Spring came in New York City almost unnoticed amongst the empty streets and shuttered restaurants. But the ecosystem of the city stops for no virus. Buds still bloom along brownstone-lined blocks and kitten season is still upon us, marking the yearly arrival of thousands of homeless newborn kittens in New York. With the ASPCA and the Animal Care Centres of NYC (ACC) offering only emergency services due to Covid-19, smaller volunteer-run rescue groups find themselves knee-deep in cat rescues.
Instagram (a social media platform), shockingly, has been a massive aid – the platform has immensely altered the way rescue groups function. With tear-jerking posts, heartfelt requests and calls for donations, the organisations are able to gain funding and find transportation to vet appointments as well as foster and permanent homes for rescues. “What we do is inspire people to realise that they can be the person that rescues that cat,” Will Zweigart, founder of a cat rescue, said.
Lisa Scroggins, founder of Little Wanderers, has worked in cat rescue for over a decade. “It just seemed like I was constantly seeing kittens with infected eyes that couldn’t see get squashed by cars, or cats seeking shelter from raw winters go inside car engines and be shocked to death,” the Bronx native told me.
Little Wanderers receives more than 100 Instagram private messages asking for help every day. A new post chronicled the group’s rescue efforts – they saved several dozen litters of kittens in just four days, including four soaked and scared kittens from a garden in the Bronx. “We ended one cycle of generational suffering,” the Instagram caption reads. “We are exhausted just writing this.”
Cat rescue and population control in New York depend on a delicate balance of not-for-profit groups, humane societies, animal shelters and independent volunteer rescuers. And with half of that machine on hiatus due to Covid-19, the future looks dire. If this pandemic bleeds into summer and fall, hundreds of kittens will grow into cats and potential breeders (breeding can start at four months). While we attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve, decades of work fighting rampant cat overpopulation is being reversed.
“We’re going to have to stop doing anything else and just care for hundreds and hundreds of kittens,” Zweigart says, forecasting his organisation’s workload in the next few months. “That is a crisis.”
One female cat and her offspring will produce, on average, 100 cats in seven years. And current feral population estimates for New York City hover in the tens of thousands. Each year, over a million cats nationwide are euthanised and thousands more die, unable to survive cold winters and competitive cat colonies.
“It actually mirrors our healthcare problem,” Zweigart says of the city’s response to the feral crisis. “We have unnecessary suffering and high costs because we’re not providing basic services.”
The standard service he’s referring to is TNR (trap, neuter, return) – the vast majority of which, along side rescues and adoptions, is done by small, not-for-profit organisations. TNR often includes certified experts and months of training. Feral cats are generally aggressive towards or scared of humans and therefore extra-ordinarily tricky to trap. Rescuers will plan with neighbours to withhold food – a hungry cat is more easily trapped. Still, according to Scroggins, about 30% of trapping missions fail. If they are trapped, rescuers will take them in batches to high-volume spay and neuter clinics and, once they are healed, return them outside.
One positive side-effect of the coronavirus pandemic is the influx of foster and adoption applications. But with the closure of public and private shelters, the number of cats continues to outpace the number of foster homes. To fill the gap, one Little Wanderers volunteer shares her home with 11 cats, and Scroggins is reaching capacity as well. “We have five cats and seven dogs already, you know? We live in a studio apartment in Manhattan!” she told me.
Little Wanderers and Flatbush Cats rely on donations for everything from cat food to emergency amputations, but they are down while Little Wanderers’ veterinary bills have increased by 57%. Typically, Flatbush Cats partners with a fellow not-for-profit group, the Toby Project, to operate a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic each month. Little Wanderers relies on the ASPCA to spay and neuter rescues and community cats – the procedures are free for rescue groups. But both the ASPCA and ACC have been forced to halt spay and neuter services. Although organisations protecting animal welfare have been deemed “essential”, new regulations, staff and medical supply shortages, and social distancing protocol make it impossible for them to function normally. Considering the ASPCA provides “tens of thousands of spay/neuter surgeries for owned, homeless and community cats each year”, the impact of the closure will be explosive.
I asked Scroggins how her life had changed since New Yorkers were ordered to shelter in place, and she explained how climbing unemployment rates were affecting even owned animals. Pet owners who previously visited low-cost facilities can no longer afford pet care and shelters that take owner surrenders are closed. Little Wanderers is taking in more owned animals than ever and Scroggins’ agitation is palpable through the phone. “But,” she sighed, “we can’t say no. It’s hard to say no.”
Max, a Little Wanderers volunteer, has been feeding about 80 feral cats for the past 15 years. In response to dense New York living, feral cats form social colonies around available food sources. To support population control efforts, invested citizens can volunteer to become designated feeders, providing the colony a daily meal. “There could be rain, snow or zero degrees and I go outside every single night. It’s just something I cannot stop,” Max said. Feeders also work with rescue groups to help sick or injured colony members and support spay-and-neuter efforts. There are more than 3,100 registered colonies in New York and Max tends to six of them.
But the real heroes, he insisted, were the founders of Little Wanderers, whom he affectionately referred to as the ladies: “Those ladies are incredible.” After he lost his maintenance job at the Lehman Centre for the Performing Arts due to coronavirus closures, the ladies were able to get him a steady supply of cat food through Instagram requests and PayPal donations. He does worry, however, about the coming months. “Right now I have some food for them. But what’s gonna happen in two weeks, three weeks, a month from now, I don’t know.”
Zweigart and several dozen volunteers are attempting to adapt and find ways to make room for more animals. But he maintains a healthy perspective: “None of us can really help animals or each other if we’re all sick.” He urges allies around the city to show up – donate, trap, transport, foster – when some normalcy resumes and shelters are drowning in kittens.
Above all else – above the dwindling resources and growing costs – rescuers, volunteers and feeders are worried about the cats. About the suffering they will endure as the streets go silent. I asked Scroggins what the future held. “I’m nervous,” she said, pausing for a moment to envision it. “I’m very nervous.”