at home: A homeless cat peeks out of the boarded-up
door of an Albany building.
by alicia solsman
An underground movement tries out a controversial way to
reduce the homeless cat population that balances humaneness
cats are out there, if you know where to look for them.
It is late afternoon in a downtown alley, and the weekend
quiet of the surrounding streets is only occasionally broken
by a passing car. It is also bitterly cold.
This is a narrow landscape of broken windows and rotting wood,
debris piles and garbage bins. It is a forbidding and even
frightening place in the fading light.
But on this afternoon, three women stand in the alley, trying
to select the best place to set a baited humane trap. With
any luck, in a few hours they will capture a homeless cat
that’s been seen here. Once they catch it, they will have
it spayed or neutered, vaccinated and fed for a couple of
days. Then they will release it back into the alley or—if
it is gentle enough—try to find it a home.
eats there, and I’ve seen it up that stairway,” one of the
women says, gesturing to the back staircase of a commercial
building. “Right behind that building. I think that would
be fine, because all these people here know what I’m doing.”
Her partner sets and baits the trap, and a few minutes later,
the group disperses. One of them will return at regular intervals
that night to check the trap.
Secluded urban areas such as this are the habitat of untold
thousands of homeless cats in the Capital Region. They are
so elusive that their brutal lives and violent deaths often
play out largely unseen by the humans with which they share
a city, and the fleeting glimpses that most people will have
of these cats as they slip in and out of abandoned buildings
give little evidence of their true numbers.
Tough love: Dr. Kelly Cooper of Just Cats veterinary
societies, veterinary associations, animal lovers and community
activists have long debated the best way to manage homeless
cats, which can be a nuisance, a public health problem and
a hazard to domestic pets. For years, the only two approaches
were to euthanize them or try to find them adoptive homes—methods
deemed inhumane and impractical, respectively.
Now, a national movement that advocates a different solution—of
trapping, sterilizing and then releasing homeless cats back
to where they came from—is taking hold in the Capital Region.
This approach, known in its simplest form as “trap-neuter-release,”
is a largely volunteer effort by individuals—usually working
on their own—who catch cats and bring them to a cooperating
veterinarian or humane organization for neutering or spaying
and basic vaccinations before releasing them.
Trap-neuter-release remains controversial, criticized by some
wildlife and conservation groups who say that homeless cats
kill millions of birds a year, and by some humane and veterinary
groups, which object to the idea of returning animals to such
a hardscrabble existence.
But advocates of trap-neuter-release say it is the only way
to gradually reduce the homeless cat population, because most
of these animals will never be adopted.
firm belief is that the future of rescue is not any more in
the re-homing of animals—taking animals that are homeless
and placing them in homes,” says Sue Mahar, a longtime Capital
Region volunteer with various animal shelters and a past co-president
of Whiskers Animal Benevolent League in Albany. “The future
of rescue needs to shift from re-homing to prevention.”
In recent years, Mahar has come to see trap-neuter-release
as an important part of that prevention effort. She is now
a volunteer with the Noah’s Kingdom Humane Society, which
operates at the Petsmart store in the Crossgates Commons in
Guilderland, and she also administers the low-cost spay/neuter
program for the Mohawk Hudson River Humane Society in Menands.
Her years of working with abandoned and feral cats—many of
which live like wild animals in an urban setting—have made
her an unsentimental pragmatist.
I’ve been doing some hard traveling:
Spook, a rescued feral kitten, being weighed at the
I was with Whiskers, we thought that if we got them off the
street, they could be socialized,” Mahar says. “But socializing
an adult feral cat is time-consuming, difficult. . . . I’d
go for virtually impossible. If you use all your time and
space and you fill that up with cats you can’t socialize,
you can’t do anything for the cats that can be socialized
and can find a home.”
ancient Egyptians probably had colonies of homeless cats in
their cities. In the United States today, the population of
homeless cats is generally placed at 50 to 100 million. And
in a city the size of Albany, they number in the thousands.
