Fifth Street

August 4, 2022

Café connects pet seekers with cats over coffee | Craving jollof and baobab? Calabash has you covered | Chefs serve up meals for a cause | Meet a professional body snatcher

LAS VEGAS' GROWING feral cat population is a problem. One local nonprofit has come up with a creative solution to dealing with the homeless cat crisis.

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“Nobody knows how many free roaming or feral cats are here,” says Keith Williams, director of the Community Cat Coalition of Clark County (C5), a nonprofit that traps, neuters, and releases about 5,000 feral cats each year. “There are estimates, but no actual census has ever been done.” Those estimates place roaming cat numbers around 200,000 in Clark County alone, according to Williams, who’s concerned that lasting effects from the pandemic, the current economic downturn, and lack of interest will cause these numbers to rise. Throw in kitten season, which is ushered in by warmer weather and peaks in June and July every year, and the feral cat population could inflate up to 400,00 by the end of summer.

Enter Hearts Alive Village (HAV). Founded in 2009, HAV proposes a novel approach to adopting out homeless cats — allowing people to pet, feed, and bond with cats at their Cat Café before adopting or fostering them, thus helping cats showcase their true personality in a more comfortable environment than a traditional shelter. 

“Cats in general may tend to be on the overlooked side,” says Brittany Rutledge, the HAV Cat Café and Adoption Center manager. Rutledge’s own journey with HAV began when she decided to volunteer and foster her own cat, Mana, from the organization. “Dogs will run up to you immediately, versus with a cat, where you may need to gain their trust first.”

Caring for these vulnerable cats comes with a price tag, exacerbated by the economic downturn. “This year, a number of our hard costs for (trap, neuter, release) supplies have about doubled while donations are significantly lower,” Williams says, citing inflation as well as fewer donations and grants. For HAV’s Cat Café, though entry is free (along with all of the refreshments on offer), a $15 or more donation along with food and supply donations is always welcome to help cover the costs of running the café. “Our adoption fees don’t even cover our costs for those animals,” notes Rutledge. “Just to spay a kitten alone — not counting her medication, her vaccines, her microchip — is $70. But we don’t expect to cover all of our costs with our adoption fees. We just want to offset a bit of it.”

Though the number of homeless cats is increasing, the number of ready-to-adopt cats that HAV receives, many of which come from organizations like C5 who trap and neuter cats before bringing them to HAV, has decreased. The pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation disrupting surgery facilities and charities have all contributed to this decrease. 

At the beginning of July, HAV had to cap the number of cats they took in at 49 because their resources were overextended with it being peak kitten season. Fortunately, however, two large-scale adoption drives led to a total of 160 adoptions by the end of July compared with 117 the prior month. The success of these adoption events allowed HAV to lift the July intake cap, and they ended the month taking in more than 100 new cats. 

Despite this troubling news, Rutledge credits the pandemic and more work from home opportunities with one positive development: more people willing to foster and adopt. “People realized ‘I have the space, I’m home, I can generally keep an eye on them,’” she says. “And then many people in that process fell in love and tended to adopt at least one.”

Though working in a challenging field, Rutledge keeps the faith by focusing on HAV’s mission: giving animals a voice. Rutledge reflects, “Though on the day-to-day you’re so inside what you’re doing that it doesn’t seem like it’s making a difference, if what you’re doing makes a difference in one animal’s life, it’s worth it.”

Reservations for Hearts Alive Village Cat Café can be made through their website.

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LET'S START with jollof. In sub-Saharan Africa, this dish is contentious, having the same regional identity attached to it that southerners in the U.S. would attach to barbecue. Jollof is part of rice's global heritage as crucial and delicious as you can find in any culture. At Calabash African Kitchen, the jollof is, first and foremost Senegambian, and second, exquisite. Each grain of rice is laced with slow-burning spice that rises in the mouth as you chew. Paired with any of the meat options on the menu, it produces a dance on the tongue to make a sensual, captivating flavor. 

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Beyond the jollof, Calabash African Kitchen is a culinary breath of fresh air. Las Vegas is highly culinarily diverse, but it lacks in representation of African cuisine (no, I'm not overlooking your Ethiopian enclave, Decatur and Flamingo). As exciting and diverse as our city’s restaurants are, we’ve been slow to celebrate the food and culture of West Africa. Hailing from the West African nation of Gambia, and coming out of retirement to celebrate her culture through cooking, Chef Oulay Ceesay Fisher is the heart of Calabash.

Let's say you convinced a friend to come with you, and they are less enthused about a foreign culinary experience; jollof is met with anxious trepidation. In that case, I suggest you order the Senegambian burger — fried egg and melted cheese on a ground beef patty given distinct flavor with undisclosed Gambian spices (and, yes, it comes with a side of fries). This dish gives the most middling of diners a safe glimpse over the edge of the culinary expanse. 

