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.

Would you buy a used record from the cat?

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.

Riverside Park cat colony. Photo from April 2010.

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.

Feral cat in Riverside Park, 2010.

Meanwhile the volunteers quietly provide food and water,

Who else eats at this buffet?

and advocate for the protection of the cats.

A hodgepodge of baskets and boxes

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.

Pudding (1999-2012), an indoor city cat, ponders what to read next.

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.

White cat soaks up some rays on a mild January day in Morningside Park.

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.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts on cats, both feral and pet.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, Birds, cats, Domestic animals, In the City, Morningside Park, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Wildlife/Natural History

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21 Comments on “Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral”

  1. […] Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral explores the lifestyles of NYC felines from cats that work to keep delis and bodegas mouse-free to […]

  2. […] For more on NYC’s feral cats and the Trap-Neuter-Release program that sustains them, visit Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral. […]

  3. […] the photo just above was taken in cooler days, in the middle of winter, when a working cat doesn’t mind a little extra responsibility.  Mid-summer is a whole other story. “So […]

  4. Ag Says:

    I think humans feeding feral cats only adds to the problem. A feral cat is not a pet. Feral cats are well equipped to get the food they need to eat… which includes rats and mice… which are very hazardous to humans. People who own pets are a different story. I think it is important to keep pets from irresponsibly breeding. Cats were domesticated to keep vermin from our food sources. They have always been hunters. It’s just like someone who I know that just bought a terrier not knowing the history. They have had mice problems and I said “oh well the dog you just got is good rodent hunter”. They refused to believe their cute little dog would kill anything. I tried to explain the history of the breed came about specifically to hunt rodents on farms. In 3 months the dog has killed 5 mice (that they know of). I told them that they would not put down any poison pellets because the dog might eat a mouse and get sick from the poison. Natural predators always work better than chemicals in the end. It’s only in the last 50 years or so that animals stopped “working”. I miss seeing cats in stores…. though there are still a few around in the mom and pop shops… another reason I prefer them to chain stores – LOLOL.

    • You make a good argument, but I remain on the fence about how to treat feral cats – after neutering & spaying, of course. As has been pointed out in this comment section, their lives are pretty tough. Secondary poisoning is a real problem in NYC for our red-tailed hawks, which are big rat-eaters. Interesting anecdote about the terrier, too. ALthough I had two Cairn Terriers that seemed quite clueless when I lived in a mouse-ridden loft in the 1970s & 80s. The only mouse they caught was one that had already succumbed to poison and was practically comatose in the middle of the floor. Of course, I later discovered my kooky upstairs neighbor was FEEDING the mice along with her cats – I actually saw a mouse eating out of the cat bowl with the cat calmly watching nearby! Now that’s a strange inter-species interaction!

      • Ag Says:

        Yes they have tough lives… but feeding them is not the answer. It only makes them lazy really – and not want to hunt rodents – and can actually help to feed rats. Just as a person shouldn’t feed a red-tail hawk – they shouldn’t feed feral cats either. They are both wild. Aside from irresponsible owners – the feral cat population is as large as it is for similar reasons that rats are so plentiful…. Irresponsible garbage disposal.
        Yeah – I’ve actually had the opportunity to see a hawk swoop down and take a rat next to a parkway – it was amazing site. Hawks I’m sure actually eat some of the feral cats. In the neighborhoods that coyotes are in the city – that will cut down on feral cats too (and raccoons and canadian geese).

        Using poison is one of the worst things we can do. Not only does it pose a danger to hawks… but it’s never good for the soil or the water…. which it ultimately ends up in. In certain countries in Europe – there are companies who still use terriers for “working” that go to farms each year and eradicate rat populations. It is certainly much more “green” than using poison… and the dogs think its a game… because they are doing what they were bred to do.

        That was a terribly inconsiderate neighbor you have. Yeah for those of us who believe the bible – a time will come that all animals will be at peace with one another… but for now… mice and rats are a health threat to people (aside from also destroying property). You should have called the health department.

        That’s interesting your dogs were like that. I have friends who have terriers that love to go to parks at night to chase rats. If the owners don’t take them – they get “upset”. Different animals have different personalities..