The broad category of homeless cats includes pets that have
gotten lost or have strayed, cats that have been deliberately
abandoned, and cats that have been born wild and have never
been tamed—the so-called “feral” cats.
When cats have to fend for themselves, they often cluster
in groups known as colonies, which shelter in abandoned buildings.
The colonies are believed to have a cooperative social structure,
in which the cats find food together and survive sub-zero
winter nights in unheated buildings by huddling to share body
warmth, says Dr. Susan Sikule, a Capital Region veterinarian
and the founder of the Just Cats veterinary practice in Guilderland.
Still, most of them survive only a few years on the street,
and die not of old age but of exposure, malnutrition, disease
Sikule is one of a handful of veterinarians in the Capital
Region who advocates and practices trap-neuter-release. Most
of the homeless cats she treats come to her via local shelters
that she works closely with, and she charges whatever a particular
shelter charges its own clients for low-cost spaying and neutering.
Last October, she treated about 20 cats during a daylong free
trap-neuter-release clinic, but sheer numbers prevent her
from doing that on a regular basis, or from doing more than
a limited number of trap-neuter-release treatments at all.
She would like to help bring the disparate trap-neuter-release
efforts in the area under one cooperative regional program,
and has sought the advice of a nationally known organization—Alley
Cat Allies in Washington, D.C.—on the best way to do that.
In the meantime, she plans to continue her solo trap-neuter-release
work, even though some of her colleagues in the Capital Region
veterinary community have criticized her for it.
Sikule acknowledges that it takes a radical change in thinking
for a veterinarian—trained to see an animal through a full
course of treatment and follow-up care—to instead treat an
animal once and then return it to a life of hardship and malnutrition.
Now, when asked if that is difficult for her to do, she quickly
shakes her head and says, “I’m helping them.”
She vaccinates the cats against rabies and distemper (a highly
contagious, often fatal viral infection), in addition to sterilizing
them. But, in accordance with the recommendation of Alley
Cat Allies, she does not test homeless cats for the viruses
that cause feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency, even
though an infected cat can spread these serious and often
fatal illnesses to other cats.
come full circle,” Sikule says. “I can remember the first
time somebody approached me, I was like, ‘Oh, no, I have to
test.’ ” Now, she reasons, given that these viral infections
may afflict as little as 3 percent of the homeless cat population,
it’s more cost effective not to test and to use that time
and money instead to sterilize other cats. (Sikule’s approach,
while shared by many advocates of trap-neuter-release, is
not uniformly accepted. The Humane Society of the United States,
for example, advocates testing all trapped cats for feline
leukemia/immunodeficiency, so that infected cats won’t be
released back to their colonies.)
For Sikule, the importance of addressing the homeless cat
population was reinforced in April 2004, when one of her regular
volunteers brought in a trapped homeless male cat. Sikule
neutered and vaccinated the cat, and the volunteer took it
back to her home. Just before the volunteer released the cat,
she noticed it seemed ill, and she brought it back to Sikule
for an examination. The cat—which Sikule euthanized—turned
out to be rabid.
Seeking alley cats: volunteer with a
humane trap in an alley known to harbor homeless cats.
many volunteers working in trap-neuter-release programs will
never see a rabid cat—Sue Mahar said Sikule’s account is the
first one she has heard of in 20 years of work with animal
shelters—homeless cats can be a public health problem and
a nuisance. But colonies of feral cats are tolerated in a
way packs of roaming feral dogs never would be, because they
are so easy to forget and ignore.
New York state law requires cats to be vaccinated for rabies
whenever possible. But, because state law also considers cats
free-roaming animals, officials in Albany County and the city
of Albany say that just about the only time they take any
action on a homeless cat is when they get a report of one
that might be rabid.
