The Curious Case of The Disappearing Cats

Little Blackie sometimes perches on a windowsill, looking towards the street, as if looking for something. The two-and-a-half-year-old kitty recently lost her mother, her brother, her sister, and her friends. They were some of 60 cats, mostly stray but some free-roaming pets, that neighbors say have gone missing in the Astoria-Ditmars area in Queens since December.

These seven, plus Little Blackie, made up a feral cat colony that Mary Witty, a resident of Astoria since 2000, along with a few neighbors, had been feeding and sheltering. Some of the cats had been under their care since 2008, according to Witty.

What started out as a search for a few missing cats has become a larger project, with Witty and her sister Michelle, also from the neighborhood, spearheading an effort to seek help from community leaders and the local NYPD precinct to try to solve the mystery of the missing cats.

It all started after Witty created a website and a Facebook page  for her own missing cats. After that, she says, she received many comments from neighbors, saying that their feral cat colonies had also gone missing in recent months. When she saw that the problem seemed more widespread, Witty says, she began collecting information on all the cases. She has has counted approximately 60 cats missing so far. She says about 30 to 40 people have reported missing cats, and have been showing up to meetings.

“We had suspicions about a particular neighbor due to past hostility and complaints,” Witty said, although she said she did not suspect anything at first because being feral cats they had once before gone away and come back.

“When the first one disappeared, we actually thought she was stuck in a garage or something. That’s a pretty common occurrence,” she said. “I really wasn’t imagining the worst.”

It wasn’t until all but one of her colony had disappeared, and after she heard of all the other stories through the Facebook page, did Witty and concerned residents begin to harbor suspicions of foul play, such as poisoning or trapping. When a large number of cats go missing, it is worrisome, she said. “Were they taken for dog fighting? Were they taken for animal testing? Were they taken for consumption?” Witty said. “There are all these very scary things that possibly could have happened.”

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Black and White, one of the 60 missing cats in Astoria, and her kitten. (Image courtesy of Mary Witty.)

The group has faced a bureaucratic runaround, though, according to Witty. In New York City, as of January 1st, the American Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, transferred its role as the lead agency in animal cruelty cases to the New York Police Department. “Now we are the lead agency, we are conducting the investigations and following up with the complaints,” said Deputy Inspector Kevin Maloney of the 114th Precinct.

But Witty said she and her concerned neighbors had made calls and tried to file a complaint with their local precinct, along with making calls to 311 and 911. No calls were returned, she says, and no complaints were followed up. What Witty and the other missing stray cat advocates found out at a February 25 community meeting for the 114th Precinct is that it is extremely difficult to file a complaint about a feral cat, simply because feral cats, by definition, have no official owner.

“Its unique because they’re feral cats, they are stray cats by nature so because they don’t belong to a location there is no complainant, no one owns the cats,” Maloney explained. “Nobody can tell us exactly what happened to the cats. So we don’t know if it was foul play,” he added.

The feral cat feeders would have to take more formal responsibility of the cats, such as ownership, in order to file an official complaint with the police, he explained. “If you told me I have a cat and I let her out today and she never came back, you would be my complainant. I would take a report for you for a missing property. Your property is the cat.”

In addition, because the cats seem to be disappearing without a trace, there simply is no evidence to follow up on. According to Maloney, the deputy, the police had hoped to find security video, which could show cats being abducted, trapped or killed, but have turned up empty handed. “We don’t have a bunch of cats that have turned up dead in at a different location,” Maloney said. “There is no investigative avenue at this point.”

There are rumors of poisoning, but no one is sure. “In our case, we know a neighbor has a trap and she has admitted to having a trap and trapping animals,” Witty said. “But I don’t think she did all of this, there are probably multiple things going on in the neighborhood.”

A group of 30 or so concerned residents has been compiling all the missing feral cat cases from emails and Facebook posts and will be presenting it to “all the powers that be,” according to Witty, which she said includes Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senator Tony Avella, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Within the next month Witty and other concerned residents say they plan to meet with the Community Board 1 subcommittee for health and hygiene to advocate for a mailing that would inform the community about the laws that protect animals against cruelty. In addition the group will be advocating for a separate unit to be established within NYPD that specializes in animal cruelty cases.

Since losing her family and friends, Little Blackie has become a housecat. Witty does not want to risk losing the last of her colony.