On the surface, New York City cats appear to be anything but an endangered species. They’re leisurely strolling through every bodega from Manhattan to the Bronx. Ironically, a large population might be exactly what makes New York City cats endangered. Correction — some New York City cats. There are so many cats here with homes that it’s produced a subset of strays with nowhere to go.
The catalyst for these observations about the city’s cat population was a small black kitten named Tito, which I rescued earlier this month on a dark and muggy night near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was walking toward the Manhattan Bridge to see a light show, when I took a wrong turn onto a dark street and heard crying from the other side of a chain-link fence bordering a junkyard on Classon Avenue. Two bright white round eyes popped up through the fence and what looked like a huge black rat scurried through a mini-forest of metal and weeds under the fence straight toward my calves while mewing pitifully. The rat, it turned out, was actually a dirty, starving kitten.
To make a long story short, following a near-abduction experience involving some shady characters and a brown paper bag, I grabbed the cat. Scrawny and terrified, I stuffed him down the front of my shirt while speed walking away, back toward the safety of lights and traffic. After a sweaty, mile-long walk through industrial Brooklyn, I finally found a cab at the base of the bridge. Seven dollars later, the cat — who I christened Tito, after the vodka my boyfriend Dave and I’d been drinking the night before — was fast asleep in New York City, where I thought he would remain until the shelters opened in the morning.
Fast forward five days later. After finding Tito, I now had cats representing both categories: two happy spoiled housecats, and their charming, scrappy stray cousin. Not only that, all three of them were spooning on the couch. Tito had already been in our shoebox-sized apartment longer than planned with no definite leads for a permanent home in sight.
I’d called at least a dozen no-kill rescues and shelters, including some of the best: BARC, Anjellicle Cats and Bidawee. All full.
“We don’t have room but you can foster the cat yourself,” wrote a volunteer from Anjellicle in an email.
“My friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s mom might be interested but I’m not sure,” said countless others.
I added a listing to hundreds of “FOUND” pet notices on Craigslist, put a post on Facebook and sent an e-mail to everyone in my personal address book. A few people expressed interest but no one followed through.
I was confused. I had always heard that kitten season is considered to be spring and summer, but city shelters are currently overflowing with hundreds of new, stray or abandoned cats. So many strays are brought in each week that many will be put down before ever finding homes. Others, like Tito, won’t even make it to the shelters because there isn’t enough room, and the odds also don’t seem that great for a cat living on the street based on the dangerous conditions of the “urban wild.” So, while your hipster housecat Bill Clinton might grow up fat and happy — raised on an organic raw meat diet from the holistic pet shop around your East Village corner — odds are his cousins in the Brooklyn junkyard will live a life that’s not quite so lush, or as long.
With Tito growing more comfortable by the day, I vowed to figure out what was behind this confluence of circumstances. Is this fall’s cat surplus due to lax spay and neuter laws, cruel owners or something else entirely? Why are so many cats homeless in New York right now and what are we going to do about it?