Cat lovers seek humane solution
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Rockland County’s feral cat population has soared in recent years to an estimated 50,000 stray felines living in hundreds of small colonies in abandoned buildings, backyards and wooded areas from Palisades to Bear Mountain to Suffern, and every community and park in between.
Until now, public policy in Rockland has been to generally ignore these secluded colonies. If they can’t be ignored because of community pressure, the goal has mostly been to contact local animal control officers to locate and capture the neighborhood nuisances and take them to one of the county’s two animal shelters.
End of problem?
While both the Hi-tor Animal Care Shelter and the Hudson Valley Human Association, coincidentally located a few miles apart in rural Pomona, are nominally “no kill” shelters, they eventually have no choice but to euthanize most of these unadoptable and unwanted cats in order to make room for the thousands of other cats and dogs they do eventually place with loving new families.
Cat lovers find this situation unacceptable, but until recently have found no alternative. Starting this year, however, hundreds of Rocklanders have joined forces to create the Community Cat Initiative, charging themselves with just that: protecting and assisting the area’s feral cat population to the best of their ability, while also trying to solve the over-arching problem on a long-term basis by dwindling the stray cat population through a process of natural attrition.
The cat lovers have been communicating mostly by social media so far, and have found kindred spirits in every town, village and hamlet throughout the county, and far beyond.
Pot Luck Kickoff
Sunday, they actually met for the first time, when more than 100 gathered at the famous “Castle” of famed animal rights activist Dr. Martha McGuffie on a wooded hillside along South Mountain Road in rural northern New City.
Officially, the gathering was a potluck dinner fund-raising event to kick off the creation of a documentary film on the feral cat problem tentatively called “Catnip Nation,” being produced and directed by Valley Cottage filmmaker and activist Tina Traster.
Hosting the event was the new owner of McGuffie’s castle (she died a few years ago, and her estate was eventually subdivided and sold) Nixie Gueits, who greeted her guests with open arms and an open heart, and plenty of tables for the platters of food they brought with them as part of the price of admission to the combined inaugural gathering/fund-raising pitch/pot luck dinner/social event.
The evening began with welcoming addresses by Traster, Gueits and other organizers, including Rockland State Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, Jr. The state legislator promised he would seek out governmental assistance in the form of grants and any legislation that may be required to officially formalize the group’s objectives.
In her opening remarks, Traster said the feral cat problem is “enormous” in America, with an estimated 90 million stray cats from coast to coast. About 400 communities in the 50 states have already officially adopted a policy similar to Rockland’s Community Cats Initiative, Traster said, in which strays are never euthanized, are assisted with food, water and shelter while remaining in the wild, and having a goal of gradually reducing the population over time until the colonies eventually disappear through attrition.
Spaying and neutering plays a big role in the long-term strategy. Whenever a cat is spayed or neutered, the tip of its left ear is always clipped, Kathy Lamb told the crowd, so that people finding the same cat later on will know the procedure has already been done, and does not need to be repeated. The procedure is used world-wide, she added, noting that feral cat populations are so widespread that in Italy there is a specific colony called the “Coliseum Cats” who actually live in that famed historical structure.
In Rockland, about 250 stray cats were rescued last year, Lamb said, resulting in 105 adoptions, 70 new medical interventions and the remainder being returned to their colonies. She added that there are three options to the stray cat problem, ranging from the least favored to the most favored reactions.
Discoverers of colonies can “do nothing,” the first option, which results in the colony continuing to reproduce and grow larger, rather than smaller. The second option is to “call animal control,” usually through local police departments, let the control officer find, trap and haul the cats away, usually to be euthanized because shelters won’t accept them.
The favored method of control is the third, called Trap – Neuter – Release, or TNR, which involves trapping the entire colony, neutering and spaying them all (and so indicating with the ear tipping), and then returning them to their natural setting where they can no longer reproduce causing the colony to eventually disappear through attrition but allowing the living cats to enjoy an otherwise normal life.
Traster explained that feral cats cannot be adopted because they are not “people friendly” and will simply run away if brought to a home. Like other shelters throughout the region, Rockland’s two can only keep cats and dogs specific lengths of time before they must be euthanized to make room for new arrivals. This can be for up to a year in some situations, but is almost never longer.
Debbie DiBinado, president of the Hi-tor Shelter agreed with Traster’s description, explaining that Hi-tor has limited space, staff and funding, and cannot accommodate acceptance of feral cat colonies. Even single cat admissions are only allowed for “people friendly” cats, such as unwanted pets, she said, which can more easily be adopted.
If and when Hi-tor is able to move to a new location they may have more room and be able to accept feral strays, she added, but the agency has no timetable yet for such a move and space will still be limited. A potential new site in Orangeburg has yet to be finalized with Orangetown, she explained, and it will take another year to construct new facilities there when and if an agreement is eventually reached.
In the meantime, Hi-tor is one of the three Rockland organizations that are cooperating in the creation of the new Community Cats Initiative, or CCI, DiBinado explained. The others, which were also present at Sunday’s event, are Care About The Strays (CATS) and 4 Legs Good. No one representing the Humane Society shelter identified themselves Sunday.
Leaders of the CCI said they had two immediate goals following Sunday’s organizational meeting.
The first is to promote awareness of the feral cat problem throughout Rockland’s 320,000 human population, while the second is to get every organization and every governmental agency to formally adopt a T-N-R policy. A third, so-far unofficial, goal is to have every cat that is processed through T-N-R given a rabies shot before being released back to their colonies.
Traster showed a 5-minute trailer of her planned hour-long video Saturday, to warm applause from the appreciative and supportive audience. The finished product will be a full-length documentary that she hopes to enter into national and international competitions when it is completed. Saturday’s pot luck dinner at the Castle” also served as a fund-raiser for the film.
Included in the presentation was a shorter film on one of the battle’s “unsung heroes,” a Rockland woman from Stony Point who has adopted a 15-cat colony far in the woods behind her rural home. Called “Andrea’s Colony,” the clip spotlights a woman who escaped an abusive marriage two decades ago, finally found a new companion who is “cat friendly” and has spent the past 13 years caring for her adopted colony. Often in tears, she tends to her colony 365 days a year, in summer heat and winter blizzard, with little to no outside assistance.
Traster said the largest dangers to the existing feral cat colonies in Rockland are upset neighbors who want them out of their neighborhoods (often expressing fear of rabies as their primary goal), developers who want to wipe out the colonies so they can building housing or commercial structures on their habitats, and uneducated public officials who agree to help exterminate the colonies without exploring more humane alternatives. After Traster thanked Zebrowski for his attendance and support, officials of the Community Cats Initiative also questioned aloud why Rockland State Senator David Carlucci, who did not attend Sunday’s event, voted against a Trap-Neuter-Release bill in the state legislature last year, without ever seeking input from local experts.
In concluding the event, Traster said interested Rockland residents and organizations wanting additional information on funding the new CCI documentary film can contact her at www.catnipnation.com. The Community Cat Initiative is still in formation and does not have a website or phone yet, but DiBernado said she can be reached at 845-354-7900 or on the web at Debbie@hitor.org.