All was dead quiet just before dawn when Debbie Gabriel double-parked in her usual spot on Lefferts Avenue, a neighborhood of single-family homes and low-rise buildings in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Almost as soon as she turned off the ignition, alley cats of all shades and sizes began pouring out of an alley behind a high iron gate like extras in a zombie movie.
A dozen cats in all stood there, purring softly for their breakfast, while Mrs. Gabriel placed bowls of food and water on the steps.
It was a familiar scene to Mrs. Gabriel, who has been a caretaker of numerous cat colonies for the past 23 years. “There are days when I don’t want to get up,” she said. “But when I think about their little faces — if they can stand there at 4:30 in the morning and wait for me, the least I can do is show up for these babies.”
Mrs. Gabriel feeds the Flatbush cats one meal a day – she’s 61 and no longer works in hospitals, and that’s all she can afford. She also tends to their medical needs as best she can, occasionally taking the sickest and most injured to a sympathetic vet. Mrs. Gabriel is just one of many dedicated colony caretakers in the area, but Flatbush is teeming with feral cats and there’s only so much she can do.
The problem is hardly limited to Flatbush. There are colonies in just about every neighborhood with suitable nooks and crannies – in Bushwick, in Washington Heights, in Ozone Park. There may be half a million feral cats roaming New York City, but no one knows for sure.
“Nobody knows, and the city doesn’t want to know,” said Will Zweigart, the founder of Flatbush Cats, the nonprofit organization Ms. Gabriel and dozens of others volunteer for. “Because if they knew, they would be responsible to do something about it.”
There are a number of reasons for the explosion in feral cat colonies. More people adopted pets during the pandemic, but keeping them quickly became difficult. First, pets are now more expensive. New York City – along with the rest of the country – has been experiencing a serious shortage of vets, many of whom have been overwhelmed and burned out by the high demand for their services, and vet costs have exceeded the average rate of inflation for the past 20 years.
Add to that the expiration of eviction moratoria and other pandemic economic protections, and many New Yorkers simply can’t afford their pets anymore. Some people, fearful that their unwanted cats would be euthanized if taken to a shelter, simply left them on the street and hoped for the best.
The magnitude of the problem is not clear for much of the city. You could live in a Manhattan high-rise and never meet a single street cat. But they abound in the other boroughs, especially in low-income neighborhoods, which are full of back alleys, tenement basements, empty lots, abandoned cars, and vacant buildings — all cat-friendly habitats where strays can find refuge and care for their offspring. can care.
This is where self-proclaimed colony caretakers like Mrs. Gabriel — she prides herself on the title of “cat lady” — dedicate their efforts. “Everyone in my neighborhood comes to me when they have a cat problem,” she said. People especially appreciate her efforts, but a few are hostile to the cats, especially in late spring, the height of the breeding season, when untethered and sex-starved beasts howl and fight over mates. (One reason she visits her colony so early in the morning is to avoid unpleasant encounters with neighbors.)
Mrs. Gabriel’s vigilance has helped her save a number of cats from a sad end. She remembered seeing a man cross the street one summer morning with a large cardboard box. “I asked him what he had in the box,” she said. “He opened it and there were five kittens inside. His girlfriend had told him they couldn’t keep them.”
The temperature was over 90 degrees. The kittens would have been dead within an hour had they been left on the street as planned. Mrs. Gabriel snatched the box from him. She found homes for three of the kittens and adopted the other two herself. “I told the man how important it was to neuter his cats, both for the cats and for the neighborhood,” she recalls. She then arranged for a vet to visit the man’s apartment and neuter his two remaining house cats.
Of course, not everyone is fond of bunches of feral cats, especially New York’s many birdwatchers — a population that also thrived during the pandemic. Grant Sizemore, the director of invasive species programs at the American Bird Conservancy, estimated that outdoor cats kill 2.4 billion birds each year in the United States. “We don’t allow stray dogs and feral dogs to roam the landscape,” said Mr. Sizemore. “And we shouldn’t allow it for cats either. It’s not safe for the cats, and it certainly isn’t safe for the birds and other wildlife.”
Do cats’ predatory instincts have an advantage? While New York’s feral cats kill many mice, they are no match for the city’s rats, which far outnumber them. Aside from popular belief, cats rarely attack rats, although rodents avoid nesting near often sharp cat colonies.
