The metal equipment clanged against the walls as we climbed the steep staircase. Before we reached the door, the acrid smell hit us and I wished I hadn’t eaten so much at the holiday luncheon. The cat hoarding stench is unique, a chemical reek that burns the throat and stings the eyes. Un-neutered male spray mixed with stale cat urine and feces that has absorbed into the furniture, walls, and floors. “Judy, I’m going to lose it,” I gagged. “I hear you,” Judy agreed and we continued mounting the worn steps up to the second-floor apartment. Charlotte, the visiting nurse who alerted the humane society about the situation, announced us, “Zelma, these ladies are here to help you get your cats fixed. They are volunteers with the humane society.” “Uht, uh, not today. I don’t feel like it today.” Zelma was an elderly lady with gray wiry hair tied in a bun. She was sitting on a wooden chair with caning hanging down beyond the frame in a dark room next to the kitchen. There were four litter boxes in the small room, all filled with urine and clumps of feces. Her fourteen-year-old grandson who was going to help us with the cats entered from a side room and pulled a shirt over his bare chest. “We got too many cats, they gonna help us.” Johnny told his grandmother. “I don’t see any cats. I don’t see them and I’m not doing it. I’m not letting them do it!” Zelma’s voice rose. “How many cats you think we have?” “We only have about four. That’s all and they don’t bother me.” Johnny scoffed, “We got twenty-five cats here in this apartment! We got cats living in the walls!” “NO, we have FOUR and I’m not letting them take my cats!” Zelma shrieked. She then turned to Charlotte who had managed to get two of the cats fixed before we were called in to help, “You stole my cats and you didn’t bring them back and I ‘m not doing it! I’m not stupid!” Charlotte had brought the cats back after surgery but Zelma wouldn’t listen to reason. Charlotte led us down a narrow hallway to a bedroom. When she opened the door, cats scattered under a single bed pushed up against a wall. A mother cat was lying in the closet with two newborn kittens. One was much smaller than the other and probably wasn’t going to make it. Feces was smeared on the floor; literally a shit show. Zelma burst through the doorway, “You’re not taking my cats! You’re NOT!” I am a cat trapper and my specialty is Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR). TNR is the process of controlling the feral cat population. One all-black kitten in my neighborhood started me on this journey and now, years later, I am part of a sub-culture of volunteer cat rescuers. I work with two rescue partners, Judy and Val, and we get our rescue jobs either through the humane societies we work with or word of mouth. Many of the situations are similar. Usually there is one feeder or a small group of feeders, the empaths in the community, who take on providing food to a cat in their yard or school grounds or outside of their work place. The one cat brings his girlfriend around and soon there are adorable kittens. How cute! they think. The problem with kittens is they grow up and have more kittens. This process continues and when the feeders see the cycle spiraling out of control, someone reaches out for help. The feeders want help and understand something has to be done but when we tell them how it works, the first thing they say is, “You’ll never catch those cats; they’re wild.” After trapping over a thousand cats, I smile and say, “trust us.” Val’s family owns a deli and one of the customers who works in the Bronx asked her if we could fix a colony of cats at her work place. We typically stick close to home, suburbs of New York City, but it is hard to say no when you have a skill set and you know you can help. My conscience nags at me until I finally agree to get involved, even if it isn’t convenient. Val and I made a plan to meet Victoria after work one summer evening. We loaded the cab of the deli pickup truck with our supplies and plugged the address into GPS. Val didn’t know what type of business; she just knew there were cats that needed to be fixed. I followed the directions and guided her as we traveled down the Hutchinson River Parkway. Not far off the exit we reached the address and as we pulled into the facility, I read the sign inscribed on the stone wall at the entrance, ‘The Bronx Behavioral, Psychiatric, and Addiction Facility.’ Never a dull moment, I thought. Victoria was late so we drove around the large property. The first few buildings were new and well maintained. As we drove further from the main entrance, we saw boarded up brick buildings, crusted pavement, and overgrown brush. When Victoria arrived, we met her in the back of the grounds by one of the decrepit buildings. Her eyes darted around skittishly, “I asked my boss if we could trap the cats but he said no so I can’t be seen with you ladies. There are cameras everywhere.” Most people welcome the free service we offer so I was curious to know why her boss didn’t want us there. Victoria explained, “He said if one of the patients strung out on drugs touches a cat in the trap and gets bit, we could have legal trouble.” “Not happening,” I told her. We don’t let anyone touch the traps and we never leave the traps unattended outside at night; there is too great a chance of getting a raccoon, possum, or skunk. Not that we haven’t caught these animals before but we prefer not. It is a tricky process to release them, especially a skunk and luckily none have wreaked revenge on us. We followed Victoria in her car as she pointed out the spots where the cats usually hang out but there were no cats in sight. At one point, we stopped our cars across the street from a fenced-in yard next to one of the new buildings and exited our cars. There was a double layer of fences, one mimicked the other a few feet away. Victoria’s eyes darted to the fence, “There are cameras on top, over there.” As we were talking, a few patients in the confined yard noticed her. They approached the barrier and extended their arms above their heads clawing at the links and calling her name. “Victoria, what exactly do you do here?” I wanted to know. “I’m in forensics. I deal with murderers, rapists, lots of people. I don’t stay here at night. If it’s dark, security walks me to my car.” I tripped over my feet, jaw slack, but we were there