For the more exploratory diner, a must-have is the akar, crisp, light fritters made of black-eyed peas. Slightly earthy undertones mingle with the magic of deep frying. The accompanying dipping sauce brings the whole dish round to an addictive incursion on the mouth. If, on this gastronomic excursion, one was one to find themselves thirsty, they would be well-served by the baobab juice. This baobab-coconut blend loads a creamy, sour sensation that I'm not fully equipped to describe in text.   

There are deeper, more complicated dishes waiting for you at Calabash; this simple survey is intended to whet your appetite. In Vegas’ diverse gastrosphere, Calabash is a welcome entry from an underrepresented cuisine.

Calabash African Kitchen is located at 1750 S. Rainbow, No. 8, and open Tuesday-Sunday from 12 to 8:30 p.m.

 

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SUMMER IN LAS VEGAS is all about finding ways to escape the heat, and a drive up to Mt. Charleston, where the trees are green and the temperature is a good 30 degrees cooler, has long been a staple. However, when the legendary Mt. Charleston Lodge burned down last fall, a favored destination on that trip disappeared. Or has it?

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“We wanted to give people a reason to get back up to the mountain, back up to the site of the lodge, especially over summer when it’s been a part of so many people’s routine,” says Christina Ellis, general manager of Ellis Island/Ellis Family Projects, owners of the lodge. To that end, they’ve created Pine Dining. Each weekend throughout the summer, a different local chef will take over, doing a cookout on Saturday and a more intimate dinner on Sunday, with the proceeds benefiting a charitable organization of the chef’s choice.

The roster includes heavy hitters from both on and off the Strip, such as James Trees of Esther’s Kitchen and Al Solito Posto, Nicole Brisson of Brezza and Bar Zazu, Justin Hall of Main Street Provisions, and Sam Marvin of Echo & Rig. “The chefs have been so excited about it,” Ellis says. “Everybody has their Mt. Charleston story. I was hearing from a lot of the chefs that they went up there all the time to get a beer or a coffee. Our opening chef, James Trees, his parents performed music at the lodge, so he has an amazing connection.”

A pavilion and patio has been constructed on the site of the old lodge, so guests can take in the same glorious dining-room views. Naturally, the cooking facilities are also a bit more advanced than a grill, with a tricked-out trailer. “What they've done is they've basically constructed an independent, fully functional kitchen,” says Chef Nicole Brisson. “They have every piece of equipment a chef could imagine or possibly desire ... basically a replica of a professional kitchen you would find on the Strip or any large restaurant.”

Brisson explains that her cookout will “be interactive and fun — not stuffy, really enjoying the environment of the mountain and the people. I'll have a pastry station, we'll have a meat carving station, I'll have a verduria station, antipasti.” For Sunday, she’s serving brunch items from the Brezza menu inspired by her time in Upstate New York. “There's a beautiful backdrop of the mountains and the trees,” she says. “I feel like I'm being transported back to my youth and experiencing that same kind of place.”

For his takeover, Chef Sam Marvin is creating a menu unique to and influenced by Mt. Charleston itself. “I think that wherever you are should evoke the setting,” he explains. “Being up on the mountain in the wilderness is going to let us expand the menu and give us a chance to do an outdoors dining experience, 100-percent inspired by where we are.”

The chefs also had free rein in choosing their charities, which include the ASPCA and Cupcake Girls. Both Brisson and Marvin have picked organizations that support young chefs. Marvin’s weekend will benefit the Epicurean Charitable Foundation, a local group that works to “provide opportunities to children and young adults for mentorship and financial help in getting children into the hospitality industry — cooking or front of house,” as Marvin explains. “It's all about young, passionate kids, giving them opportunities.” 

It’s a way for the chefs to help younger versions of themselves but, for Brisson, the tie is even more personal. Her weekend will benefit the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund, established to honor her friend and colleague who passed away last year. The fund provides paid apprenticeships for young people to work on local farms and continues Saxelby’s dedication to food and sustainability. “That’s really important to me, carrying out her legacy the best that I can,” Brisson says.

The Pine Dining program also supports the rebirth of the lodge itself. “It's such a foundation of Vegas,” Marvin says. “Keeping it alive and well and letting people know it's rebuilding and it will be back soon.” Ellis says her company will soon unveil plans for more events and a new lodge. “We're working together to put together the plan for the lodge, and we’re hoping that these events lead up to making an announcement as to what we’re going to do next.”

