It’s a sunny April day in Queens and a group of four women and two men stand outside of a house chatting amicably. At 11:15 a.m., a large truck, with a picture of a cat and dog on its side, turns onto the one-way street, narrowly avoiding parked cars, and stops in front of the group.
A man jumps down from the front seat of the truck and greets the group in a familiar way. When he pulls the back door open, the noise of the neighborhood fades into the background, overpowered by the sound of barking and scratching.
“They’re here!” Linda Bryant says.
Bryant knows this ASPCA truck and its driver well. Her non-profit, Linda’s Feral Cat Assistance, works with them regularly. To help reduce the city’s feral cat population and keep cats off the euthanasia list, she and her team of volunteers captures feral cats every few weeks and sends them to the ASPCA to be neutered.
“You’ve only got to have one cat that’s not spayed and then you’ve got the problem starting all over again,” says Bryant.
Tens of thousands of feral cats can be found on the streets of New York, according to the ASPCA. While they shy away from humans, they can be very disruptive as female cats cry out while in heat and male cats spray to mark their territory. And they have a tendency to multiply very quickly.
To combat this, a program called Trap, Neuter, Return, was put into effect in the five boroughs 15 years ago, though its roots date back to the 1950s in England. Feral cats are trapped, spayed or neutered, and then returned to the streets.
“Unchecked, they can become quite a problem…Neighborhoods can see a decline in quality of life,” said Kathleen O’Malley, the director of education at the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, a non-profit working to teach people how to trap feral cats. “When you have too high populations of cats, it’s not good for the cats’ health either. The food source is stressed. It’s just better for everybody’s quality of life, humans and cats, to get as many of these community cats spayed and neutered as possible.”
Bryant’s group is now one of many organizations throughout the city that work to keep the feral cat numbers under control. And she’s just one of hundreds of people working to stop the problem.
“I know we’ve done a lot and not just us. There’s so many groups doing it now everyday,” Bryant said.
Bryant got the idea to form a group to help with feral cats when she moved to Woodside, Queens 14 years ago. She was overwhelmed by the number of stray cats on the street. So with the help of a friend she posted flyers, rented a room from the local library and started an initiative to neuter and spay feral cats. Sixty-five people showed up to their first meeting and that was that. She founded her non-profit.
Linda’s Feral Cat Assistance now traps between 15 and 35 cats once or twice a month, but they usually limit the number because of space restrictions. The traps they use are humane. They are placed in the open when Bryant or one of her volunteers receives a call about a feral cat being spotted. Food is placed in the back, and when the cat steps into the cage and onto the plate inside, a door closes behind it.
“Once you start trapping, you have to keep going. It becomes a bit of an obsession,” Bryant said. “You don’t want to see any cats out there that are not neutered. You just don’t.”
Once the cats are trapped, they are taken to an organization like the ASPCA, and they are neutered or spayed and given their shots. Then, they are returned to the group that caught them. Back in April, when the ASPCA returned the latest crop of animals, the group waiting on the Queens sidewalk unloaded trap after trap from the truck onto the driveway. A thick sheet covered each. No light enters the cages, a measure, Bryant says, to keep the cats calm.
The cats will spend the next three days with Bryant’s volunteers before they are returned to the streets where they were found. They will be housed in every nook and cranny Bryant and her volunteers can spare. In this group of new returnees, two cats will be moved to the streets immediately because the ASPCA has informed Bryant they were lactating, which means they recently had kittens. So they need to be in the wild to feed and protect them once more.
The house on 77th Street in Queens belongs to one of Bryant’s volunteers, who did not want to reveal her name because of neighborhood issues. It is packed to the brim with cats. Cages crowd the front room and garage and Bryant explains that more cats will be housed in the basement. Overall, the neighbors have been understanding, but there have been a few complaints that Bryant is hesitant to expand on.
In some rare cases, the cats are not returned to the streets and instead put up for adoption. All of the cats up for adoption will be listed on her website. Linda’s Feral Cat Assistance also makes use of various partnerships with stores throughout Manhattan. But this only occurs if the cat is social with humans or if it is a kitten, and therefore could easily learn to be around people.
Bryant takes home some of the cats too, until she can find them a permanent home. She chatted happily about the cats she has taken care of: a pre-diabetic cat that’s slightly overweight, another that she rescued from the euthanasia list, and many more.
Those that return to the streets do so in much better shape than when they left. Best of all, their left ears are now clipped so that if Animal Control picks them up in the future, they will be given to an organization like Bryant’s rather than euthanized. “That’s very important,” Bryant said. Because 41 percent of cats that enter shelters in the United States are euthanized, which equates to 1.4 million a year, according to the ASPCA.
“I get that euthanasia list every day and once summer comes, there’ll be 50 kittens on there a night being put to sleep,” Bryant said. “Because there’s just not enough room. There’s not enough homes. And rescue can only take so many.”
Bryant would save every cat on the list if she could, but she is limited by space and monetary restrictions. Her non-profit relies primarily on donations from the public and grants.
“We never ask for money. If they want to give money, good,” Bryant said. “But we don’t do it for money.”
After the cats are unloaded and set up in the garage with food and water, the truck pulls away from the curb and moves on to its next stop. After a few minutes, the group, one by one, head to their cars. At 11:47 a.m. the street is empty and quiet once again. Any sign of what has just occurred is gone. But they’ll be back in a few weeks to take care of a new group of cats.
“I think the process is like you’ve got this huge giant rock and then when you trap a cat, a crumb falls off,” Bryant said. “It’s constantly ongoing.”
This piece was revised at 11:30 p.m. on May 19 so as not to get any of the volunteers into trouble with their landlords.