Cohoes did organize a trap-neuter-release program five years
ago to address its homeless cat population, and that effort
that has been continued by volunteers working with the city’s
cooperation, says Mayor John McDonald. Nationally, certain
cities—such as Indianapolis, San Diego and Washington, D.C.—have
become known for their well-organized efforts to manage and
reduce their homeless cat colonies, through trap-neuter-release
programs that blend volunteer efforts with the cooperation
of nonprofit groups and municipal authorities.
But cats aren’t on the radar screen of most municipalities,
and it’s unlikely that cash-strapped upstate New York communities
will take on the task of managing their homeless cat colonies
if they aren’t already doing so. Of course, trap-neuter-release
advocates point out that it’s cheaper to sterilize a cat in
a one-time, quick, in-and-out visit to a veterinarian than
to shelter it for days or weeks and then eventually euthanize
it. They also note that the few studies done on trap-neuter-release
programs indicate they actually can reduce the local homeless
And so, organized approaches to homeless cats are rare in
the Capital Region, even though groups such as the Humane
Society of the United States and the American Association
of Feline Practitioners point out that it’s going to take
a broad-based public response, led by government agencies,
to reduce their numbers.
Yet government agencies don’t see this as part of their missions,
says Dr. James Richards, immediate past president of the American
Feline Health Association and the director of the Cornell
Feline Health Center at the Cornell at the Cornell University
College of Veterinary Medicine. “I see it as a big educational
problem. Concerned individuals are really going to be nothing
more than spark plugs that have to try to change behaviors.
Public education is extremely important.”
But a number of professional veterinary and wildlife groups
oppose trap-neuter-release efforts, says Dr. Paul Barrows,
a Texas veterinarian and the immediate past president of the
Wildlife Disease Association. In addition to his own group,
the list of opposing organizations includes the American Association
of Wildlife Veterinarians; the Association of Avian Veterinarians;
the Wildlife Society, an organization of professional wildlife
biologists; and the International Association of Fish and
is an emotional issue for people who don’t want to kill cats,”
Barrows says. “I don’t, either. There are a number of solutions
other than euthanizing them. That’s our last choice.”
Captured homeless cats can be adopted, moved to managed sanctuaries,
or used in biomedical research, Barrows says.
is a threat to public health,” he says. “And there is a deception
here, too: If it is considered inhumane and ill-advised and
in most cases illegal to abandon animals, how can it be humane
to re-abandon them?”
Smith sees cats. She spots them in places that other people
pass without seeing, a talent she developed in a rural childhood.
would show up; my mom actually would take them in and adopt
them. I guess it’s in the blood,” says Smith. “And in every
new location that I’ve moved to, it seems I’m faced with a
new population of cats. And because of my upbringing, I see
them. Most people don’t see them. I guess the radar is there.”
Lisa Smith is not her real name; like the other volunteer
cat-trappers interviewed for this article, she asked that
her name and other identifying features of her work with homeless
cats not be revealed. The reasons are many. The people working
in trap-neuter-release efforts are often women, working solo
in isolated urban areas at night. They don’t want their trapping
sites revealed, for fear that people bent on cruelty will
find the trapped cats first. And, although they often work
with the tacit permission of property owners, they worry that
municipal authorities will somehow decide that what they are
doing is illegal, just because it is unorthodox.
They also don’t advertise their efforts because they don’t
want their front lawns to become the neighborhood dumping
ground for unwanted cats and kittens. But theirs is a small
community, and they often end up finding each other through
word of mouth. Smith says that when she moved to the Capital
Region from Indianapolis a few years ago, one of the first
things she did was try to locate the key players in the homeless
It is difficult work, requiring a volunteer to return to a
baited trap every hour or so through the night, because a
stressed, trapped cat is highly susceptible to shock and exposure.
