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feral cats

A feral cat in a wooded area in Mount Sinai eyes humans entering its habitat. Photo by Kyle Barr

Along a right-of-way in Mount Sinai, the exact location volunteers preferred not to publicize, a number of cats stalk through the cover of tall grass on silent paws. Upon hearing human sounds, they scatter deeper into the weeds.

“Babies, babies, momma’s here,” Miller Place resident Rita Miszuk called to the wild felines as she refilled water and food trays. She said she didn’t want to give away too many specifics of the location out of fear more cats will be dropped there and left in need of care.

Miszuk is the president of Volunteers for Animal Welfare Inc., a nonprofit that aids feral cat colonies across Long Island. Her group tries to infiltrate cat communities, taking the animals to places where they can be vaccinated, spayed and neutered, often on the organization’s own dime. Miszuk said she sometimes spends thousands of dollars to humanely control the number of wild cats roaming free.

Rita Muszik, a Miller Place resident and president of Volunteers for Animal Welfare Inc. cares for feral cat communities. Photo by Kyle Barr

“There were 50 here, but we’ve gotten them down to 11 — they’re all healthy and they’re all taken care of,” Miszuk said. “This is what typical rescuers do.”

They’re not her cats, in fact they’re nobody’s cats. They’re considered “feral,” but that word belies the terrorized nature of these animals left in the wild. They’re shy, they’re alone, and there are more and more every year.

Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Chief Roy Gross estimated, using the organization’s own metrics, approximately 322,000 cats live in Suffolk County, including both feral and domesticated cats. For every four people in the county, there is approximately one cat.

The number of rescue groups, along with the amount of trap, neuter and release programs that attempt to capture these animals, care for them and sterilize them before releasing them back into their original environment, has gone up of late. Still, Gross said the problem only continues to grow as cats continue to breed and people leave unneutered cats in homes as they move away.

“The population is out of control,” Gross said. “[Rescue groups] put a dent in them, but there are just so many cats out there.”

One female cat can give birth to three litters in a year with an average litter of five. Multiply that by their offspring and one cat can become 225 in a year. Erica Kutzing, vice president of Sound Beach-based Strong Island Animal Rescue League, suggested the problem is exacerbated by the warming climate. Where cats used to become pregnant only in the summer months, she said she is now seeing pregnant cats give birth as early as March or February as they get pregnant later in the year.

“A lot of people like to say, ‘It’s not my cat,’” Kutzing said. “It’s fine that it’s not your cat, it’s not our cat either; however, if we don’t fix the problem you’re going to have a lot more ‘not my cats’ on your property.”

A number of animal shelters exist across the North Shore, and many of them host TNR programs. Kent Animal Shelter in Calverton provides spaying and neutering for $50 per cat. Sometimes if the shelter is able to secure a grant, the price can drop to $20.

“A lot of people like to say, ‘It’s not my cat. It’s fine that it’s not your cat, it’s not our cat either; however, if we don’t fix the problem you’re going to have a lot more ‘not my cats’ on your property.”

— Erica Kutzing

Some shelters are expanding their TNR capabilities. In June, the Town of Smithtown accepted a grant to build a new TNR building at the Smithtown Animal Shelter that will expand the town’s capturing capacity, as representatives of the shelter said they estimated Smithtown hosts around 30 to 40 different cat colonies. The town plans to start construction after it receives the funds in 2019, according to Smithtown spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo.

David Ceely, the executive director of Little Shelter Animal Adoption Center, which is also the managing organization for the Town of Huntington Cat Shelter, said it offers residents free TNR services to deal with feral cat communities. Still, the problem is so large Little Shelter often relies on volunteers and community members to manage cat populations.

“We’re one shelter, so to go out there and take care of all of them physically we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ceely said. “But thankfully there are people in the community who want to do the right thing, and we want to support that.”

Otherwise getting a cat spayed and neutered could cost up to hundreds of dollars per cat, depending on the animal shelter or veterinarian. It means doing TNR on an entire colony could create an incredibly restrictive cost barrier.

“We just did 24 cats in Stony Brook and the final price was about $1,400,” Kutzing said. “That came from our own funds.”

Frankie Floridia, the president of Strong Island Animal Rescue League, said small rescue groups are not large enough to combat the problem, and there is a need for community members to get involved with their own local feral cat communities.

“We get at least 20 calls a month, such as about kittens under a deck or cats with an upper respiratory infection,” Floridia said. “We handle what we can but we’re a small organization.”

Worse still is the proliferation of cats has made the population start to seem like an infestation or a blight. This mindset has fostered an environment in which some commit horrendous crimes against cats, including maiming and torturing the animals. All cats, not just domestic cats, are considered a “companion animal” by the state.

Harming them is a Class E felony punishable with a $5,000 fine and up to two years in jail. Taking a cat to another location is considered abandonment and is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail or a fine up to $1,000.

