Newburgh — Ellen Hayden of Newburgh has always had a passion for animals and art. Born and raised in an Irish-Italian home in Newburgh, Hayden knew as a child that she wanted to be an artist or a veterinarian. Eventually she gravitated toward art, but her love for animals remained intact.
She started her own rescue mission by taking in four stray kittens from the Newburgh area to keep them from becoming feral. Before long she was known as the lady who would take in stray cats or kittens.
"I never go looking for these cats. They seem to find me," said Hayden, who owns just two cats and a schnauzer now. She said she has found homes for more than 65 cats from the Newburgh area over the past 10 years.
Now, the owner of the Downtown Gallery in Cold Spring helps several humane societies, including the Beacon Mid-Hudson Animal League. But Hayden's animal activism stretches beyond the Hudson Valley.
Three years ago, she visited Puerto Rico to spend time with her sister-in-law's family. Instead of a vacation, the trip turned into a mission.
While searching for lodging during a random visit to Vieques, a small island-municipality off the coast of Puerto Rico, she met Peggy Miller, owner of a farm and Seagate, a bed-and-breakfast. Hayden was quickly drawn to the horses on the farm.
"I am not so much into riding as I am into enjoying them. I love being around them, painting and photographing them," Hayden said.
During her stay, she fostered a colt whose birth she witnessed on that trip. She would get up at 4 a.m. and feed him, nurture him, and brush his mother's hair.
Hayden's "vacation" lasted two and a half months, during which she did some artwork but helped with the animals whenever she could. She also saw Miller's involvement with the local shelter, the Vieques Humane Society, established in 1987 to alleviate the small island's overabundance of stray dogs and cats through spaying, neutering and off-island adoption programs, and to provide care for the semiwild horses that roam freely on the island.
Hayden also witnessed the group's financial struggle. The nonprofit organization, which depends solely on donations, holds a lot of cultural events that bring the community together and help raise money.
For the past three years, Hayden has helped through different venues for fundraising, such as art exhibits and auctions at her gallery and on eBay.
Her latest project, the 2008 Cats & Cuisine Calendar, is on sale at Downtown Gallery in Cold Spring, or at www.artantiquegallery.com or www.amazon.com. It features her popular Max the Cat series of paintings, her favorite recipes, and stories of her life and passion for rescuing animals. A portion of the sale of every calendar goes to supporting the Vieques Humane Society.