You’ve gotta be kitten me!: the wild world of feral cat rescue in New York City

By Lucy Papachristou

LUCY PAPACHRISTOU V/O: One day this February I awoke very early in my house in Upper Manhattan to go try and trap feral cats.

LUCY PAPACHRISTOU: Hello! I am leaving the house. It’s early, about 6:30. Still dark outside.

LUCY V/O: The best time for cat trapping, a woman named Nikki had told me the night before over the phone, is in the early morning. The cats haven’t been fed yet, and they’re more likely to be enticed by the tuna you’ve laid for them in a trap.

By 7, I was standing outside Nikki’s apartment on Riverside Drive, filling my car with a half dozen steep traps. [sound of traps clattering, cars driving by]

As we drove up to an address in the central Bronx, she told me the plan for the day.

NIKKI JONES: One of the cats we’re aiming for today is a one-eyed cat.
LUCY: A one-eyed cat?
NIKKI: Yeah. It lost an eye somehow outside. [soft guitar music starts to play in the background] Also I’m going to break into a shelter to try and get these neo-natals.

LUCY V/O: Nikki and I ended up spending a total of eight freezing hours with another cat rescuer named Stacey trying to trap a series of cats the two women had had their eyes on for weeks.

I was hooked immediately by the world they had brought me into: the vibrant, enthusiastic and determined community across New York’s five boroughs who try to care for our neglected feline neighbors.

I hadn’t even known New York had a feral cat ‘crisis’. Apparently there are half a million stray cats in the city. Once I started looking into it, I didn’t see my hometown the same.

[acoustic guitar transition music]

LUCY V/O: The story all starts with a black cat named Cooper, my mom’s neighbor Debra’s cat, a feral she adopted from the street. I saw him in the building lobby earlier this winter; Debra lets him out to prowl around there.

And it got me thinking: are there more like Cooper? What’s the story with feral cats in New York? I decided to ask Debra to connect me with cat people. She knows everyone in Harlem, and immediately texted a list of names and phone numbers. One of those led to Nikki.

But first I wanted to learn Cooper’s story. Debra found him about six years ago, outside some public housing units on 124th Street that have since been knocked down.

DEBRA DUCHIN: I watched him jump out a second-floor window onto a skinny little thing, and he was skinny-skinny. And I’m like, I’m going to start feeding him just so I befriend him.

LUCY V/O: Cooper seemed friendly, and eventually let Debra pet him. Then one day—

DEBRA: It was his time to get his food, and he comes down and he’s bleeding. He has a hole in his head.
LUCY: Nooo!

LUCY V/O: Debra brought him to a vet, got him fixed up, and brought him home. But Debra’s helped way more neighborhood cats than just Cooper. And she’s seen herself how these ‘community cats’ can really bring a community together. Like this one cat, Sebastian.

[upbeat ukulele music starts to play]

DEBRA: There were so many people that had a relationship with this cat. A couple that lived in a shelter and they used their money every day to come and feed him. They called him socks The construction guys shared their sandwich. They gave him the bacon. This cat had so many stories, we found out. He like, brought together all these people. Like a fancy woman from the loft building would bring him breakfast. Then these shelter people would come in the afternoon. They’d come holding their hands to go see their cat.

LUCY V/O: But listening to Debra I thought, Wait a minute. I grew up in New York! And while I’ve seen cats around Harlem sometimes, I didn’t think it was such a big problem. Turns out I was wrong.

LUCY: What’s up?

LUCY V/O: The first guy I meet is Ryan Robertson, who’s pretty sure he’s the only paid staff member of a cat rescue nonprofit in New York.

RYAN: [on phone] I’ll make you my first stop.

LUCY V/O: He’s on the phone right now with a volunteer.

RYAN: I have some releases too, so I should be there within the hour. I am the cat Uber driver. I got some unwilling, some unwilling rides—exactly, one star, one star, one star, no tips, will not ride again.

LUCY V/O: Ryan used to work in a bar, but now trapping cats is his life’s passion.