Some homeless cats are fed by concerned neighbors.
and her cat-trapping partners try to place cats in adoptive
homes whenever possible. Nature allows an incredibly narrow
window of time to tame a kitten that’s born homeless: Once
it reaches about six weeks, it’s almost impossible to get
it to accept human contact, they say. Patient volunteers sometimes
succeed in taming slightly older kittens, but shelters don’t
have the staff or time for such intensive effort. No-kill
shelters usually won’t accept feral cats at all, and shelters
that euthanize animals generally kill any feral cats they
This night’s work is a success, because one of Smith’s trapping
partners later finds a cat in one of the two traps they have
set. The cat is deemed suitable for placement, and a few days
later, the newly spayed and vaccinated cat goes to her adoptive
The standard cost to have a trapped cat sterilized and treated
through a private veterinarian is about $200, these women
say. Cat-trappers try to negotiate reduced fees or find a
shelter that will work with them for a lower cost on cats
that are not household pets. Truly feral cats cannot be handled
without being sedated; they can rip a person’s hands and arms
to shreds, and not every veterinarian or shelter will work
with them. Veterinarians participating in trap-neuter-release
programs have to sedate such cats through the bars of the
trap or cage.
Other cat-trappers, like Smith’s partners, prefer to work
with certain private veterinarians with whom they have an
established, comfortable relationship, and they pay the higher
fee and pull the money together through donations or their
Smith’s partners teamed up three years ago, and they estimate
that they catch about 30 cats a year. That number might not
seem large enough to make a dent in the homeless cat population,
but trap-neuter-release advocates look for small victories
in this frustrating work. A female cat usually bears two litters
of three to five kittens a year; a male cat can impregnate
dozens of females during a mating period. So Smith’s partners
conservatively reason that they have prevented the birth of
hundreds of unwanted cats.
And it may be that efforts such as theirs, which call for
donated time and unlimited patience, will catch more cats
than a massive sweep by inexperienced municipal authorities,
because homeless cats are notoriously skittish and scatter
at the slightest hint of danger. Sue Mahar, the longtime shelter
volunteer and activist, tells of sitting in her car once years
ago for eight hours in sub-zero weather, waiting for a single
cat that knew her to enter a trap she had set.
tell people, ‘If you see one, there’s probably 10,’ ” Mahar
says. “And they think, ‘I’ll just call someone to trap these
cats, and they’ll go away.’ Well, that’s not going to work,
because if they don’t recognize the scent of the person, they
won’t go near the trap.”
question of whether to feed a colony of homeless cats is even
more controversial than the trap-neuter-release concept. Organizations
that have addressed this issue have developed carefully worded
policies that endorse the feeding of homeless cats by “caregivers,”
as long as the feeding is combined with a number of strict
conditions. Some of the more common conditions cited in these
policy statements include a public education campaign about
the pros and cons of feeding, mandatory registration of the
caregivers with municipal authorities, and allowing a managed
cat colony only in an area where the cats cannot threaten
Even the Audubon Society—which estimates that feral and free-ranging
cats kill hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion
small mammals every year—has weighed in on the issue. In a
draft statement slated for a vote by the statewide chapters
next month, Audubon New York opposes the feeding of feral
or free-ranging cats.
The draft statement also urges the New York State Department
of Environmental Conservation to conduct a study of the feral
cat population’s effect on wildlife, “with special attention
to the feral cat ‘colonies’ maintained on public park lands
by well meaning, but misguided individuals who proclaim their
love of cats.”
Those are a few of the official positions. In the real world,
there are people like Camilla Frances and Nigel Johnson, who
find it difficult to look the other way, and who and work
out their own solution as best they can.
Frances and Johnson moved to Albany’s downtown Mansion Neighborhood
a few years ago from Columbia County. They had previously
owned dogs and never would have classified themselves as cat
enthusiasts. But a young and apparently homeless cat started
showing up at their back windows, and Frances and Johnson
started feeding her. This went on for a few months, until
the cat disappeared in November 2003.
Frances and Johnson were on their way to a friend’s home for
Thanksgiving dinner when the cat reappeared at their back
door, obviously badly injured. They postponed their dinner
plans, took the cat to a veterinarian and learned that she
had been hit by a car. She recovered, but she lost an eye,
and Frances and Johnson decided to keep her.
