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Lending a Helping Hand to Brooklyn’s Feral Cats: A Profile of Rescuer Alice Dietz

Alice with a rescue

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: adamtnr@gmail.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.

32 Comments

  1. Comment by

    Lorena

    on #

    Kudos Alice! You are doing good work. I adopted one of the friendlier cats, my new buddy Gilbert. I’m so glad I did; he’s a true sweetheart!

  2. Comment by

    Sharon

    on #

    Alice is amazing. She commits so much time, energy and money to helping our neighbhood cats and she motivates others to get involved as well. We all admire and love her.

  3. Comment by

    Anouck

    on #

    Great article. Thank you Alice for all the great work you do.

  4. Comment by

    Blake

    on #

    I am proud of you, Alice!

    “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
    Mahatma Gandi

  5. Comment by

    Cathy

    on #

    If Mayor Mike would hire Alice to head the NYCACC, we would soon be able to shut down all the miserable city shelters!

  6. Comment by

    food!

    on #

    I’ve seen Alice’s work first hand and it is top notch. She really cares about the critters and works tirelessly to do what is right for them. I’m actually fostering two of her rescue cats right now and I’d encourage others to do so as Alice is a pleasure to deal with. Please support this invaluable work however you can… hit up that donation page!!

  7. Comment by

    Veganne

    on #

    I was thinking about Alice when I was climbing around the back yard with food & water for a young tabby who suddenly appeared last night. If I see him again, now I know how to make an insulated shelter to keep him warm until I can get my hands on him for a trip to the vet (and placement in a home if he’s socialized). Thanks Alice!

  8. Comment by

    catres

    on #

    Great story!

  9. Comment by

    veganed

    on #

    My wife and I adopted a cat through Alice. The cat was living with an animal hoarder and was suffering with chronically untreated ear mites, rotten teeth, and intestinal parasites. Alice convinced the hoarder to give up the cat to us and then helped us find low cost vet care. She even offered to come to our home to administer the necessary rounds of meds. The woman is a saint. She pays out of her own pocket to help animals in need. Alice if you’re reading this Elisabeth and I thank you and have a donation coming to you. The world is undoubtedly a darker place without you!

  10. Comment by

    Chris

    on #

    I agree, the world is a better place with Alice in it. She does so much to help others and cats without thinking of herself. I hope she is able to continue her work and that her colony lives out their lives happily with her care.
    I also hope her work helps people do the right thing for their cats.
    Thasnk you Alice!

  11. Comment by

    Alice

    on #

    Wow, you all are really really kind! We do this stuff together. Many amazing people and organizations do this work, and do A LOT more than I do. Which is great, because one person doesn’t have to do everything, and actually can’t. I’m psyched to be working with Angelique, Sharon, Cathy, Empty Cages, and hopefully many others on an upcoming TNR project. It’s a big one, but if a lot of people do what they can, we can do this.

  12. Comment by

    Jennifer

    on #

    Alice is my best friend for many years, and I know that she can be relied on to stick with a problem and see it out. The cats are very lucky to have her! I know I am!

  13. Comment by

    Cindy

    on #

    Thank you for what you’re doing, Alice, and for talking about it and inspiring other people to join in, or to tackle projects that they’re passionate about to make our world a better place.

  14. Comment by

    Barbara

    on #

    Hi Alice! Your work with TNR is great and I really appreciate all you are doing to help the ferals. I worked at a kitty shelter for awhile and would socialize cats. As I write this, I’m looking at my kitty, Goldie, she is a kitty I fostered then decided to adopt
    Keep up the great work and thank you so much for all you do

  15. Comment by

    RMF

    on #

    Alice, you are a truly awesome person.

  16. Comment by

    Rick

    on #

    Great piece. Alice is a wonderful person, doing important work. She’s an example for us all.

  17. Comment by

    Nancy

    on #

    As a fellow cat lover and savior myself when speaking with Alice I realized her compassion and dedication to an issue that cries for help. Thank you Alice!!

