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Traveling with your pets

October 10, 2004

Wild Things
from The New York Times

The shadow cats come out at night.

In the daytime, New York's homeless cats are too frightened to emerge from behind the grated openings where they lurk, or from the abandoned buildings and overgrown lots where they live. They listen as trucks and buses roll noisily by, and watch in stealthy silence as pedestrians go about their chores.

True, there are hints. Somewhere in the city, a child may see a flash of black, white or orange that disappears in seconds. Tiny teeth marks will appear on the remains of a fried-chicken lunch that has been tossed into a corner. Birds will steer clear of one particular bush, sensing that danger lies beneath its leaves.

But it is the night that is the real domain of the shadow cats, the time they come alive. Atop a box in a cemetery in southeast Queens, a snaggletoothed black-and-white veteran named Oreo guards his kingdom. On Roosevelt Island, Princess YinYang leaps into the air, a small blur of black and white as she chases fireflies across the grass. On Grand Street on the Lower East Side, small coal-black sisters named Topsy and Beebee trot out behind their mother from an abandoned building to forage for food.

Commonly known as ferals - their "names'' come courtesy of observant passers-by - the shadow cats have become an increasingly visible part of the urban landscape. One reason is that greater development and density leads to an increase in abandoned pets and more places for them to hide. Another is that public awareness of the problem has increased exponentially.

"Our rough estimate would be somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 feral cats in the five boroughs," said Bryan Kortis, executive director of Neighborhood Cats, a five-year-old group that seeks to control the city's feral population through T.N.R. (trap-neuter-return), a program in which animals are caught, neutered and placed in homes or returned to their habitat.

Today, according to Mr. Kortis, the typical abandoned cat is eight months to a year old and unneutered.

"People get these animals when they're kittens,'' he said. "Then they grow up, and they're not these cute fluffy things. They spray against the wall. They howl at night. Instead of just getting them neutered, people abandon them." The cats have litters, and the litters have litters.

In the last decade, an alphabet soup of rescue groups has sprung up around the city. They are typically staffed by passionate animal lovers, many of whom will attend the Neighborhood Cats' National Feral Cat Summit to be held Saturday (National Feral Cat Day) at the SLC Conference Center on Seventh Avenue near 29th Street. (Cats of a much more pampered variety can be seen today at the Cat Fanciers' Association show at Madison Square Garden.)

Rescue workers are almost pathologically reluctant to identify neighborhoods where ferals congregate, fearful that doing so will only encourage further dumping. At the same time, they engage in intense debates over subjects like no-kill shelters, sterilization, euthanasia and managed colonies, an approach in which cats living together are neutered, returned to their habitat and supervised by human caretakers until they die out naturally.

Cats Here, Cats There . . .

Until the Depression, life for New York's feral cats was probably like that of strays in Mediterranean countries today. They roamed and procreated, living off rats, garbage and the kindness of strangers. "The difference is that there is a warm climate there," said Mike Phillips, a choreographer-director and veterinarian technician who founded the Urban Cat League two years ago. "The harsh winters here cut down on reproduction, because the animals couldn't survive.''

Humans also helped control the numbers. Through the 19th century, strays were rounded up in large numbers, and until late in the 19th century, when the Women's S.P.C.A. in Philadelphia developed the first humane euthanasia gas chamber for animals, unclaimed dogs and cats were unceremoniously clubbed to death or crowded into cages and drowned.

But the rescue scene has changed considerably since the 1950's, when the glamorous burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee donned sneakers and climbed over rubble to bring food and water to homeless cats. In 1957 Judith Scofield founded the pioneering Save a Cat League in Manhattan. Now the city is home to more than 60 incorporated animal shelters and rescue groups, according to Mr. Kortis of Neighborhood Cats, and an equal number of unofficial ones.

In this respect, New York is one of the most advanced cities in the nation, and its shelter and rescue movement has become formidably organized under the umbrella of the Mayor's Alliance for New York City's Animals. But many of the rescuers belong to ad hoc groups of neighbors, whose war stories are told by Janet Jensen in her 2002 book "Shadow Cats: Tales From New York City's Animal Underground.''

