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Lovers of feral cats prowl the world’s streets

Caring for the whiskered and wild is unpaid, unheralded, unappreciated work. So what do people get out of it?

By Jim Sullivan

Every morning, Diane Brown, 67, leaves her house at 6:30 a.m., carrying eight cans of cat food. She walks a mile and a half to a parking lot behind a Boston hospital, where she delivers a meal to a colony of five feral cats whom she’s given affectionate names: Mona, Clyde, Maggie, Harry, and Softie.

She’s been doing this for 14 years, through feline births and deaths and mysterious disappearances, through her own layoff and unemployment — never taking a cat home, or even petting it. “I’ve never missed a day,” says the retired insurance company worker. “If it wasn’t for these cats, I wouldn’t be so healthy.”

Animal-welfare groups estimate that anywhere from 50 million to 100 million feral, stray, or homeless cats prowl the United States alone. (The estimates are rough because cats, due to their innate independence, tend to resist human measurement.)

Almost as hard to count is the army of people who care for those cats. Some do it alone, but more often they form loose volunteer networks and ad hoc rescue agencies with catchy names: Holy Land Cats in Jerusalem; Charles River Alley Cats in Boston; Plataforma Gatera in Barcelona.

The work is unpaid, unheralded, and, it’s fair to say, largely unappreciated by its beneficiaries. Those of us with pet housecats know that a key part of the relationship is tactile: the head-butting, the paw-kneading, the affectionate licking, the purring. Feral cats don’t do any of that.

And yet, the humans keep at it. Paula De Jong estimates that she’s helped close to 1,000 cats in 19 years across eastern Massachusetts, getting barely a purr in return. Nevertheless, she gets satisfaction from her duties. “They know you and bond — within limitations,” she says. “There’s recognition at some level of what you’re doing.”

Feral cats have always inspired a mix of concern and dismissiveness in humans, with the exact proportions varying by time and place. Some people see the cats as nuisances, carriers of disease, killers of innocent songbirds. For years, the most common response to overpopulation was calling animal control officers, who would send feral cats to kill shelters.

“In the early days, there was nobody you could call to get help for the cats. We could only get assistance in trapping them and removing them, which meant killing them,” says Becky Robinson, founder of the Maryland-based advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. “We didn’t want that. We needed a culture shift.”

Becky Robinson, founder of the Maryland-based advocacy group Alley Cat Allies. 2007 photo by Michel Du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images

So advocates pushed hard, worldwide, for more humane treatment of cats and greater recognition for the work of cat welfare. Cat lovers in several countries — including Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Australia, Mexico, and Pakistan — now observe Global Cat Day, a holiday founded by Alley Cat Allies, every October 16. Living alongside feral cats, as humans have done for millennia, has been celebrated in the 2016 documentary film “Kedi,” about the stray cats of Istanbul, Turkey, and the humans who care for them.

“I didn’t know what a feral cat was, that such a thing existed, that there was an issue. But once you know, it’s very hard to look away.”

And a backlash against the widespread euthanizing of unwanted cats has helped advocates lobby for non-lethal alternatives. Barcelona-based cat advocate Agnès Dufau, the first recipient of the International Cat Welfare award, urges greater government support for the new gold standard for feral cat care: a process known as trap-neuter-return, or TNR: trapping the cats, transporting them to vets who spay or neuter them, then releasing them into their habitats — if the cats are truly feral — or fostering them in the hopes they can become pets.

“Rescuing is a one-shot satisfaction, very powerful and very needed,” Dufau says via email. “Working on local regulations, laws, lobbying, and education is very different, and very rewarding too. We are making people change and we are giving feral cats a better life.”

The trap-neuter-return strategy is popular in the U.S.: In a 2018 poll from Harris Interactive, 84 percent of Americans said they prefer sterilization to kill shelters as a public cat control policy.

But for the volunteers who carry out the process — luring cats into narrow cages with food, then swiftly covering the cage with a blanket or towel to keep the cat from panicking — is a stressful labor of love.

Joni Nelson feeds cats in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston in 2014. Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“The cats are very smart, tough customers and they have to be very hungry to get them to go in the traps,” says Joni Nelson, founder of the rescue group Boston’s Forgotten Felines, which feeds 200 cats per day.

And the human resistance to feral cat care, she says, can cross from aloof to outright mean. Once, she approached a house where she’d been feeding ferals and the owner had stuck up a handwritten sign: “Stop feeding these cats.” The sign was supported with bottles of anti-freeze. Nelson got the message — stop or I’ll poison them. She stopped going there.

“For some reason, a lot of people do not want cats in their neighborhood. They scream at us as if we put them there, as if we’re the problem,” Nelson says. “But if it wasn’t for us [trapping and neutering them], you’d have hundreds more.”

Early on a summer Sunday morning, 19 cats in covered cages are resting in silence in a room at Boston’s Angell Memorial – MSPCA animal hospital. About 25 volunteers, all wearing sanitary rubber gloves, prepare for a series of spaying and neutering operations.

Some cats who wind up at Angell’s animal shelter are known as “friendlies” — cats that likely once had a home, but were abandoned by their owners. The friendlies have the best chance of being re-socialized and adopted.