Gradually, they became aware of the other cats in their backyard,
and took a couple more to their veterinarian for treatment.
had a long, philosophical talk with the vet about, ‘What should
we do?’ ” recalls Johnson. Their vet urged them not to feed
the cats, and they did stop for a while. In the meantime,
they tried to gauge the interest in their neighborhood about
organizing a homegrown trap-neuter-release program, while
feeding the cats that already existed.
soon as we started to make some inquiries, we were told by
some people who had tried it before that we should back off,
that it was very controversial,” Johnson says. They decided
to feed just the cat colony in their backyard, treat what
cats they could catch and place as many in adoptive homes
as possible. (Holly Katz, board chairman of the Mansion Neighborhood
Association, says that Frances and Johnson have been commendably
forthright about their work with the cats and that residents
have been understanding and accepting of their efforts.)
The approach taken by Frances and Johnson is a variation of
“managing” a colony: keeping it as healthy as possible by
feeding it, while trying to find homes for adoptable cats.
Many—although not all—organizations that take a stance on
homeless cat populations approve of managed colonies, as long
as the goal is the eventual elimination of the colony through
attrition and sterilization.
Dr. Jan Scarlett, a veterinarian at the Cornell University
College of Veterinary Medicine and an expert on shelter medicine,
understands the dilemma faced by people like Frances and Johnson.
a person, I’m a veterinarian because I care about animals,”
she says. “I’m concerned about their welfare, so I have a
hard time telling someone, ‘You shouldn’t feed these animals.’
On the flip side, yes, they’ll be better nourished, less resistant
to disease and they’ll also be better able to reproduce and
they’ll survive longer. That’s why I’m an advocate of trap-alter-release.”
past two years have included some hard lessons for Frances
and Johnson. For now, they are keeping four cats they have
taken in, although they are trying to find homes for two.
They have placed one cat. Finding homes even for kittens is
extremely difficult, as they have learned; once the kittens
begin to mature, the difficulty ratchets up several notches.
They became discouraged about dealing with shelters, after
a local shelter accidentally euthanized a kitten even though
they had signed paperwork stating their desire to take it
back if it could not be placed. Two other kittens they took
to the same shelter contracted distemper there, and one died.
Frances and Johnson were deeply upset at the time, but understand
that such occurrences are the result of the incredibly overcrowded
conditions at most shelters.
don’t think that you can hold the shelter responsible; they’re
doing the best they can,” Frances says.
For now, Frances and Johnson plan to continue managing their
think first of all, it’s partly our responsibility,” Johnson
says. “They’re out there. As a society, we do have a responsibility
to help them as much as we can. We would not have considered
ourselves cat people. And here we are, with four cats in the
house who have given us a lot of pleasure. They give so much;
they ask so little.”
And that hits upon the underlying philosophical issue about
homeless cats, one that transcends all the scientific studies
about their reproduction rates and the conflicting opinions
about how many birds they really do kill each year: Humans
are the reason there are millions of homeless cats in the
first place, and like it or not, humans are going to have
to figure out a way to reduce their numbers.
need to care about these animals,” says Dr. Jan Scarlett at
Cornell. “We’re responsible. A very large percentage of the
animals on the street have been previously owned. We’re responsible
for them being there.”
Sue Mahar is even more blunt. Although the no-kill movement
in shelters is gaining ground, millions of dogs and cats each
year are still euthanized in the United States because they
cannot be placed and shelters are so overcrowded. Those numbers
should convince even skeptics to give the trap-neuter-release
approach a try, she says.
aesthetically acceptable to most rational people who don’t
want to kill animals just because they’re alive,” Mahar says.
“When you have perfectly healthy adoptable animals that are
being euthanized because there aren’t enough adoptive homes,
it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the
feral cats will be euthanized.”