  5. p hoey Says:

    A marvelous essay, Melissa, with terrific photos as well. It’s worth staying with the difficulties of being an (ethical) animal-lover, and birds are animals, yes? as well as a cat-lover. So far as the parks
    are concerned, maybe Audubon Society, NYC, etc. might be interested in a feral cat-spaying program modeled on the successful raccoon-anti-rabies one you’ve written about?
    The photos of working cats–how contented with their jobs they seem…

    • You’re so right: the store cats seem very contented. The Samad’s Gourmet cat is one of the most relaxed and confident cats I’ve ever met. It should serve as a mentor for other store cats. As for the ferals, I doubt Audubon would spend time or money on them, although they do have a good campaign to educate people about keeping their pets inside. Of course, most birders are already signed on, but the Audubon campaign encourages birders to educate their communities and local politicians about the issue. I wondered about the feral cats during the rabies epidemic, but didn’t see any rabid cats turning up on the Health Dept reports for Manhattan. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Craig Nash Says:

    I love cats as well but owners have to take ownership of what their domestic cats do when outside and that is kill wild birds. I firmly believe that cats should be kept indoors if at all possible to stop this senseless slaughter.

  7. Melissa, thanks for bringing up the tough facts of free-ranging domestic cats. My opinion is that we should do what we can to not contribute to the problem – that is, please keep house cats inside.

    I love cats; I’ve had wonderful cat companions all my life; I studied cats for my thesis. But I also consider that feral domestic cats are not endangered, while some birds are. (I especially worry about the neotropical migrants, who face habitat loss in their winter locales, drop out of the sky after their arduous journey from far south, only to face getting eaten by waiting felines.) On the other hand, the feral cat population has established a place in the urban ecosystem. I don’t have the heart to physically round up the stray cats that I see. I even have a tough time resisting the urge to feed them. Neutering feral cats as we find them seems a logical way to keep the population from getting any larger. But in many ways, those felines who live by their wits, the stray cats, are here to stay.

    The place where I think we can make a difference is to keep our beloved house cats inside. I used to let my cats roam the outdoors until my concern for their health, and my guilt over the neighborhood wildlife, got to me. All of my cats adjusted to being indoors all the time, even Mamacita, the stray cat who ran inside our house one day to have her litter of 5 kittens (instant family!). After a while, even given the opportunity to go outside, she chose to stay in.

    Thanks for fostering this discussion Melissa. Now back to playing with my cat Boo, who rules the roost, so to speak.

    • Kelly, I agree with you, although I do think there may be exceptions with farm cats that help to keep the rodent population down (see Barbara’s comment below). I believe ALL cats should be neutered or spayed – what possible reason can there be not to, in this day & age? Sadly, kittens are always available, as Mamacita’s story makes clear! I find it interesting & encouraging that your cats adjusted so well to indoor life after being outdoors. I hope some cat lovers with outdoor cats will read your comment. After all, domestic animals are bred to adapt to life with humans.

  8. Charlotte Says:

    This post brought back so many memories of childhood when, indeed, you could walk into a little mom and pop store and there’d be a kitty on the counter. Thanks outwalkingthedog! Also, lovely pic of Pudding, may he RIP.

  9. Barbara Says:

    I am conflicted about cats outside. My two do go outside, though I have removed so many birds from the mouth of one before anything has happened, he no longer pays any attention to them other than watching them move around. Or maybe he’s lazy?

    The newer one is learning and has been chased by me with a banshee yell, dropping its prey basically untouched. The birds are careful around my feeders. When it’s cold I don’t let them out – the cats I mean, not the feeders. And this summer though I love seeing the birds around, I won’t be putting out feeders for them.

    But feral cats are responsible for keeping down the number of rats and mice and other rodents in cities. It’s said because cats were banned in European cities, particularly in England hundreds of years ago that the plague which is carried by fleas on rats and mice, spread like wildfire. That is something to really think about. Maybe we don’t have the plague now, but diseases that we may not know about?

    I know several people who care for and feed feral cats. I have done that as well, though there are usually territorial battles when a feral tries to move in – and is unwelcome.

    And they often can carry feline Aids or feline leukemia as well…

    But feral cats live a hard a short life. I mostly feel sorry for them. For pet cats… they rule the house generally.

    It’s a conundrum.

    Your photos are beautiful – particularly the one of the marmalade stretching at water’s edge… thanks for a thoughtful post.

    • Interesting that your older cat no longer hunts. I too feel sorry for feral cats, and certainly understand the impulse to feed them. I haven’t been able to find good research on whether the Trap-Neuter-release policy works over time to eliminate colonies. I hope it does, because it is a humane approach. The problem, of course, is that during the cats’ lifetimes (which can be pretty long, if they are being fed & cared for), they’re still out there killing birds. I think we have better ways than feral cats to control city rodents – mainly, trash control. The problem is that changing human behavior is the hardest thing of all!

      Thanks so much for your regular visits and comments on Out Walking the Dog.

  10. mthew Says:

    Great post. I see them everywhere, too, in the wildest parts and edges of the city.

  11. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    I want the one that ‘keeps pale green watch’ ! Wonderful, informative post.

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