Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral
Once upon a time, cats were common fixtures in NYC stores, greeting customers in the doorway of the fishmonger or lounging in a patch of sunlight among resoled boots in the display window of the shoe repair store. The corner deli, the candy store, and the Chinese laundry – Manhattan’s equivalent to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker – each had a resident feline.
They weren’t pets, these cats. They were working animals, who paid for their room and board by working nights in rodent control, and days in customer development, allowing people like me to scratch their ears.
Several cats still work my stretch of Broadway. Most impressive is the fine, fat beast attached to Samad’s Gourmet between 111th and 112th Street. Friendly and self-assured, the cat loafs outside the store in fine weather, and has been seen trundling into neighboring shops, just to say hello. On a mild January day, it helped out in the sales department of the neighborhood vintage record seller.
But not all neighborhood cats are living the good life of Samad’s cat.
Ten days ago, I encountered this black cat on the retaining wall of Riverside Park.
Maybe the cat is on the lam from a nearby apartment. Or maybe it’s a member of Riverside Park’s small feral cat colony, which shares an indoor space with the occasional homeless person.
Volunteers have trapped each animal, and taken it to a veterinarian where it is neutered or spayed before being returned to the park. By preventing the cats from breeding, the proponents of the Trap-Neuter-Return program hope the colony will eventually die out.
Meanwhile the volunteers quietly provide food and water,
and advocate for the protection of the cats.
I don’t know how many cats are cared for in Riverside Park, although I have never seen more than three.
But surely, as the presence of the black cat on the wall indicates, there will always be a new recruit, whether an unwanted pet dumped in the park, or a runaway in search of greener pastures, finding its way to the easily accessible food and shelter.
Across the country, there is a dawning awareness that domestic cats, both feral and pet, are fierce and effective predators that can have a devastating affect on birds and other wildlife. A recent study cited by the American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats may be responsible for over half a billion bird deaths each year. Approximately half of that astonishing number is attributed to feral cats and the other half – that’s 250,000 dead birds – to pet cats that are allowed outside. Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute told the New York Times in 2011, “Cats are way up there in terms of threats to birds — they are a formidable force in driving out native species.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love cats.
But if cats are truly an invasive species causing potentially serious harm to the ecosystem, then free-roaming cats raise surprisingly complex and far-reaching questions, among them how to ethically and humanely manage feral cat colonies and even our own pet cats.
Feral cats are found all over New York City in parks, parking lots and alleys between buildings.
A small colony lives in Morningside Park. With its population of ground-nesting birds, its rough terrain and bushy undergrowth, Morningside is well-suited to the little feline predators.
On Randall’s Island, in the shadow of the Triborough – er, I mean, the RFK – Bridge, a marmalade kitten stretches,
while its sibling, or friend, keeps pale green watch on passing humans.
Two grown cats groom and watch the world go by from an East Harlem lot,
while a few blocks away, on a rare grassy patch, two kittens hone their predatory skills with a game of hunter-and-prey.
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