New York rescuers come from a wide variety of professions and income levels. What starts with the seductively kind act of saving a starving storefront cat or a playful backyard stray quickly becomes a full-time occupation. There is never only one cat. But frantic calls to rescue and shelter groups reveal that most are too overwhelmed to help. So unofficial rescuers join the ranks of official rescuers, and they fight on many fronts.

Nancy Fahnestock, a middle school teacher who is the treasurer of the CSM Stray Foundation, based in Kew Gardens, Queens, answers questions sent to the group's Web site, an activity that she said made her feel "like the Dear Abby of the feral-cat cyber world."

CSM's chief feeder is Carole Milker, a legal secretary who is the foundation's president and whose initials gave the group its name. Meals are served at the same time seven mornings a week at the cemetery in southeast Queens, and are greeted by a mob scene worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular. Cats race like film extras from every direction as Ms. Fahnestock's car pulls in. Ms. Milker calls out to each cat by name as she steps from the car, puts on latex gloves to protect her own cats from disease, and doles out wet and dry food, along with vitamin-laced water.

Rob Maloney, a former firefighter, discovered two years ago that a managed colony was the best way to curb the growing feral population in the garden of the hospital in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where he worked as a security chief. Everyone pitched in, from hospital engineers who built Mylar-lined shelters for the cats to elderly patients who painted the structures. Cecilia Fortune, a hospital office worker, dispenses vitamin C, occasional treats of sardines and, in winter, cod liver oil. Food is purchased in bulk and on sale, and the hospital provides peroxide and swabs to treat the cats' cuts.

. . . Cats and Kittens Everywhere

Feral cats know no geography.

On West 136th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Central Harlem, the gentrification that has produced gleaming renovated brownstones has also spawned a generation of ferals so fearless that they strut about as brazenly as pedestrians, even in daytime.

With the whir of construction on abandoned buildings, cats are being displaced throughout the area and being forced to find homes wherever they can, much to the chagrin of homeowners. A few weeks ago, one resident opened her window to find a kitten asleep in her flower box, an adorable tiger who promptly lunged toward the screen and started hissing like a snake. All summer, a homeless cat slept outside on one resident's air-conditioner, gazing longingly into a bedroom where two pampered house cats snoozed lazily on the comforter.

Ferals have formed a little outlaw civilization in Riverside Park, just south of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. Every morning before dawn, while most humans in the neighborhood are still asleep, the dozen animals that comprise this pack emerge from the park and line up on the stone wall along Riverside Drive in anticipation of the arrival of their prime benefactor, a local doorman who feeds them wet food before his morning shift.

Things are especially bad in Howard Beach, Queens. The area, which sits in the shadow of the sleek new AirTrain terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport and is crisscrossed by numerous small inlets from Jamaica Bay, has been host to generations of feral cats, who roam its streets and graze in its yards. In one section, four cats multiplied to an estimated 30 in a matter of months. The thick ridges of eight-foot-tall reeds bordering the swamps are ideal hiding spots.

Much of Howard Beach is not particularly urban. Swans and ducks swim in its ponds, many families dock boats from their back porches, and at least one house has a flock of chickens in its front yard. But the neighborhood is also home to neatly maintained houses that sit on small, winding streets and are fronted by lawns enclosed in fences painted a blinding white. And it is the residents of these houses who are complaining.

By last May, ferals seemed to control the streets. One man could no longer park in his driveway, thanks to a family of cats that held court under one of his cars and refused to budge. The pungent odor of urine from unneutered males and the howls of females in heat permeated the neighborhood's days and nights.

It was then that Robert Schmidt and his fiancée, Lisa Ranallo, decided to take action. Mr. Schmidt, who works as a supervisor at the A.S.P.C.A.'s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital on the Upper East Side, and Ms. Ranallo, who used to work for the A.S.P.C.A., lived near 102nd Street and 160th Avenue, just a few doors from the neighborhood's most recent feral cat hangout.