Feral cats in a wooded area in Mount Sinai eyes humans entering its habitat. Photo by Kyle Barr

“There are people out there who are sadistic criminals who go out and find easy prey, generally the kittens,” Gross said. “We have had people in the past drive spikes through them, behead them, impale them, poison them — just horrible acts of animal cruelty. Some of those people are just sadistic, but in cases like poison some people just don’t like these cats roaming around on their property.”

Beyond acts of violence, many residents either don’t know what to do or don’t feel it’s their concern. If people do not interact with these community cats by either taking them to a TNR program or by feeding them, then either the cats numbers grow exponentially or they will start to die.

“Without these people who take care of the cat colonies, we would have cats starving to death,” Kutzing said. “There would just be cat bodies littered everywhere.”

Many groups and shelters like Strong Island or Little Shelter offer local residents opportunities to use their cages to trap the animals so they can later be spayed and neutered. Kutzing said if the cost prohibits a resident from acting on a cat population, they should try and get their neighbors involved and make it a community fund. After all, the community cat problem is a community issue.

“If everyone gets involved, this problem will be drastically cut,” she said.

Miszuk said while her group does what it can, she needs local businesses, residents and especially local government to step in and help, otherwise the problem will only get worse.

“This problem has been swept under the carpet,” Miszuk said. “We need support to say that we are legitimate first responders.”

Smithtown Animal Shelter. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

By Kyle Barr

Town of Smithtown officials and animal advocates are purring over a new addition to the town animal shelter that will help mitigate the local feral cat issue.

The Town of  Smithtown Animal Shelter has received a New York State grant that it plans to use to build a new trap, neuter and release building on Middle Country Road. The TNR building will be separate from the main shelter in an effort to keep feral cats, also known as community cats, which may have fleas or spread infection or disease to the other animals, privately sequestered.

“The isolation is important because some of these cats are going to be sick, they’re going to have fleas — this actually separates these [community cats] from our current cats in the building that are up for adoption,” said Denise Vival, a town animal control officer.

This grant will help us to keep our adoptable pets healthy while humanely and effectively controlling the free-roaming cat population through our spay, neuter and release program.”

— Lisa Inzerillo

Town officials voted to accept the $168,750 grant at their June 12 board meeting. The town will pull matching funds equal to 25 percent of the grant, or approximately $56,250, from the town’s capital budget to complete the project.

Town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said the town is already soliciting contractor bids for the design and construction of the TNR building. The state grant funds will become available in early 2019 and the town hopes to begin construction immediately, according to Garguilo.

“This grant will help us to keep our adoptable pets healthy while humanely and effectively controlling the free-roaming cat population through our spay, neuter and release program,” Councilwoman Lisa Inzerillo (R) said.

The nonprofit American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ website advises shelters to have a TNR program to deal with feral cats, or cats that have adapted to living in small communities in the wild rather than indoors. A TNR program helps stabilize cat populations as well as prevent the spread of disease, according to the ASPCA’s website.

Vival estimates the Town of Smithtown has approximately 30 to 40 different colonies of community cats, each of which contains anywhere from 10 to 30 cats of different breeds. Without programs such as TNR, cat populations can quickly get out of control.

“We have around 80 cats in foster [care] right now, and if you release them on the street and you don’t spay and neuter them, 80 turns into a ridiculous amount,” said Kathy Giglio, a kennel attendant at the shelter.

These grants were awarded to shelters specifically that have made strides to improve the treatment, training and medical care of all our animal guests.”

— John Valentine

Vival said the town’s current TNR program, which operates behind a closed door in the back of the shelter, has six cages that each house two to three cats at a time. The shelter has a waiting list of two to three weeks before they will be able to trap and neuter different cat colonies across the town. The wait time is a problem because cats could become pregnant or give birth in that time, according to Vival. With the new building, the shelter would be able to quadruple the number of cats it can hold.

Animal rights advocate Diane Madden from the protest group Hope for Hempstead Shelter said the creation of a TNR building in the Smithtown sets up a service other government-run shelters lack.

“I wish that every town would put together a program such as this because that’s how overwhelming the amount of cats there are out there,“ Madden said. “TNR is the best, most humane way to deal with the community cat problem.”

The grant is part of a $5 million fund created by New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) that gave out awards to 14 animal shelters and humane societies across New York State. The grant is funded by the state’s 2018  budget.

“These grants were awarded to shelters specifically that have made strides to improve the treatment, training and medical care of all our animal guests,” Chief John Valentine, director of Smithtown’s public safety department said. “Building a TNR structure will give strays and rescued animals a state-of-the-art facility to comfortably isolate and medically assess them for adoption and spay/neuter release programs.”

The new building will be installed on the south side of the property, behind the main facility and east of the office trailer the shelter installed in 2017.

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