Feline foster parent committed to the work — despite losses in Old City blaze

Al Gury holds Marley, one of the hundreds of cats he has fostered in his Old City home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Al Gury holds Marley, one of the hundreds of cats he has fostered in his Old City home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When the fire alarm went off at 3 a.m. Sunday, Al Gury didn’t think much of it. He lives in an older Philadelphia building where false alarms are not unusual.

He went downstairs to see what was up, thinking if it were a real fire, he would return to his fifth-floor loft to save the six cats still up there. But the Old City blaze was spreading so fast that firefighters could not let him back inside the building.

Gury lost his five pets, as well as a 9-week-old kitten he was fostering for adoption. The kitten had CH, cerebellar hypoplasia, the feline version of cerebral palsy.

“I was working with him, doing physical therapy to train him to have a fuller life,” said Gury. “That was Little Nemo.”

The fire grew to a four-alarm blaze, damaging surrounding buildings — including apartments, shops, and restaurants. Hundreds of residents were evacuated. According to reports, no one was badly hurt, but 11 animals died.

As dawn broke on Sunday, Gury sat across the street watching the fire ravage the building from bottom to top.

The area 4-alarm fire at 239 Chestnut Street which was contained around 7:30 a.m. this morning is closed off and being evaluated for further risk.
The area 4-alarm fire at 239 Chestnut Street which was contained around 7:30 a.m. this morning is closed off and being evaluated for further risk. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“They all looked at the building and said, ‘No, your building was completely destroyed. Nothing could live in there,’ ” he said Monday, while staying with a friend nearby. Gury spoke with a catch in his throat, devastated by his loss.

“It seemed to be under control for a while, then it just expanded. It was just awful,” said Gury, who chairs the painting department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He also lost decades of work stored in his apartment.

“Besides losing everything there, the cats were the most important thing,” he said.

Support for a generous benefactor

Gury is also a visible figure in the city’s animal-rescue operations. Over 10 years, he has fostered more than 800 cats in his apartment, mostly through the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — which relies on Gury to care for cats like Little Nemo with special needs.

His fifth-floor loft had been outfitted as a living space, a painting studio, and a cat refuge where he’d provide abandoned cats with critical medical attention. He’d also happily offer all the petting and cuddling they needed to properly socialize the animals for adoption.

He often spent hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars out of his own pocket to give medical care to an animal, only to then pass it along to a steady owner.

In addition to his five permanent pets, as recently as a few weeks ago Gury had five foster cats in the apartment. They ultimately found placement; Little Nemo was still waiting.

In the first 24 hours after the fire, word about the devastation spread through the city via Gury’s network of artists and animal rescue operators. He has been flooded with support, including two online GoFundMe campaigns.

The area 4-alarm fire at 239 Chestnut Street which was contained around 7:30 a.m. this morning is closed off and being evaluated for further risk. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I just got an email this morning — one of many — from a nun who doesn’t know me. I don’t know who she is. She just wanted me to know she was praying for the cats,” Gury said, choking up again. “That was so sweet.”

Gury wants to stay in Old City, where he’s lived for decades. He is looking for a space where he can continue to both paint and care for cats, determined by the disaster to double-down on his fostering efforts.

“Their lives matter, and this work matters. With it comes pain,” said Gury. “It’s not always sweetness and light, as everyone would like it to be. It’s sometimes hard and painful. But I’m committed to this.”

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