Santa Fe New Mexican
Sunday Spotlight: First came the cars, then the cats
By Chris Quintana
The New Mexican SantaFeNewMexican.com | 3 comments
Lounging in a room above Stephen Chiulli’s auto body shop in southwest Santa Fe is a group of cats, some with jet black fur and others with patches of white and black. Some nestle in dark kennels. A few occasionally take halfhearted swipes at one another.
When Chiulli opens the door to the feline lair, some cats bolt at the sight of the unknown visitor with him. Some warm to strangers more quickly than others, Chiulli says, but anyone who spends 15 minutes in their space will end up covered in cats seeking human affection. To the unfamiliar eye, some of the felines can be hard to tell apart. But Chiulli has names for each — Sweet Pea, Blanca, Nibbles.
“Have you ever named 50 cats?” asks Chiulli, a bald 54-year-old with a goatee and moustache. “You come up with names you never thought you could come up with.”
His auto body shop, Green Monkey Coach Works, is situated on a tree-covered lot on Agua Fría Street near Siler Road. It also serves as a makeshift wildlife sanctuary. It’s not uncommon to see birds or rabbits peeking into his shop, he says. He runs the business and in his spare time manages a nonprofit, Wild Kitties, dedicated to caring for Santa Fe’s wild cat population. Chiulli estimates that he usually has 35 to 50 felines in his care.
Chiulli’s journey to auto body restorer and savior of stray felines started in Westchester County, N.Y. From an early age, he says, he had a mechanical curiosity, taking apart things like clocks, then trying to put them back together.
His mother’s brother helped instill a love of automobiles in the young Chiulli. His uncle loved drag racing, Chiulli says. He recalls his uncle and his buddies working on a car while smoking cigarettes and drinking American lagers in a dimly lit garage. Chiulli begged to work alongside them.
Chiulli also remembers watching his uncle race. He remembers spending days as a 14-year-old watching cars roar to life and then hurtle down a blacktop strip. “I was fascinated by power and going fast,” Chiulli says. “Still am. I am slower now, but only because I can’t afford the tickets.”
Chiulli loved the car culture, but he didn’t enter the field immediately. He went to college and earned a master’s degree in international economics, although he never made a career of that. Instead, he found himself designing and building homes. He stuck with that for decades before leaving New York at the age of 44. The lifestyle had started to wear on him, and he knew he needed a change.
He relocated to New Mexico, as many before him have, to write the “Great American novel.”
“It’s now 17 books,” he jokes.
Chiulli says he didn’t plan to start an auto body repair shop. He wanted to work on some personal projects, but neighbors took note of his abilities with automobiles and asked him to work on their cars. He turned them down at first but eventually gave in. He left briefly to teach at an academy in Colorado before returning to New Mexico.
Upon his return, Chiulli began teaching at Santa Fe High School, but he spent his nights, weekends and summers working in his own garage, restoring his cars and getting paid to fix others. He tried not to commit to it, but Green Monkey Coach Works really took off. By 2008, he had to relocate to a larger building. He got a reputation for resurrecting old Cadillacs, and he developed a green paint that appears jet black in some light.
The cats began arriving while he was still at his old shop. The first, he says, was a scrappy brown feline he named Dulce. He took her to the vet and then released her, but she would still saunter back whenever she wanted food or water. Dulce must have gossiped because other cats quickly learned Chiulli was a source of meals.
Chiulli says he would try to capture every feline that came to his door, get it spayed or neutered, and then continue to feed the animals. Two cats had kittens, and the resulting litters now reside above his shop. But he still tends to the cats around his old shop, too, and often finds adopted homes for others.
Chiulli has big dreams for Wild Kitties. He wants to buy a 20-acre swath of land that he can turn into an enclosed cat sanctuary, a sort of feline paradise where the animals would live in different communities — with outdoor and indoor units — and receive regular feedings and medical attention.
”There’s a literal need for this,” says Chiulli, surrounded by cats. “Plus, how can you say no to their faces?”
Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CQuintanaSF.