A tidal wave of stray cats is overhwelming neighborhoods across NYC

A “tidal wave” of stray cats has hit New York City this summer, paralyzing the city’s shelter system as volunteers scramble for solutions and call for more city action.

The stray cats live hard lives, often sick and at risk of infection with missing eyes or limbs. They can also carry parasites and diseases, putting other cats or even people at risk. They poop on doorsteps and kill local wildlife like birds. There are so many that the typically timid animals have become a public nuisance in some hard-hit neighborhoods.

Dozens of new volunteers and cat organizations have sprung to meet the problem, but they say they’re facing burnout. And as the summer kitten season wears on, the cat population shows no signs of stopping and the volunteers aren’t sure they can keep up with the work.

A stray cat is pictured on Green St. in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday, August 17, 2023.

Cat lovers and volunteers are calling for a stronger city response, more spay and neuter services and for more people to adopt.

“We’re not a developing country,” said Jonlyn Freeman, founder of the NYC Cat Rescuer Alliance. “…We’re a first-world country. Why is it OK just to have packs of feral cats everywhere? And have them in such bad condition? This is not normal.

“Feral cats are a sign of neglect, just like graffiti … These feral cats running amok everywhere, it not should not be considered normal in New York City.”

There’s no official count of stray and feral cats, but most place the city’s population at around 500,000 — with some estimates as high as a million.

There are groups of cat colonies, in all corners of the five boroughs, especially in low-income neighborhoods with extra empty space. The South Bronx, Jamaica, Queens and South Brooklyn are all stray cat hotspots. It’s not always a super visible problem — stray cats are shy — and it’s generally not as acute an issue in lower Manhattan or Midtown.

After COVID, the city’s stray cat problem became much worse. Spay/neuter services were put on hold, and veterinarian and staffing shortages made the problem worse. At the same time, more people were adopting pets during the pandemic.

But economic instability forced many families to move or get rid of pets they could no longer afford. Others kept their cats, but weren’t able to get them spayed or neutered. The unfixed cats started reproducing, making the problem grow bigger and bigger. Cats can have up to three litters in a year.

A stray cat sits under a vehicle on Green St. in Brooklyn on Thursday, August 17, 2023.

With few places to turn, people kicked house cats out of their homes and placed boxes of their kittens on the streets and even under cars. Now, colonies of cats are claiming block after block in outer borough neighborhoods.

There’s close to no room left in the pet shelter system and few, or very costly, appointments to get them fixed.

Earlier this month, Animal Care Centers of NYC, which is the main, city-supported nonprofit pet shelter system, actually restricted new arrivals, although Katy Hansen, their director of communications, said they still took in cats in need.

Alexandra Garza, a spokesperson for the ASPCA told the Daily News that intake numbers are rising as adoptions are staying about the same, which means that space in shelters for animals is shrinking.

Food and shelter, left out for stray cats, are pictured on Green St. in Brooklyn on Thursday, August 17, 2023.

The dearth of services means that the volunteers and organizations not only can’t keep up but are also seeing the problem getting worse before their eyes as cats continue to reproduce.

“People feel like they have no choice,” Tanya Coleman, co-founder and president of Bronx Community Cats said. “They have no work. If they can’t give it to the shelter, where are they going to send the cat?”

Stray cats lead rougher, more dangerous lives. They also compete with native wildlife like birds, and can spread dangerous diseases.

“It’s definitely a problem,” Harrison said. “Free roaming cats do impact wildlife. We all want the same thing. Nobody wants free roaming cats in the environment. The problem is so huge that we all need to work together.”

Adelia Harrison, manager at Grants and Outreach Brooklyn Cat Cafe on Montague St. in Brooklyn, is pictured Thursday, August 17, 2023.

Outdoor cats are the top transmitter of toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that can cause birth defects or miscarriage, according to Grant Sizemore, director of invasive species programs at the American Bird Conservancy. They’re also the top domestic animal carrier of rabies.

Sizemore said cats can have dire consequences on the city’s vibrant bird population, killing over 2 billion birds every year in the United States.

“We are absolutely experiencing a bird conservation crisis,” he said. “And cats are one of the larger nails in that coffin.”

“We need to we need to remove the strain of feral cats from the environment, for the protection of public health and safety for protection of wildlife, and really for the benefit of the cat population as well,” he said.

The work to keep neighborhood blocks more orderly and cats taken care of has fallen to people who are more affected by the issue.

Sassee Walker, 53, feeds several colonies of strays and five trapping sites scattered around East New York, Canarsie and Brownsville. Walker says that in her 10 years trying to make a dent in the stray cat population, she’s never been as busy as she is now.

Volunteer cat trapper Sassee Walker is pictured in Brooklyn, New York City on Friday, August 18, 2023.

The whole operation is costly and time-consuming. She spends more than 20 hours a week just outside trapping and feeding cat colonies, and upward of $500 dollars on cat food alone every month, shelling out more for litter and medicine.

“One time I was in so much debt because of all these cats, it was bad. I had maxed out all my cards,” Walker said. “ …I raise donations, but it can never cover the amount of work that I’m doing.”

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She often stays up all night trying to get cats that are evading her traps.

Walker doesn’t see it as a choice: The cats rely on her. But she’s stretched thin, beyond what may be healthy for her. It’s like a second full-time job. She’s got family and friends, and a three-year-old grandson she would like to spend more time with.

“I’m always fighting with the city,” she said. “Like this should be a job. This shouldn’t be my responsibility.”

A cat is pictured on the grounds of the NYCHA Cypress Hills Houses in Brooklyn, New York City on Friday, August 18, 2023.

Jonlyn Freeman formed a group called NYC Cat Rescuer Alliance to advocate for the rescuers themselves.

“[Last year], we were all hitting our collective breaking points,” Freeman said. “We could see that if nothing changed then this summer would be a tidal wave of feral cat overpopulation. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Tanya Coleman said that while the Bronx has always seen a pretty high stray cat population relative to the rest of the city, it’s grown even more over the past few years due to the high number of evictions and housing insecurity in the borough as reasons for the high numbers of strays, plus the cat numbers snowballing as more cats give birth.

“We have been observing that about 46% of our intake for cats that we’re actually trapping or picking up from our colony locations are adoptable cats, like stray cats that were clearly owned at some point, in some cases neutered and microchipped already,” Coleman said.

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