New York has no room at the inn, or rather the cat shelter. This is what I learned last month when, after finding an abandoned kitten named Tito near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I received the same answer from every single one of the dozens of shelters I called: Full. Thus began a quest for information. I love cats — my boyfriend and I have two — and I wanted to know whether my experience having trouble finding Tito a home was unusual.
Historically, kitten season is considered to be spring and summer, but I found Tito in October. If I couldn’t find a home for this one six-week-old kitten, what was happening to the rest of the presumably large stray cat population in New York City? After a dozen phone calls, unreturned emails and bureaucratic dead ends, I now have some answers — many in fact.
I got my first set from Kathryn Willis, the director of Anjellicle Cats Rescue, a small, respected no-kill shelter from which I adopted my cat, Turtle, a spastic and affectionate black and gray one-year-old with a chronic cold, daily sneezing fits and an obsession with laser beams (in spite of being partially blind in one eye).
Willis told me in an e-mail that the recession has played a role in increasing the number of what she calls “owner surrendered animals.” In New York, and undoubtedly elsewhere throughout the country, pet owners struggling to survive financially have made a decision to give their animals up for adoption or abandon them on the street.
“It is certainly evident lately that the economy has played a big part on the influx,” says Willis. “They turn up in the shelter and on the streets.”
Willis’ observations are firsthand, based on the number of cats coming through the doors of Anjellicle, which has operated out of Hell’s Kitchen for around 10 years.
“Adoptions are definitely slower in the last couple of years,” says Willis. In 2009, the organization found homes for 609 cats. Then, in early 2010, Anjellicle added a new permanent space to their tiny cat care center in a pet store on West 49th Street: four cages in a busy Petco, where they diligently held adoption events every Saturday (It was during one of these adoption events, held in a mobile truck in the West Village, that I found Turtle). In spite of the increased visibility, the number of adoptions barely rose that year. “We were working harder with double the exposure than before,” says Willis. “You might think we would have doubled our adoptions but instead the number of adoptions increased to [only] 704.”
The same seemingly disproportionate ratio between Anjellicle’s visibility and adoption rates has continued through 2011, even though the organization now has four locations and holds regular weekend adoption events with dozens of adorable kittens displayed in eye-level cages. “Our adoptions did not significantly increase,” says Willis, “and as of the end of September [of this year], adoptions are up to 516, but I doubt they will top 800, even though we are in four locations now… I would say that 2010 marked the slowdown in adoptions.”
Anjellicle was one of the organizations that didn’t have room when I called about Tito, and it is only one small piece of a hugely diverse collection of cat-related shelters, organizations and services throughout New York City: boarders, spay and neuter clinics, feral cat initiatives, kill shelters, no-kill shelters, private adoption organizations, 501©(3) organizations, the highly recognizable ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and quite a few unlicensed crazy cat ladies with constantly rotating families of foster kittens, several of whom I’ve met at my local pet store.
In sum, the number of resources is daunting and bureaucratic. Seeking city-wide facts and a cohesive portrait of the city’s stray cat landscape, I contacted the ASCPA, the mother of all pet advocacy groups. After a lot of back and forth, I was ultimately referred to the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, a coalition of more than 150 rescue groups and shelters that works in conjunction with New York Animal Care and Control (AC&C), which is the largest pet adoption organization in New York City, to save “treatable” homeless cats and dogs from being killed because there is nowhere to put them.
These rescue groups, which range from huge organizations like the ASPCA to mom and pop orgs like Anjellicle, pull animals from Animal Care & Control of NYC before they are euthanized, as well as accept animals from individuals — the ultimate goal being to save the lives of cats and dogs that are euthanized because there isn’t enough room for them. The Mayor’s Alliance is basically a cooperative relationship and pooling of resources between the biggest players in the city’s adoption and advocacy communities.
“Our goal is to transform NYC by 2015 into a no-kill community,” says Steve Gruber, the Director of Communications for the Alliance, who I spoke to by phone and e-mail. Gruber defines a “no-kill” community as one in which “no healthy or treatable cats and dogs are killed simply because they do not have homes.”
Founded in 2002, the Alliance, like Anjellicle, has also acknowledged a rise in unwanted cats in the years following the “stubborn economy” and “dramatically reduced budgets” that have stemmed from the recession, according to their website. That shelters like Anjellicle have noticed an increase of cats since the economic downturn is “a fair observation,” says Gruber. “Certainly the economy is having an impact,” he adds, noting that the foreclosures that began as a problem in the suburbs have trickled down and manifested into different residential problems in the cities.