Flatbush Cats gets around two dozen street cats fixed a month—if they can get the appointments. During Covid, the ASPCA slashed the number of free spay/neuter slots they gave to groups like Ryan’s, and it’s been a challenge getting all the cats they find fixed.

RYAN: Even if we were able to wave a magic wand and spay, neuter, vaccinate every street cat on Brooklyn tomorrow, just like “whooosh,” it would be just a matter of a few years before we were right back where we started. Because every day, every hour, I don’t know, it’s hundreds, thousands of friendly cats that go on that journey every year from the inside to the outside.

LUCY V/O: Here’s what happens

[groovy music with heavy bass kicks in]

LUCY V/O: People find a cute kitten on the street and bring it home. But they might not get it fixed. First off, your neighborhood vet is likely to charge you hundreds of dollars. For folks in Flatbush, that’s often too much. There are also cultural and religious barriers to fixing cats. Plus plain ignorance.

And then that kitten grows up.

RYAN: They go into heat, they start climbing the curtains, climbing the walls, climbing the couch, tearing stuff up. [10:49] So you went from having a cute little cuddly kitten to now a juvenile that’s probably making your home life like, pretty miserable.

LUCY V/O: What happens then? A window is left open…the cat is taken on a one-way journey to the park one night…or driven to a different neighborhood. So you’ve got housecats on the street. They don’t know where to find food, or what cars are, or dogs. They’re very vulnerable, Ryan says.

RYAN: They’re also intact, right? They also go and get themselves pregnant, or go and impregnate somebody.

LUCY V/O: Cat population KA-BOOM.

Ryan and his volunteers are trying to do something about it. I’m chatting with him in his cat holding shelter, a renovated garage out behind a large, beautiful house on a quiet side street in Flatbush. There must be twenty steel traps spread out on tables in the room, under fluorescent lights. Each holds a cat that’s been recently fixed. They’re relaxing for a few days after their procedure.

A volunteer is there checking on them and realizes one is friendlier than the others. Ryan comes over to see her, reaching his hand into the trap to pet her.

[cat purring sounds]

RYAN: Hi! Come here!
LUCY: That’s the best noise.
RYAN: You’re gonna get an upgrade, kiddo.

LUCY V/O: That cat is going to get adopted pretty easily.

That’s a relatively simple cat rescue story, as they go. Julie Flanagan has a more colorful one.

JULIE FLANAGAN: So basically the backstory is that a gentleman had died in an apartment and he had 34 cats. Yeah I know, crazy.

LUCY V/O: She helps run a cat rescue group in Washington Heights called WaHi Cats. She said this is her craziest cat story.

JULIE: Unfortunately when he died, he was loner and people didn’t know until the cadaver smell sort of sneaked under the door. And the super eventually realized something was wrong, went in and found the cats. And I don’t know what they were eating up to that point. Hopefully not him.

[fun circus music kicks in]

LUCY V/O: Julie says when the police got there, the cadaver smell was so bad that they had to open a window onto the fire escape. But what else escaped? The 34 cats!

JULIE: The desperation in people’s voices when they were contacting us. Like, Help us, cats everywhere! And the people in the building—where the fire escape—they were putting food out for them. It was incredible actually that they took such good care of them.

LUCY V/O: The 34 orange and white cats all got adopted. When Julie was telling me this crazy story, of the neighbors in a large apartment building joining together to feed the cats, I thought of Nikki, the woman I’d gone cat trapping with back in February.

Nikki is just like those people. She’s a pro cat trapper—and has the deep red scratch marks all along her hands and arms to prove it. She’s been trapping for six or seven years. Her husband has a job, but she has a medical condition and doesn’t work. So Nikki spends most of her days trapping cats, coordinating adoptions, and promoting cat rescue on social media. There’s no shortage of things to do.

And the way cat rescuers work is one cat at a time. One trap at a time, that is.

NIKKI: We’re going to use a couple of different traps. One of them is a drop trap that you’ll see. The other ones are much easier. Just set ‘em up and it’s like, bing bang boom.