But most of the cats here today are feral. For many, this will be the only time in their lives they’ll be touched by human hands. At the end of the day, they’ll have an ear clipped to signify their sterilization and will be released.

Sheila Mageski, a vet technician and founder of the cat-welfare group Commonwealth Cats, is running this show, scurrying about the connected rooms: one for prep and one for surgery. There, four veterinarians rotate among three tables, spaying and neutering the anesthetized cats splayed before them as soft music plays in the background.

Mageski is businesslike, but there’s a smile on her face as she goes about her tasks with precision. Feeling the abdomen of one cat, Mageski says, “I don’t think she’s pregnant.”

“Thank goodness,” says Debbie Schreiber, a volunteer feral cat trapper, who sports a T-shirt with a cat’s paw print emblazoned on it. Moving on to another cat, Schreiber quickly assesses the situation: “This guy looks like a dump job.” That is, he’s a previously owned feline who’d become unwanted and cast-off.

It’s a highly active scene, but also methodical and orderly, the actions performed by people well-schooled in their repetitive tasks. It’s inspiring and hopeful — these cats have never been treated so well — but, of course, lined with sadness, too. Chances are most of these cats will spend their life in the wild, and life expectancy out there is not high.

“For some of these cats, this is the only veterinary care they will ever see in their lifetime,” says Dylan Cozart, 32, the only man in the group, a vet tech who is on post-op duty. That includes checking the heart rate, body temperature, and gum color, giving fluids, administering rabies and distemper shots, and applying a topical treatment to prevent fleas, ticks, and heartworms. “We make sure every little detail about their health is taken care of before we release them again,” Cozart says.

The vet techs check the cats for fleas, vaccinate them, and check their mouths for disease. Volunteers shave the cats’ reproductive areas pre-surgery, get them in and out of cages, move them about the rooms to the vet techs and vets and offer each other emotional support.

“I think I’m addicted to volunteering,” says Kami Ngamsathaponchai, whose t-shirt says “PURRIDE.” “It’s all about keeping the cats alive and healthy. I save a life or get them to be in a better situation than they were before. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

When Angell started this free clinic in 2004, Mageski — who prefers the term “community cats” over “feral” — says the hospital was admitting 50 to 70 cats per month for spaying or neutering and vaccination. The numbers are lower now — 15 to 25 a month— which Mageski attributes to the success of the operation and this army of volunteers, people like Toni Metaxatos, who has been caring for six cat colonies in the city of Lowell for 12 years.

Indeed, for many volunteers, the work of caring for ferals has become a calling, and even an identity. Kit Lilly, who founded the Massachusetts rescue agency Charles River Alley Cats, works with 20 shelter partners and estimates that she has helped 11,000 cats since the cold winter day, nearly 20 years ago, when a stray cat showed up at her back door.

Lilly gave him food and water and put out a covered box for shelter. That led to volunteering at a shelter one town over — and a shelter shift partner, a female police officer, who “discovered all these colonies of cats living in a junkyard,” says Lilly.

“I literally didn’t know what a feral cat was, that such a thing existed, that there was an issue. But once you know, it’s very hard to look away.” Lilly now spends part of the year on a small island off Cancun with her boyfriend, a veterinarian, helping care for the island’s ferals.

After cats are neutered and released, most return to their colonies. Sympathetic neighborhood people continue to feed them and give them shelter. My wife, Roza, puts out bowls of food and water for feral cats and sets out two little cat condos lined with moth-eaten cashmere sweaters. Not being able to touch or hold the ferals doesn’t factor in. “It doesn’t matter if it’s reciprocal,” Roza says. “People that do this have an innate compulsion to protect and care.”

Tova Saul is the founder of Holy Land Cats, a volunteer group in Jerusalem. Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Around the world, cat advocates talk the same way about how they got hooked. When Tova Saul moved to Jerusalem for college, she discovered a month-old kitten, crying. She snuck him into her dorm, then went door-to-door asking people if they could adopt him — launching Holy Land Cats, a volunteer effort so well-known that it has been featured on the National Geographic Channel.

“I never hesitated when seeing kittens on their own, as I learned that the vast majority of kittens die on the streets before even becoming adults,” Saul says via email.

Many volunteers cite those same motivations: a sense of urgency, a pull toward innocence, a purity of purpose. Feral cats have “the underdog thing going,” says Lauren Kreisberg, a special education teacher who cares for cats in Boston. “The cats are out there through no fault of their own. Somebody got a cat, never got it neutered and later, it had kittens and they tossed them out.”

Saul lovingly doles out her cat snacks to adoring hordes that curl around her feet in the streets of Old City, Jerusalem. Her customers, on urban terrain, are accustomed to people and friendly, unlike most feral cats, who disdain human interaction.

Sometimes, Saul will get a call from someone about a sick street cat. Can she come and trap it? Of course. Saul believes her calling is 24/7.

“I get [satisfaction in] the knowledge that I have snuffed out a bit of suffering in the world,” she says.

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.


Top photo of Tova Saul in Jerusalem by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images


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