The basic facts on street cats

Local animal advocate gives opinions on how to help

Hoboken resident Katherine Zavartkay was brought up to think pets are family. Becoming involved with a campaign to end animal testing around 15 years ago reaffirmed those core values, and she now devotes much of her time to being an “animal advocate.”
But, she says, displaying her characteristic humor, she’ll also answer to “crazy cat lady.”
Because she works with several rescue organizations in both New York and New Jersey, she finds herself constantly answering questions about animals – spaying and neutering, adopting, what to do with a beloved family pet someone can no longer keep.
The most common questions are about the large number of street cats, especially around Weehawken and Union City. Is it okay to feed them? Are they dangerous? Can they be kept as pets? Does something need to be done about them?
Although not everyone agrees on the exact definition, there is a difference between “stray” and “feral.” Strays either escaped from or were abandoned by their owners. Feral cats were most likely born and raised in the wild, or have spent most of their lives there. There are ways to distinguish the two, although it takes experience to know for sure. If a cat approaches you or lets you pet it, it’s most likely a stray. Feral cats avoid humans.
Misconceptions about feral cats
Zavartkay says there are many misconceptions about these animals. One is that feral cats have a short, harsh life on the streets. Actually, she says, their life span is comparable to domestic cats, and since they’ve never lived indoors, they manage pretty well outside. They can sometimes fare better than cats in the country, because there’s less competition with, and danger from, wild animals like foxes or raccoons. They live in colonies, and know where to find shelter in bad weather.
Another myth is that these cats kill wild birds; in reality, they’re useful in keeping the rodent population down. Nor are they harmful to humans. Independent studies quoted in veterinary medical journals state that feral cats pose no greater risk to humans, or other cats, than pet cats do. It can be difficult but not impossible to domesticate feral cats, although kittens can be socialized if caught in time.
Feral cats have lived among people since civilization began. Bearing in mind that they really are part of the urban ecosystem, and knowing that there are far too many to ever find homes for, Zavartkay agrees with most animal rescue workers, and endorses TNR –Trap, Neuter, Release. During this process, cats are also cleaned up, checked for diseases and put up for adoption if possible. TNR keeps the colony healthy and its population under control, but the program does need to be carefully monitored. (Not all animal advocates support TNR.)
Strays tend not to fare as well; they simply do not have the survival skills of their feral cousins. Thinking a domestic pet is going to adapt quickly to outdoor life is a false assumption. So Zavartkay stresses that it’s important to realize even before getting a cat that it can be an eighteen-year commitment.
How to give up a cat
Should a situation arise where there’s no possible way for you to keep your cat, there are options, though not many. The first and most obvious is to see if a friend or relative can take them. Possibly your vet or local pet store can refer you to a local no-kill shelter, rescue group, or other organization, or even an individual who’s interested in adopting –though the ASPCA and the Humane Society, Zavartkay is quick to point out, destroy animals that have been at the shelter too long.
And, she says emphatically, “They should definitely NOT go through Craig’s List!”
Cats, especially those that have been declawed, can serve as therapy pets in hospitals. You can also try putting up signs up in the neighborhood saying you have a pet for adoption.
Should you find a cat you think might belong to someone, and can take them in for a couple of days (making sure to keep it separated from your other pets), posting notices around the neighborhood is still probably the best way to locate the owner. You can also notify your local vets, animal hospitals and shelters. Jersey City has the Liberty Humane shelter, and each local town either has its own or contracts with one (often Liberty or the Associated Humane Societies shelter in Newark).
And lastly, you can post “Found Pet” reports at the PETS 911 and PetFinder websites.
Stray kittens are trickier, but the web site of advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies has in-depth, detailed advice on what courses of action there are. The site overall contains an enormous amount of information having to do with all matters feline.
Feral cats may not want to move in with you, but you can still help make their lives a little easier. That includes feeding them, but Zavartkay suggests putting the food in a place that’s accessible but somewhat away from people. You can also put a shelter in your yard; this can be something as simple as a plastic-covered cardboard carton. Neighborhood Cats has instructions on constructing shelters for feral cats as well as one to buy for those who have no technical expertise.
Information sources
To find out more about adoption, donating time or money to TNR efforts, or the topic of street cats in general, these web sites offer a wealth of information: A good all-around information source Features information on low-cost spaying and neutering. has a list of adoptable cats, and may also be able to offer information on where to take a pet you can no longer keep. explains the viability of no-kill animal shelters.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group