LUCY V/O: A good trapping session requires planning ahead. Where are the cats living? How do we get into the building, access the alleway, the courtyard? Will the super let us in, is he friendly?

Stacey is our fixer today; she lives in the neighborhood and knows the cats we’re trying to trap. She’s a fast talker, blonde, daughter of a cop, thick Bronx accent.

NIKKI: Oh, I was telling her how passionate you are when it comes to cats.
STACEY BUSCH: No, I can rescue cats, one or two. But when I have people dumping them on me like left and right, it’s just forget about it. I’m just a trapper. I’m a feeder. I’m not a fosterer.

LUCY V/O: It’s around 9am by the time we start trapping in the central Bronx, just off Gun Hill Road. Stacey and Nikki sketch out a basic plan.

NIKKI: Okay.
STACEY: Now what about Sylvester?
NIKKI: Sylvester is the black and white one-eyed?
STACEY: I know how he lost the eye. There’s a fence he’s going under, it probably got caught in the fence.
NIKKI: Oh, he’s a priority. Sylvester is one of the priorities, along with the babies, along with the kitten. Those guys are the priorities right now.
STACEY: So which one would you wanna start? You can run the show.

LUCY V/O: Before I know what’s going on, Nikki and Stacey are slipping behind garbage cans, prying open emergency exit doors. Nikki at one point scales a chain-link fence, catching her jeans and ripping a sizable hole in them.

NIKKI: [sounds of fence rattling] Like I said, I’m used to this.
STACEY: My goodness, you’re athletic!

LUCY V/O: Sure, we’re trying to catch these cats. But I’m just along for the ride, relishing in the strangeness of it all. And as the hours pass and morning slips into afternoon, I realize that I’ve never really seen the city in this way before.

If you think of New York as a giant, multi-layered cake, it was like we sliced away a section of it, and peered into its layers.

We’re zigzagging across this maze of Bronx courtyards, and I feel like Indiana Jones on a mission, but instead of a cache of gold I’m looking for Sylvester, the one-eyed cat.

STACEY: I know where those cats hang out. They hang out in there and they jump down and eat by the shelter.

LUCY V/O: I found cat trapping to be a fun romp, but the work clearly wears on Nikki and Stacey.

STACEY: I’m retiring this year. I’m taking a break for about a year from all this. I just can’t anymore.
LUCY: Why not?
STACEY: Too much.
LUCY: Too much what?
STACEY: Too much work. It’s just too much. There’s like 500,000 strays in the city of New York. Half a million strays. I mean how am I supposed to get every stray cat? I pick up people’s disregards. Basically they disregard their cats and here I am picking them up. [laughs]

LUCY V/O: Ultimately, though, both Nikki and Stacey think it’s worth it. And I have to agree with them. In a world full of moral complexities and existential anxieties, what could be simpler than rescuing an animal in need?

Oh, I should say though, we didn’t catch a single cat that day. Eight hours and nothing to show for it but a good time.

I’ll close with this: the moment when Nikki revealed exactly how many cats she has in her apartment. She didn’t want me to say the number, so I bleeped it out, but let’s just say it’s in the dozens.

NIKKI: Frankly, you were asking me about how many cats I have in my home. [bleep] Okay? So, that’s how many.
LUCY: Wait what? Right now?
LUCY: Wait, you said five before.
NIKKI: We have seven of our own.
LUCY: W-w-w-wait.

[old-fashioned ragtime piano music begins]

NIKKI: With our fosters—
LUCY: You have [bleep] in your apartment?
NIKKI: Yes. Yeah.
STACEY: Look at her face.
NIKKI: I know. You’re in shock. I cannot tell you how many cats—
LUCY: How much do you spend on food?
NIKKI: It’s two months’ worth. We got $2,000 worth of food.

LUCY V/O: Special thanks to Nikki, and Stacey, and Ryan, and Julie, and my mom’s neighbor Debra, and her cat Cooper, and all of the feral cats of New York City.