  18. Comment by

    Alice

    on #

    Really thanks a lot, you guys. We’re ramping up our TNR project in Clinton Hill for next month, and I’m excited about it. There will be a fundraiser tag sale this coming weekend, March 26 & 27. The address is 436 Classon Ave, near Gates.
    11 am ? 5 pm both Sat. & Sun. If you want to donate any merch for the event, please contact me. And if you want to stop by and check it out, we should have some great stuff, and I look forward to seeing you there. Thanks again for your kind words.

  19. Comment by

    Reality

    on #

    It is really a shame that so many of you have big hearts, but no idea of the continual suffering feral cats go through from disease and starvation, and the problems they cause to native wildlife species. Are you animal lover, or a cat lover? Cats kill very efficiently and have been a major cause for a decrease of many bird populations – this is FACT! TNR does NOT work for a population (I know because I tried it), it only works for the individual. You may think that it does, but our research has shown NO effect! I was an Animal Control Officer and witnessed many feral cats suffering; i.e. disease, hit by car, or starvation. If you think that trapping feral cats is helping with the population and is decreasing the suffering they go through, YOU ARE WRONG! Even PETA knows this!!! Every living organism will die eventually, but we don’t have to make more suffer! I have euthanized many cats, and would rather them die a humane death than suffer a disease filled life. Make some common sense people, please, for the sake of ethics to animals. Sorry for the shot of reality but the only good solution is to trap and euthanize to help decrease disease in the population to reduce overall suffering; and I’ll leave it up to you to figure out if that is a FACT!

  20. Comment by

    Alice Dietz

    on #

    Reality is not what you’re adding here. Its something else.

    But fact is that when you permanently remove a group of cats from a territory, by putting them someplace else, usually to death, another group of cats quickly moves in. Cats are extremely prolific creatures. Our killing of cats can’t keep up with their procreating. If you are concerned about the population number of cats, the only way to effectively reduce their overall numbers over time is through spay-neuter programs that return them to their territory.

    That’s not fantasy. Real statistics bear it out.

  21. Comment by

    Really???

    on #

    When you release a cat that has been neutered and vaccinated against some of the possible diseases they get, do you think they live a good life and die a humane death? I may be going out on a limb here, but I think most, if not all, cats die from starvation, crushed by a car, or a disease that you can’t vaccinate them for, when you release them. All of which I would not consider humane. If you are trying to care for these cats, in a humane way, it seems that Reality makes more sense. I actually did look up some research on TNR while reading this thread and I did find that TNR is greatly flawed for its purpose, meaning it doesn’t work. Thanks Reality for your work in animal control, I love Animal Cops fighting for animal rights!

  22. Comment by

    food!

    on #

    In TNR, after these cats are vaccinated and neutered they are monitored by a caretaker as a part of a colony. Of course they face dangers, but they also get regular food, shelter, and if often times, vet care by the caretaker of that managed colony.

    Study after study shows that TNR reduces the overall number of cats in an area (thus reducing suffering).

    Furthermore, to kill cats so they won’t suffer one day in the future not only doesn’t work, but it’s arbitrary and cruel. We all face dangers each day, life is inherently risky. Still, I have no interest in being euthanized to insure I never get cancer or get hit by a car in the future. I’m pretty certain that feral cats would rather live too. TNR with managed colonies reduces the number of cats born AND increases the quality of life for those already here.

  23. Comment by

    food!

    on #

    To clarify my above typo… some caretakers will take a sick cat in their colony to the vet for care.

  24. Comment by

    Reality

    on #

    I invite you to listen to real professionals in the field who are MUCH more educated and experienced about the issue than anyone else on here. Go to YouTube and type (or copy/paste this) “Trap, Neuter, and Release: Bad for Cats, Disaster for Birds (HD)” in the search box.

