Alice with a rescue
When Alice Dietz moved to a neighborhood that was teeming with feral cats, she started utilizing the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program to help. TNR helps control the overall population of cats, reducing the number of cats that wind up in the overburdened sheltering system and ensuring cats on the street are as safe and healthy as possible. Alice’s work has also led her to rescue friendly cats who were dumped as well as cats trapped in hoarding conditions.
I spoke with Alice about her work to help feral cats using the TNR program and the challenges she’s faced finding foster and adoptive homes for cats.
SuperVegan: How did you get started with TNR?
Alice Dietz: Feral cats first came to my attention about two years ago when I moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood I now know has scores of feral cats. The reasons for this are many, but it largely comes from generations of irresponsible, or uninformed, pet owners who don’t spay or neuter their cats. When the cat “comes of age,” and goes into heat or starts spraying, at about 4 months of age, out the animal goes, “dumped” by the pet owner onto the street. Of course soon come the kittens, born outside, feral, un-socialized to humans. And these cats, domesticated animals dependent on people, are caught between being “wild,” and not wild enough. They do their best to survive, but the task is a daunting one for them, and generally speaking, it is a grim one.
I first learned about these cats in the middle of the night, about 3 a.m., night after night after night, trying to sleep in my brand new apartment. The females were screaming, a sign of being in heat. The males were yowling and fighting. This sound should be recorded for horror films. I had never heard anything like it, and it was making me crazy.
Finally, sleep deprived and desperate, I called Animal Care & Control, and asked what could be done about these cats, short of euthanizing them. I was completely ignorant, and was incredibly grateful when the woman on the phone gave me the contact information of two organizations: Neighborhood Cats and New York City Feral Cat Initiative (FCI). The good people at Neighborhood Cats and FCI told me about a certification class I could take that would allow me to trap the cats, get them neutered for free, and then return them back outside. The certification class is called “Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR): How to Manage a Feral Cat Colony.”
I was told to start feeding the cats, and get them used to a particular feeding schedule (I was already feeding a litter of feral kittens at this point), and then when it came time to trap them, I was to withhold food for a couple days. Then the cats would be more willing to go into the traps where of course I’d put food. After taking the class and getting certified I was amazed at how much help I got from experienced TNR people–Neighborhood Cats loaned me [humane] traps, and lots of advice and support. Experienced trappers and caregivers came out and volunteered their time, taught me the ropes, and all just passionate about helping these animals. We wound up trapping and spaying or neutering close to 60 cats in a period of a week and a half. It was amazing. I will always be grateful to the people who gave their time so selflessly.
At that point, I had to find foster homes for the socialized cats and eventually adoptive homes. This was incredibly tough because I did not have a network of foster homes. I remember looking in dismay at my destroyed one bedroom apartment and counting the number of friendly rescues from this project, including 3 baby kittens, and counting in the teens…and just feeling sick, utterly overwhelmed.
I sought help from my new friends in TNR. I also shamelessly asked everyone I had ever known: friends and family, people I hadn’t talked to in years, exes, friends of exes, anyone who’d had the random misfortune of deciding to “Facebook friend” me, everyone in my e-mail contact list, people in my building whom I didn’t know at all. I love it when people care so much about animals, that the animals trump any social discomfort or personal conflicts, or political or lifestyle differences we might have. I loved seeing people just caring about these animals, and was truly touched by the support I received. Well, the rescues finally got adopted. So even though they had a hairy start, these formerly dumped cats are living large now. I am so grateful to their foster caregivers and adopters, who opened up their hearts and homes to these cats.
SV: Why is it important that feral cats be returned outside?
