation occurred two and a half years ago when she rescued a hamster on Broadway, only to be turned away by an animal shelter (they're cousins of rats, so go figure). Wells, now known as "the Inwood Hamster Lady," has since begun the soon--to--be nonprofit New York Hamster House (thejessicawells.com), which provides adoption services from her 650--square--foot one--bedroom apartment (currently filled with 35 critters, including four Roborovski dwarf hamsters). Though a few souls occasionally donate cash, she spends about $100 per week on expenses, and cleans the 30--odd cages constantly ("they're poop machines"). If they get hurt, Wells shuttles them to an exotics vet. The minibeasts generally wield carte blanche in her place, but her sleeping chamber is off--limits postplaytime. "I can't hear Sense & Sensibility in the living room on account of all those wheels."

"I had to get Steve drunk at brunch," Bart Kaczanowicz, an ad assistant at Jo Malone, explains. "And then I convinced him to come to Petco with me to check out this kitten." Though the couple already shared custody of two English bulldogs (Cosmo and Donatella Versace), Bart argued that their Tribeca loft had more than enough space to accommodate his new love, Luke. He was convinced that Steve Debow--president of McGraww--Hill's humanities divison and an established dog loverw--would come to love him too. Until they opened the cage door "and Luke almost took my eye out with his paw." A different cat, D'shaun (nee Tangerine), accompanied them home. And then, eventually, three more followed. (Tyra Banks and Annabeth Chase arrived via Dawn at Petco union Square, who is "the best cat--woman in the world," per Steve; Sylvester Stallone came from Petco Kips Bay, as they "really wanted a Jewish cat.") "It's funny," Steve says. "Our cats have personalities more like dogs in that theyv're not particularly fickle." That aside, besides a tendency to lacerate the furniture with their claws, the cats didn't pick up the hyper trait: "Donatella has to be crated on occasion, because if she gets too excited, she throws up."

"I really hate to feel like I'm that crazy lady," explains Jessie Dean Altman, who has somehow found herself in possession of two dogs and 22 cats. "But I'm one of the few who can bottle--feed kittens, and so when the shelter calls, I can't resist." Only ten of the animals are permanent residents at the Bushwick apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Robert Austin (Jessie works for The Onion; Robert at Comedy Central); the rest are in their foster care until she finds them homes, either through petfinder.com or the nonprofit she partners with, Anjellicle Cats Rescue. "We're very strict about who can adopt a cat," she explains. "If you don't already have one, you have to adopt two," as, contrary to popular belief, cats aren't solitary creatures. "When people complain that their pet is destroying their home, it's usually because they need a friend." Loneliness is not a concern in her small two&8211;bedroom railroad space, which is overrun with seemingly tireless kittens and the toys that occupy them. The older cats, who all wear the same fatigued, put--upon air, rest in every container in the place, from baskets and boxes to a multistory cat condo in the corner of the living room. "I clean all the time. It's nuts to have this many animals."

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