    I understand you have a job that provides a “feel good” sales pitch to cat lovers, who donate to your wallet. I assume you have little, if any, education/knowledge of population dynamics, population ecology, and public health and safety, since you stated “it’s something else” in reply to my previous comment. Could you please define what “something else” is, if it isn’t reality and you truly understand the science behind this issue? I am certainly not opposed to researching new methods in controlling feral cat colonies, however I don’t agree with advertising this method as a “fix” (no pun intended) to the problem. If it would help for you to understand the facts better, I will post actual scientific journal articles (not opinions from general public that have no proof of what they are stating, like Alice and Food have done) for further factual information.

  25. Comment by

    meredith weiss

    on #

    To reality, really???, comments 22, 24, 27:
    “I am certainly not opposed to researching new methods in controlling feral cat colonies …” You should do that! There are three options for feral and free-roaming cats. 1. TNR, 2. Kill, 3. Do Nothing. 1. TNR, when done properly, consistently and thoroughly, does have an impact by immediately stabilizing the colony, reducing the nuisance behavior and improving the health of each individual cat. Often young kittens are rescued for taming and adoption. In targeted TNR areas, fewer cats are brought to Animal Care and Control, thus reducing the killing. 2. Kill reduces or eliminates the entire colony, but at a complete waste and sacrifice of those lives because new, unaltered cats show up, and show up they will, it’s called the vacuum effect, a documented phenomenon in nature. 3. Nothing results in more cats, more suffering, more spreading of disease.
    “…but I think most, if not all, cats die from starvation, crushed by a car, or a disease that you can’t vaccinate them for, when you release them.” Most cats in a managed colony (this means a colony in which the cats are neutered, vaccinated, fed daily, provided with shelter and attended to when sick or injured) do not suffer, starve or die a horrible death. The point has already been made that it’s not our philosophy to prevent any and all suffering that may — or may not — occur at some point in the future.
    TNR is endorsed and supported by well-respected animal welfare organizations, including but by no means limited to: The ASPCA, The Humane Society of the US, The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, Alley Cat Allies, The NYC Feral Cat Initiative, The Humane Society of NY, and Neighborhood Cats.

  26. Comment by

    Alice Dietz

    on #

    We come to this with true emotion, and then there is also what I see with my own eyes. There are no new kittens on my block for the past two years. And my TNR’d feline buddies from these past two years are still here, eating well, skulking around my building, and hiding out too, and my neighbors and the store owners here tell me thank you. They say thanks for not taking them away too – People point out that they help maintain a lower number of rats on our block – they stay away – an important thing in any big city. Also, the kids want to be involved, and the sweetest kids recently helped me to trap my most elusive tomcat, and treated him with respect and gentleness, even as they were scared by his desire not to be trapped (How I wish we could explain to animals so they wouldn’t have fear) He is doing great. And these kids were so great with him and seemed truly effected by what they were able to do for this animal. I just see this as a win win, and couldn’t be prouder to work with the good people in TNR I have come to know these past couple years.

  27. Comment by

    Tatiana

    on #

    Dear Alice!
    Could you give me your e-mail address to contact, please?

    Tatiana

  28. Comment by

    Jason Das

    on #

    @Tatiana Alice’s e-mail address is linked from “contact me” in the interview.

  29. Comment by

    Tatiana

    on #

    thanks, but unfortunately my “outlook” not working. I can’t contact with her through link

  30. Comment by

    MariNaomi

    on #

    What a great article about a wonderful cause! Thank you for doing such important work, Ms. Dietz!

  31. Comment by

    Karen

    on #

    Bravo Meredith! Bravo Alice! Some people just like to come in under the guise of being the truth givers and in fact are just judgmental people that come in with their skewed views. We all know what great work rescuers accomplish and how well TNR has worked for us.

  32. Comment by

    Michael

    on #

    Hi:

    There are five adorable feral kittens I see every night on my way home. They are out playing in the evenings at the corner of Herkimer and New York Avenues in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Is there anything I can do to help. Until what age will an adoption of a feral kitten be successful?

    Thanks,

    Michael

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