AD: One of the hardest parts about TNR for many people is returning the cats back outside. But feral cats do not belong inside. It is stressful for them to be around human beings. And even though there are dangers outside, and winter weather is hard on them, it is actually cruel to bring feral cats indoors. Some people bring in feral cats only to realize it is an untenable situation. The cats are afraid and cower, and people get fed up. By that time, the cats have lost their winter coat, and to put them back outside in these temperatures puts them at risk of freezing. If they had just been allowed to go back to their territory after being spay/neutered, they’d be back to their lives by now. We might not think it’s an ideal life for them, and it pains us to think about it. But it is their lives. The territory where they were born is their home, and it’s all they know. And it’s where they thrive if people are only willing to help them a little bit.
SV: Can you explain what a “managed” colony is and what kind of effort it takes to provide care.
AD: Yes! My ferals inspire me every day, especially in the winter. They are resilient!
A managed colony is one in which all of the cats have been spayed or neutered, and there is a caretaker, who simply puts out food and water. In cold weather, if the cats don’t have a basement or some other suitable shelter, you need to provide the cats with insulated shelters, which are easy to make.
It’s truly amazing to see the footprints in the snow from the shelters to the kibble dish! It warms my heart. And it really doesn’t take much to maintain a colony. I found an out-of-the-way place for the shelters on my block and most of my neighbors don’t even know they’re there. I get pre-made quality winter shelters from Adam Rae, who takes orders at: email@example.com.
One of the big hurdles at first was explaining to my neighbors what I was doing. I am sure people feared that I was simply going to feed cats, not neuter them, and that soon there would be an explosion of cats. So part of this has been getting over my shyness and talking to people in my building and on my block and just explaining. Nothing was so effective, however, as when people actually saw the mobile clinic [a free service of the ASPCA] come to our block to do the surgeries. Ever since then, people have been very supportive. It’s been very positive.
SV: You must always be looking for responsible animal lovers to provide short-term foster care and/or adopting. How can people help you out with rescue, rehab and adoptions?
AD: We need to get more cats TNRed. And for that, we need more people to get certified and to volunteer for TNR projects. If anyone reading this thinks they would like to help, I urge you to take the FCI’s TNR class and get involved. You can start by tending to the feral cats on your own block.
I am currently planning a couple large projects in Brooklyn, and will need volunteers to trap, as well as to help out with care-giving in the recovery space. I will also need help with funding for these projects. While the spay and neuter services are free, the de-worming and vaccinations, along with food and supplies, are not. Donations would be most welcome.
Foster and adoptive homes are also needed. I’m trying to build an infrastructure of foster homes with other TNR people so that we can get more animals neutered and vaccinated more efficiently, and more friendly ones placed in safe homes. Fostering a cat can be perfect for someone who may not feel ready to permanently adopt a cat. I would encourage anyone who feels they would like to donate money or foster an animal to contact me.
Having a strong fostering network is so important because sometimes TNR people spend so much time trying to find foster homes and adoptive homes for the friendly ones, that we are not able to do as much TNR for the ferals. And the latter is what makes an impact on the largest number of animals.
SV: Why should vegans in particular get involved in TNR?
AD: I think there is a difference between being vegan and being an animal lover, though of course they are not mutually exclusive. In a way, I think vegans are better able to grapple with the notion that animals are not on this planet to serve us or to make us feel good or to cuddle with us. I think we can understand the concept that even if it pains us to think of a cat out in the cold, or exposed to the dangers of the street, my discomfort does not mean I should take his life away with a needle at the pound. And it does not mean I should kidnap him from his territory and put him inside my cramped apartment where he or she will be safe. We can respect the lives of feral cats, and try to help them in a way that does not interfere with their autonomy. After all, autonomy is their one reward for being put into a situation created by irresponsible humans. We owe them that. I think vegans are particularly well-suited to TNR work because feral cats really will never say “thank you.” They will want to get away from you at the first opportunity! And that’s just fine.
Update, March 31, 2011: This post orginally mentioned Empty Cages Collective as the sponsoring organization of Alice’s current project. They are no longer involved. Donations can be sent to Alice to help fund an upcoming large-scale TNR project in Clinton Hill, which will begin on April 2nd. Supplies such as food containers, newspapers, cat food, trap covers and labels, garbage bags, paper towels, etc. are also welcomed.