Other unavoidable circumstances in addition to high rent and lost homes can cause pet owners to give up their animals, including death, illness or other emergencies. “We’re certainly getting more and more calls like that,” he says. “I think it’s a variety of factors coming into play.”
Speaking with Gruber confirmed the theory that not being able to find a home for Tito in October was atypical. The spring and summer period formerly known as kitten season may be very well on its way to obsolescence.
“Traditionally, ‘kitten season’ referred to the spring and summer months,” says Gruber (a timeframe Kathryn Willis confirms), “but in the last few years, we’re seeing kitten season being a year-round occurrence.”
So what’s the good news to go along with this disheartening information about the mushrooming homeless cat population? Things are getting better. The cat population may have grown but so has the city’s progress in saving treatable animals without homes.
“Intakes have actually been decreasing,” says Gruber, meaning that the number of homeless cats arriving at Animal Care & Control, which euthanizes some cats, has gone down. Cat intake at Animal Care & Control went from 28,379 in 2009 to 23,371 in 2010, according to the Animal Alliance’s 2010 progress report.
There may be many reasons for the decrease in intakes, but one of them is that the 150-plus shelters within the coalition have been “picking up the slack” for the AC&C says Gruber; in other words, doing their job as part of the Mayor’s Animal Alliance by welcoming AC&C cats that would otherwise be euthanized. That Anjellicle has had more intakes is at least partially responsible for why the AC&C has had fewer, which is supposed to be happening.
Gruber thinks another reason for fewer AC&C intakes is that people have become more aware of the cat problem in New York City, and have helped confront the feral cat population, which describes homeless cats who live outdoors, often in colonies, and are not socialized to humans. Tito, the cat I found could have very well come from a feral cat family, though he was on his own when I found him.
This contingent of stray cats is usually unable to assimilate with human owners unless they’re very young, and are thus rarely adoptable. They can be spayed or neutered and returned to the wild, which helps contain their numbers. One group working to this end is the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, a program overseen by the Mayor’s Alliance and another non-profit organization called Neighborhood Cats, which practices (and trains volunteers in) “Trap-Neuter-Return” or “TNR,” an intelligent way to prevent more overpopulation in spite of the fact that the ultimate goal to find a home for each of the thousands of NYC strays isn’t immediately attainable. “While the goal is to find homes for the many adoptable cats and kittens in NYC,” according to Steve Gruber, “the feral cats’ best home is a managed colony where they live outdoors with their colony-mates and are looked after by a trained TNR caretaker. These truly feral cats, un-socialized to humans, aren’t candidates for adoption into homes,” says Gruber. Spaying and neutering is a “key” part in solving the city’s overpopulation problem.
As a result of the Mayor’s Animal Alliance, cooperative efforts with city shelters, more awareness and thus participation in spay and neuter programs for feral and other types of cats, both shelter intakes and the euthanization of treatable cats has decreased. In 2010, euthanizations in New York City fell below 12,000, which is the lowest annual rate in the city’s history. Only 7,847 cats were killed in 2010, compared to 19,487 in 2003, representing a 60-percent drop in seven years.
On top of all this, I have a final piece of good news. In September of this year, legislation was passed that provides hope for even more progress toward the Mayor’s Alliance’s goal to be no-kill by 2015: almost $10 million in funding to shelter animals and services over the next three years. The money will help fund countless new and continuing programs (not including the New York City Feral Cat Initiative).
Preventing euthanasia and saving New York City’s endangered stray cat population is a huge problem, but it comes with achievable solutions. One solution is taking the obvious but often ignored step of getting cats spayed or neutered. Getting my own cats fixed was easy and free. Many organizations such as Anjellicle charge a single adoption fee that includes spay/neuter, microchipping and the initial round of vaccines. It’s an easy and affordable way to ensure that you’re not adding to the number of unwanted cats who risk being killed because there’s nowhere to put them.
After all this, I’m happy to say I eventually found a home for Tito, who’s already had a pretty full and colorful life given his age and origins. He went from a Brooklyn junkyard to an East Village apartment and eventually landed with a nice family in suburban Baltimore, which includes a passel of four adorable red-headed kids and a big backyard, whose longtime family cat recently passed away. He went from starving and scrappy to fat and happy, all because of one wrong turn on a muggy night in Brooklyn and a little effort in understanding the city’s cat community.
If you come across an abandoned kitten or stray cat in New York, you can call a variety of no-kill shelters or foster the cat yourself if the shelter is full (be wary of taking adult feral cats as they might have health problems and are unusually un-adoptable).
Other things you can do:
– Take TNR training yourself. Gruber encourages people to take the training “and become part of the solution… That’s a step towards solving the problem.”