The forecasts called for three feet of snow. Islanders left work early to stock up on food and water. But what about the 66 cats living outdoors on the Island, some of them old, frail, or recently abandoned without winter fur growth? Enter Island Cats. Volunteers shoveled paths around feeding stations, made sure the cats had one unfrozen meal per day and access to fresh water, and checked daily for snow drifting near the four cat colonies scattered about the Island.
For many years, Roosevelt Island was an area of concern to city animal rescue activists. Hospitals and a prison were home for “inconvenient” humans into the 20th century, before the Island became a dumping ground for unwanted pets. In the 1970s, residents Marjorie Marcallino, Pat Lyons, Linda Egan, and Ann Hallowell began looking after the cats. To feed them, the women crawled through rubble and sneaked into the empty buildings that offered shelter to the cats. But the sprawling, fearful population reproduced at an alarming rate. A more formal approach was needed, with more people to help.
Island Cats was founded in 2005 by me, Hallowell, and fellow resident Rossana Ceruzzi. As always, the main object was to care for the outdoor cats. Today, we maintain the existing colonies, provide food and medical attention, and try to find homes for adoptable animals. Daily meals of wet and dry food are provided to all four colonies and the cats who prefer to live on their own, at an expense of about $1,250 per month. Medical attention ranges from spay-neutering to treatment for serious emergency conditions.
The group’s first major project was to spay and neuter cats throughout the Island, working with the ASPCA and the Toby Project. Geof Kerr offered the facilities of Boy Scout Troop 59 as holding space for the cats. RIOC and Public Safety gave their blessing to a week-long process that included trapping, surgery, and the return of each cat to its colony.
Approximately 70 cats were fixed over the first three years, with two or three craftily resisting. Guided by Neighborhood Cats and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, two City groups that care for abandoned and feral animals, Island Cats joined the nationwide Trap-Neuter-Return program (TNR), in which the cats live out their natural lives in carefully maintained colonies.
TNR has helped gradually reduce the Island cat population, though animal abandonment, punishable in New York State by fines and/or imprisonment, continues. Island Cats tries to find homes for the newly discarded and still adoptable cats, but the economy has made it more difficult. Sadly, this is now a national trend, despite a rising interest in animal rescue work. Now, most cats left on the Island must remain outdoors. Volunteers try to give them extra attention until the terrified animals adapt or disappear.
Holly Staver of City Critters once teasingly observed that the outdoor cats of Roosevelt Island are treated like “little celebrities.” That has not changed. The 21 volunteers, who range from a retired podiatrist and Island school secretary to the toddler who accompanies his dad at feeding time, get to know and care about these appreciative cats with the devotion they feel for their own pets or the ones they would like to have. Some of the original volunteers remain, like Amy Richmond, who, with her daughter Lucia, was the group’s first volunteer feeder and is now an Island Cats board member. The intrepid Marcallino, one of those first feeders in the 1970s, provides history and context as a board member “emeritus.” The group’s president, Jennifer Schuppert, is helping to shape a newer history.
Island Cats reaches out to humans, too. Our 2009 children’s cat drawing competition was one of the most successful outreach projects. (The drawing here was created by Amanda, a student of Camille Mouquinho, art teacher at The Child School.) Today, Joan Ogden, a certified pet therapist and longtime Island Cats member, visits homebound seniors and disabled residents for interaction with her trained therapy cats, Tigger and Sam, both eager cuddlers.