But even most cat caretakers say they would much prefer all cats to live indoors. “New Yorkers have no idea how hard it is to be an alley cat,” says Rachel Adams, a cat catcher for Flatbush Cats and a clinical psychologist at the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center.
Ms. Adams rattles off statistics she’s internalized as a volunteer, pointing out that eight out of 10 alley cats die within the first six months. Those who survive are often sick. Winters here can be deadly for a species that originated in North Africa’s Mediterranean climate. And the traffic takes a heavy toll. Even the strongest and smartest feral cats only live an average of four years, less than a third of the lifespan of indoor cats.
Mr Zweigart unequivocally calls it ‘a crisis’. There are far too many cats outside, he said, and not enough people willing to house the friendly cats. “We cannot get out of this problem. That is a Band-Aid at best.”
So under the leadership of Mr. Zweigart, Flatbush Cats has adopted a somewhat radical idea first developed in England in the 1950s to address a feral cat problem: TNR – trap, caster, return. Volunteers certified in the procedure catch feral cats in animal traps and then take them to veterinarians to have them fixed. The cats are then released back onto the streets to live their lives, but leave no litters behind. In theory, TNR should gradually deplete and eventually eliminate the city’s cat colonies.
Animal protection groups like the ASPCA are advocating for TNR, and cities from Chicago to Jacksonville, Fla., have passed local ordinances supporting it. On the other hand, organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology oppose the method, arguing that cats are a highly destructive invasive species that should not be allowed to live outdoors at all. They also say there is no solid evidence that TNR has actually reduced the outdoor cat population wherever it is practiced.
But while Flatbush Cats trains volunteers to release traps, the city’s health department and the mayor’s office of animal welfare have been slow to get behind the protocol, not banning it or advocating it, and giving its practitioners little material support. to offer. Alexandra Silver, Director of the Office of Animal Welfare, said: “We work closely with notable organizations and volunteers who care for and work to humanely reduce the number of cats on the streets across the five boroughs and are actively engaged on ways to better collaborate on TNR and other animal welfare issues.”
With the city in the background, it’s been left to nonprofits like Flatbush Cats to pick up the slack. The organization is building a 3,700-square-foot veterinary clinic on Flatbush Avenue, which will open in August. The goal is to perform thousands of low-cost spay and neuter surgeries a year for cats whose owners often can’t afford to take them to commercial veterinarians, where the procedures can cost more than $500.
Still, not everyone in Flatbush agrees with this approach, according to Ryan Tarpey, the Flatbush Cats community program manager. When Mr. Tarpey set traps near a notorious cat colony that had lived on a vacant lot for 47 years, some neighbors were outraged. “They told me, ‘These are our cats, they kept the rats out,'” he said. “They ran me off the block.”
Even some keepers are initially hesitant to set cat traps. “Some people prefer that the colony continue to reproduce,” confirmed Ms. Adams, a Baltimore resident who moved to New York seven years ago. “But most long-term caretakers have had so many bad experiences where they found dead cats or kittens, or their cats came back sick or injured,” she added. “Usually they change their tone when that happens.”
Rob Holden, a 35-year-old publishing account executive who recently started volunteering at Flatbush Cats, is one such convert. Earlier this spring, Mr. Holden spotted an orange tabby lurking in a garage in the back alley behind his Flatbush apartment. The animal was clearly limping and, like most old alley cats, seemed wary of people and wouldn’t let him get close. So Mr. Holden’s jury mounted a food-laden steel trap with a trip wire dangling from his second-floor apartment. He also installed two motion-sensitive cameras that would alert him when the cat approached.
It took four days, but when the cat finally mustered up the courage to enter the trap, Mr. Holden was ready. He yanked the tripwire and quickly brought the creature to a garage that Flatbush Cats has converted into a stray abode.
The injuries were so severe (most likely from a fight with another cat) that in other hands, the cat – now named Ramones – would likely have been euthanized. But volunteers took Ramones to a vet who managed to patch him up with 14 stitches and a course of antibiotics.
The next step took longer. Ramones was not used to living with people. The process of making alley cats comfortable with humans is laborious and requires hours of painstaking seduction. It doesn’t always work, but in this case it did.
“Ramones is now hands down one of the friendliest (and hungriest) cats I’ve ever met,” said Mr. Holden with genuine affection. “He is recovering with a loving foster couple. Needless to say, my first pedaling experience got me hooked.