It’s kitten season in New York City and this year is a doozy. Two years of pandemic put some spay/neuter services on hold and resulted in a vet shortage along with sky-rocketing prices. If you live outside of the lower half of Manhattan, you know that we are in a feral cat crisis. Cats are overpopulating at a rate that is beyond the ability of volunteers to manage.
With at least half a million stray cats in NYC, there are as many uncared for cats outdoors as those living as indoor pets. Most don’t have reliable food sources, many are sick and injured. Cats can have as many as three litters per year, multiplying the problem faster than it can be contained.
As a cat-rescue volunteer for more than 15 years in neighborhoods across Brooklyn, I’ve witnessed first-hand the impact of the city’s refusal to manage the feral cat crisis. New York City government provides no real resources to manage the feral cat crisis aside from some funding for Animal Care Centers. The city has offloaded the problem to volunteers who spend their own time and money or (if they’re lucky) work with privately funded rescue organizations.
Rescue groups have observed that feral cat populations are highest in lower-income communities, and the volunteers that try to do something about it — trap, neuter, return — are typically lower-income residents in those communities. It creates a huge burden on some of the people least able to carry it. Basically, if you care then it’s your problem to solve.
Rescuers I work with are overwhelmed by the exploding feral cat population. Clelia Ramos, an immigrant from El Salvador, is the sole breadwinner of her one-bedroom household with three dependents: a daughter, and a disabled mother and aunt in Jamaica, Queens. She works a low-wage job and spends nights and weekends trapping cats in a neighborhood with one of the highest numbers of feral cats and the least amount of local resources.
Why is the city offloading its municipal problems on women like Clelia?
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People who aren’t familiar with spay/neuter may view it as unnatural or cruel, but that’s simply not true. Clelia told me she has been trying to convince a woman in Jamaica to let her help trap 20 cats on her property, but she has refused. Rescue organizations spend a lot of time on education in these communities, but with limited resources, progress is painfully slow. Here again, city government could be a huge help if it only chose to engage.
In New York State there is a law that requires rescue and adoption centers to spay and neuter any cat before putting it up for adoption. This is good, but not enough. In Los Angeles, all cats and dogs within the city limit are required to be spayed or neutered. If we had such an ordinance in New York City, rescue organizations could work with community residents and simply say, “Spay and neuter your animals, it’s the law, and we’re here to help you.”
Hand in hand with that, we should significantly ramp up access to spay/neuter services. Right now, there are three options for pet owners. If you’re on government assistance you can qualify for low-cost or free care (if you are plugged into the resources and can find a location or mobile clinic in your area). If you are a rescuer you may be connected to organizations that provide low-cost options ranging from $5 to $250.
Otherwise, you may spend upwards of $500 in the private market. Spaying and neutering feral cats has become financially prohibitive for most residents.
Large feral cat populations are a sign of neglect, just like graffiti and litter. When it’s addressed and managed, property values go up. Right now, by shirking its responsibilities, the city is enriching its tax base at the hands of mostly women, often immigrant, low-wage rescuers. The city should take some of its property tax revenue and reinvest it by subsidizing low-cost spay/neuter options.
The least that New York City can do is make spaying and neutering of all cats and dogs the law, and provide the means for any resident to comply.
Freeman is a marketing professional in the financial services sector who has been involved in cat rescue work in Brooklyn for more than 15 years.