An event like Pine Dining is what Las Vegas is about, according to Marvin. “It definitely helps bring the chef community together — the foodie community, the hospitality community,” he says. “I’ve lived in a lot of places — Europe, L.A., New York, Chicago — and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chef community like the Vegas chef community. How tight it is, how supportive they are of each other, how excited they are about each other. It’s not dog-eat-dog. It’s about ‘Okay, how can I support these guys?’ It's just unbelievable what goes on in this little Vegas community. It’s exciting to be a part of.”

Tickets to Pine Dining are available through the Mt. Charleston Lodge websitePine Dining events are scheduled August 6, 7, 13, and 14, and September dates will be announced soon.

 

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"PEOPLE AREN'T MEANT TO see these things. No one likes to think about death, so we are ignored.”

Meet Derrick Butler, a normal guy in his mid-twenties who enjoys video games, skateboarding, and grabbing beers with friends. He also happens to be a person who gets called to pick up the bodies of those who’ve passed. Some call them undertakers, body transporters — even weirdos or freaks — but the official job title is removal technician. 

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He comes from a family of caregivers, his late mother a registered nurse and his father a retired police officer. During the illness that led to his mother’s death, Butler discussed his interest in becoming a mortician with her. She jokingly told him, “Everyone’s dying to get in!” Her passing motivated him to begin his journey into the world of death. He plunged in, having no idea what to expect. 

As with any occupation, a body transporter has certain duties at the top of their daily to-do list. Butler begins by reviewing scheduled cremations at the funeral home where he works. He does a “minimum prep,” which starts with verifying the identity of the person on the slab, matching their face with a provided photo, and checking their name tag. 

Funeral homes may offer cosmetics and hair washing, usually done when there is a viewing service prior to cremation. Some other gruesome, day-to-day details:  the deceased’s mouth is sewn shut and “contacts” with little pricks are placed under their eyelids to keep them closed. 

“Sometimes they even have to plug up your butt if you leak too much!” Butler laughs. 

After the initial run-through, he sits back and waits for pick-up assignments from the call service. When he gets back to the care center with a body, he is responsible for unwrapping it and documenting the physical details of the deceased. A checklist helps with this step. “For example,” he says, “if someone has an IV, you’re going to want to check that off, because if the hole is open, the embalming fluid will drip out. It’s good to let the embalmer know to put a little dab of super glue to avoid that.” 

The transportation van Butler drives can hold up to four bodies, separated by a lift and gurneys. Removal technicians are responsible for cleaning out their van weekly and the processing center (called a “care center”) daily. 

Butler emphasizes how important it is for hospital workers to leave the deceased alone to avoid a messy situation when he removes a body. “It’s hard enough dealing with skin slips, blood purging, and the weight and smell of a person,” he says. The body bags that hospitals use rip easily, which can result in fluids spewing out while in transport and the mortuary cooler. “People leak all the time,” he says. “Their body just releases everything — it’s unavoidable. And it’s our job to clean it up.”

Asked about the smell in the cooler, Butler says it’s not that bad, because it’s about as cold as a restaurant refrigerator. But he can’t avoid the unforgettable stench of decomposition at the initial pick up. He gives smoking some credit for helping him deal with that. 

The pay certainly isn’t helping much. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, morticians, undertakers, and funeral arrangers make an average of $23-$26 dollars an hour. However, Nevada death care wages are on the lower end, at only $14-$16 dollars an hour. These numbers were last updated in May 2021, but in Butler’s experience, not much has changed. Negative stigma is one barrier to fair compensation, he says.

There are no formal education requirements (other than a high school degree) to become a removal technician, but employees do need to abide by local and state laws, as well as company procedures, to properly care for the deceased. At the same time, death care is an emotionally and physically demanding job. (Butler jokes that it’s a great workout.)

The grisly responsibilities and low wages can lead to quick burnout. During Butler’s first few months in the industry, he saw some twenty people come and go. But a certain kind of person, who can stomach the job, may stick around and last for years. Butler says he relies on his coworkers and father to get through it. 

For him, the hardest part of the job is dealing with the families of the deceased. “You never know how the family is going to react,” he says. “Sometimes a family member becomes aggressive when you need to take their loved one away, almost wanting to fight me. Others are nonchalant about it.” 

Yet families also offer an opportunity for one of the job’s rare rewards. Butler feels it’s important to be there for them, showing empathy and respect. He’s even had to face the reality of death within his own circle. Butler recalls the time he saw an old friend while picking up their deceased grandparent. The two men embraced and laughed at the randomness of bumping into each other under such circumstances

“I’m getting to an age where I’m going to start running into people I know,” Butler jokes.

Clearly, for this removal technician, a dark sense of humor is a job requirement.

 

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Photos and art: A Venti-Sized Crisis courtesy of Hearts Allive Village Cat Café; Gambian Gastronomy by Brent Holmes; Philanthropy Alfresco by Shaun Brousher; Body Movin' by Christopher Smith

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