No one knows exactly how many ferals there are in the United States, but the ASPCA places the population at 70 million—and counting. Cats are extremely fecund: Left to their own devices, two can become 62 in three years. “When you have an area with a large population of these cats, they become a nuisance,” says Ross, who fields a lot of calls complaining about cats caterwauling, digging through garbage, defecating in gardens and sandboxes and spraying urine. The more informed of them express concerns about diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis, which results in neurological problems, including a mental illness associated with cat-hoarding, caused by a parasite in cat feces. What the callers want, Ross says, is for someone to get rid of them, but given the lax laws, he can’t be sure if the animals in question are strays or someone’s pet. Trapping them is too difficult and time-consuming for cash-poor Animal Control departments, and since cats, unlike dogs, don’t present an overt threat to humans, they’re generally allowed to remain on the street, where they continue to multiply.
“The population has tripled over the past 40 years. Tripled,” says George Fenwick. Wild of eye and George Lucas of hair, Fenwick runs the American Bird Conservancy, an organization he founded back in the early nineties after watching his neighbor’s cat decimate his backyard bird population. While birds are the group’s primary focus, cats are a close second. An early campaign, Cats Indoors!, encouraged cat owners to keep their pets inside, and the animals remain a bête noire. The killer instinct that makes them valuable in controlled circumstances, the Conservancy argues, is a liability on the streets, where increasing numbers of ferals are wiping out other species. “For every cat on the street, 200 birds are killed annually,” says Fenwick, a font of such information. Sitting in the ABC office above a Chinese restaurant in Washington, he rattles off types at risk: ground-nesters like California least terns, cardinals, house wrens, endangered species like piping plovers. “The important thing to remember is that even when they are fed, they still kill,” he adds. “They kill for fun.” Fenwick likens cats, who were introduced to the environment by humans, to invasive species like kudzu in the Northeast or pythons in Florida. “It’s an immense ecological problem,” he says.
It’s a problem without an easy solution, especially when more and more animal shelters are embracing the “no kill” philosophy, in which strays are rehabilitated and put up for adoption. “Socializing” a cat that’s been living on the streets takes a tremendous amount of commitment, and many are beyond it—as Ludacris says, you can’t turn a ho into a housewife—and there are too many of them for the shelters to take in and let linger. Euthanasia was never that effective, so as long as people abandon cats and let them run around unsterilized, the population will keep refreshing itself.
For the past several years, animal activists have been trying something new. Around the time Fenwick was setting up ABC, a former social worker named Becky Robinson was parking her car in Northwest D.C. when she came upon a clowder of strays in an alley. “There were at least 54,” says Robinson, who is tall and lanky with a ruffled pixie haircut. “I could tell they were related because they were all black with a white stripe here,” she says, running her fingers down the front of her shirt. We were sitting in the Maryland offices of Alley Cat Allies, the group she founded after that night to advocate on behalf of what she calls “the forgotten ones,” largely through promoting a practice called “Trap, Neuter, Return.”
As its name suggests, Trap, Neuter, Return—TNR for short—consists of capturing stray cats, having them sterilized, and returning them to the “colony” whence they came. There, they are overseen by volunteers who provide food, water, and handmade shelters. The hypothesis is that once the procreation cycle is curbed, the colony will die out naturally. In the meantime, the feeding and spaying stops the nuisance behavior that irritated the neighbors, who are encouraged to think of them as “community cats.” “This is about coexisting,” says Robinson. “This is about compassion. This is about humanity, how we exist, how we interact. This is about respect for life.”
Robinson speaks with a soft Kansas accent and the conviction of a preacher, and over the past two decades, Alley Cat Allies has persuaded the ASPCA, the Humane Society, and sundry nonprofit organizations to officially endorse TNR. Additionally, “at least 300 municipalities have passed some kind of law that embraces it,” she says. Including New York City, which in 2011 passed Local Law 59, sanctioning TNR as a method of feline population control. These days, the yowling stray that was once an iconic part of the cityscape has gone the way of Times Square’s Live Nude Girls. Now feral cats inhabit dwellings that mirror our own, from salvaged-wood spaces in Williamsburg to uptown shelters designed by famous architects.