11/19/2019: This post has been updated to include an additional quote.
When news came of Al “Alley Cat’” Chernoff’s murder at his home on Nov. 5, the reaction online was overwhelming.
For days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and other social media platforms buzzed with expressions of disbelief and sadness from people all over the world.
“The cat rescue people, of course his family, the veterans, the interest that he had in motorcycles — there were all these interacting groups circling him that intersected at a certain point,” said Beverly Levin, Chernoff’s cousin. “I knew everybody loved him, yes I did. It’s much more so than I expected, but I did know that he was well loved in the community.”
The outpouring was fraught with questions after Philadelphia Police announced early Nov. 9 that they had charged a 14-year-old girl with Chernoff’s homicide.
“It was a very brutal murder,” acting Philadelphia Police Commissioner Christine Coulter said at a news conference.
Uncertainties about the crime abound, but Chernoff’s impact in the animal rescue community is not in doubt.
“Ever since I posted the GoFundMe, so many people are telling me their stories about Al — ‘I rescued a cat because of Al’ or ‘He helped me go to and from volunteer events’ or ‘He helped me go to a cat shelter,’” said Chernoff’s cousin, David Levin, who posted the crowdfunding request to defray funeral expenses and to assist with care of Chernoff’s animals. “For a single dude that was divorced 15 years ago, no kids, was kind of on his own … I didn’t realize the reach that he had.”
A Philadelphia native, Chernoff was a 1977 graduate of Northeast High School. Aside from an older sister who died in infancy, Chernoff had no siblings. An Army combat veteran, Chernoff worked for 38 years for the City of Philadelphia, most recently as a building maintenance supervisor at the airport. But his real vocation was helping cats — he was even featured on Nat Geo’s reality show “Rescue Ink,” about tattooed bikers fighting against animal abuse.
A longtime Rhawnhurst native, Chernoff owned and operated Alley Cat Animal Rescue, through which he tended to Philadelphia’s feral cat colonies and practiced TNR — trapping, neutering and returning, a method to control the feral cat population.
Awareness of his efforts stretched from Philadelphia to California. Models and animal- rights advocates Shane and Sia Barbi, aka the Barbi Twins, tweeted about Chernoff, lamenting his death and claiming he was part of an online network of sleuths who helped identify murderer Luka Magnotta.
“It was ‘Rescue Ink’ that first gave the reward and that helped bring witnesses forward [to give] a name. That was Al,” Shane Barbi told the Exponent. “A truly humble guy that helped all the creatures and humans that needed help. Literally would take the shirt off his back and so many took advantage of him and he didn’t care. He said, ‘Well, if they need it, I’m glad to help.’”
Barbi’s husband, actor Ken Wahl of “Wiseguy” fame, was also a Chernoff fan and shared with him his love of cats and motorcycles. “Ken and Al had a friendship and bonded through the love of kitties,” said Shane, adding that Wahl called Chernoff “his hero.”
Other celebrities have been devastated by his death as well. Barbi’s friend, Amy Nelson, the daughter of Willie Nelson, provided a family statement about Al: “He was a real-life superhero for stray cats and for the underdogs of all walks of life. On behalf of the Willie Nelson family, we feel this loss deeply. We love you forever, Al.”
Chernoff was also active in the Jewish war veterans community.
“He went out of his way many a time for people who suffered what used to be called shell-shock and what is now called PTSD,” said M.B. Kanis, Commander of the Jewish War Veterans Drizin-Weiss Post 215. “He recognized PTSD and knew that people with service animals could become more calm and relaxed and more focused. In the Philadelphia area, I know of at least three service veterans who he helped hands-on (with service animals).”
A preliminary hearing for the accused teen has been scheduled for Nov. 27, according to CNN.
“We tried the best we could to keep him family oriented because he had no parents, he had no siblings and he had no children,” said Beverly Levin, David’s mother and Chernoff’s first cousin. “He was with us for Rosh Hashanah just last month. We kept him as close as we could, because he was alone in the world.”