Over two nights, the couple set about catching the animals in humane traps provided by the A.S.P.C.A. After about 30 cats were caught, an A.S.P.C.A. van arrived in which each of the animals was spayed or neutered. With the help of the local councilman, Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., the cats were billeted overnight at the nearby South Queens Democratic Club. ("While they were there,'' Mr. Addabbo said, "we registered them as Democrats.")

The fixed cats were then released, only to be joined by new arrivals, some of which have taken over an abandoned house near a bridge. A stroll past Riley's Yacht Club on Russell Street confirms the cats' presence. Perched on the stern of a grounded motorboat, a lone, uncollared black tom stared intently at passers-by.

Some feed off garbage spilling from two battered street bins. Others have been welcomed by kindly householders, who set out dishes of food and water in their gardens. Next to one house is an abandoned shack, its padlocked front door open just enough to admit cats seeking shelter in the cold or rain. Cats of all sizes, colors and ages sit curled in one front yard, some boldly ensconced on stair railings and windowsills.

A few look healthy. Others have swollen bellies from worm infestation, or discharge from their eyes that signals upper respiratory infections, highly contagious to cats though not to humans, that will probably prove fatal. Carcasses of dead cats have been found in a nearby parking lot and sometimes in front yards.

But it is another telltale remnant that bothered one resident. "I have two young children, 5 and 6," said a slender woman with blond hair who identified herself only as Joanne. "I can't let them play in the street. But 9 times out of 10, they can't play in the yard." This is because the cats try to bury their feces there. "It's messy and yucky,'' she added. "I can't get it all. The children roll in it. We like to barbecue, but I have to tell people, 'Don't walk there.' '' She considered putting out a litter box, but decided that it would make matters worse.

"The funny thing is,'' she added, "I love animals. I just don't want them to poop on my lawn. This wasn't a problem when we moved here in 1998, but since then they have been multiplying like crazy. I've about had it."

The Beauty in 'Smushed' Faces

Some feral cat stories have a happy ending.

For many years, Cindy Workman, a 42-year-old mixed-media artist who lives in the garment district, owned a black and white house cat named Spike. When Spike died last year, at age 13, Ms. Workman approached her friend Cathe Neukum, a documentary filmmaker who works with the Urban Cat League, seeking advice about finding an adoptable feral. Ms. Neukum took her to the outdoor sanctuary for hard-core ferals near the Lincoln Tunnel that is run by the League, which has placed cats in settings as unlikely as the offices of the Roundabout Theater.

Not all of the cats began as adoption material. For a time, volunteers had to approach a vicious cat they called Dick with bulletproof gloves, though now, after liberal doses of mackerel and laxatives, he is extremely friendly. For Ms. Workman, the League selected a cat more likely to be socialized.

Then she saw a stunted creature with an overbite, a tiny cat who was four years old but looked like six months, and found him too delicious to leave behind. She returned to her loft with two black cats, the large and comparatively confident Roman and also Bobo, her "little cartoon cat."

"Their faces are a little smushed," Ms. Workman admitted. "I think they're beautiful, but obviously they're at the bottom of the beauty pool. They look like bats, or those things that hang upside down in Australia."

At first the cats hid. Then they stopped hiding, but fled when strangers approached. They urinated in pots of plant soil instead of the litter box. When Ms. Workman reprimanded them, they urinated in other places. At first, they scratched her furniture, their claws getting stuck in her leather sofa until she covered their favorite parts with foil.

Ms. Workman was patient, and free with bribes of food. Because she works at home, she could play with them regularly during the day.

Roman and Bobo still do not let her pick them up, but they enjoy being petted, and they no longer hide. Although sudden big gestures frighten them and they run when they hear loud noises, they don't run far in the apartment and they come back.

Ms. Workman recently scolded Roman for using plant dirt as litter, but, she said, "instead of payback, he was fine about being reprimanded.''

"These guys,'' she added with the satisfaction of a proud parent, "they're almost 100 percent.''

Jeff VanDam, John Freeman Gill and Andréa Duncan-Mao contributed reporting for this article.


Traveling with your pets

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