and weren’t turning back. Victoria was jumpy and we didn’t see any cats so we told her to leave. “We’ll follow you out,” Val told her. We figured we would come back another time. Although we intended to head home, a dumpster on the side of a building caught our eyes. Val pulled in, “Let’s just check it out and then we’ll leave.” As soon as we made the turn, our headlights lit up a gang of cats clustered next to the dumpster. Val stopped the pickup truck and we began our synchronized routine - unload the traps, scoop the food into paper plates, put the food in the back of the traps, cover the traps with towels, implement the trigger and we were ready to go. We set the traps out on the pavement, climbed back in the truck, and turned off the headlights. Almost immediately we heard the clang of one of the hinged doors closing. The other three set off quickly too and within ten minutes we had four cats. When we are in hunting mode, we are hyper-focused and lose our surroundings. All we think about is the goal. At one point, Val pivoted toward the building behind us, “Holly, they are looking at us!” I turned around and saw a cluster of people on the ground floor inside the building plastered against the full-length windows intently staring at us. On the second floor, another man glued to a window fixed his gaze on us. He stood motionless except for a deliberate circling of his hand slowly brushing his teeth. We were the entertainment for the night. Then we heard garble from a loud speaker on the outside of the building. “mwhahsjyus . . . grmnb . . . security . . . . trnbsh . . . building . . . impshrpshe . . . 2 . . . . .” is all we heard but it was clear - management was calling security on us. “Holly, we got to get out of here!” Val wanted to pull the traps. “Val, hold on, there is one more cat.” I urged the cat under my breath, “Go in, please go in the damn trap!” “Val, I’ll talk to security. We aren’t doing anything wrong. We’re doing them a favor!” The cat circled the trap, sniffing the food and then cautiously slunk low crawling inside the trap. The hinged flap clanged shut and I bolted out of the truck, flung the towel over the trap as the cat twisted and somersaulted trying to escape. Grabbing the trap by the handle, I heaved it in the back with the other traps and Val gunned the pickup exiting the property. We reached our quota and were heading back to our homes in the suburbs. My friend Anne-Marie doesn’t like cats. In all else, she is reasonable but I can’t convince her to open her mind. I tell her that cats have different personalities, just like dogs or humans, some are affectionate and some are aloof. But she doesn’t see it that way. To her, they are all cold-blooded. Even though she doesn’t like cats, she does support my efforts to control the feral cat population. Maybe it’s because there are fewer cats in the world because of what I do. One night, Anne-Marie and I went to dinner at a bistro in our town. The hostess led us to a table and a few minutes later the waitress handed us menus. The waitress, a young woman in her thirties, took one look at me and said, “You got me my kitten! Remember me? I’m Serena. You trapped kittens under my friend’s porch and she took one kitten and I took the other one! We love them! Do you want to see photos?” Of course, I wanted to see photos. I was thrilled that she loved her cat and it was gratifying to know that two more cats were saved and off the street. The kittens were at the perfect age to socialize and were now pampered house cats. Serena and I were gushing about her adorable cat but Anne-Marie didn’t show much interest in the stories or photos. When Serena left our table, Anne-Marie looked straight at me and blurted out, “You are Pussy Galore!” I had to face it, I was the town’s crazy cat lady and I was an addict. I was addicted to rescue. It wasn’t a casual relationship and it was catching up with me. I devoted too much time to the cats and the whole process. Rescue work sucks you in and swallows you up. Even the people at the humane society told us to take care of ourselves. They were worried and they weren’t wrong, we were way over our heads. Rescue is a slippery slope and I had luged recklessly to full speed. I was sneaking out of bed at night, not for an extramarital rendezvous, but to pick up feral cats. I missed dinners with my family because I was out trapping or bringing medicine to a sick cat or delivering a shelter to a cat on a frigid night. I dropped everything to rush to the humane society with injured cats and I couldn’t stop thinking of the ones we missed who were outside suffering. Things were spiraling out of control. I had an epiphany one night when my husband and I were at a dinner with three other couples. One of the women had a small colony of feral cats in her yard and a heated barn where they lived. I was happy to learn the cats were spayed and neutered, the main goal of our work. We were exchanging cat stories when she told me something disturbing. Katherine, her husband and daughter were leaving for a family vacation. The car service to take them to the airport had pulled up in the driveway. It was early morning and when Katherine went outside to feed her cats before leaving, she noticed one was sick. He had goopy eyes and was having trouble breathing. Seeing his condition, she walked to the idling car in her driveway, yanked her suitcase from the trunk and said goodbye to her husband and daughter. Katherine missed out on the family vacation. I don’t blame her and I wondered what I would have done. But looking at the situation from an outside lens rattled me and I thought, What am I doing? I was trapped by my obsession to rescue. How was I any different than Zelma or even the patients at the addiction facility? I had to shift my focus. I couldn’t let the cats take precedence over my family and consume my life. I want to help all the cats, the ferals, the strays, and the kittens, but I can’t and still hold onto my life. With a new perspective and a few conversations with Val and Judy about setting limits, I went back in the trenches. I couldn’t walk away completely. That would have been the easy way out but I couldn’t do it. Once I was exposed to the problem and saw the harsh life of feral cats, I couldn’t shut my eyes to it. And rescue feeds my soul. Animals are genuine; they are never duplicitous. They teach us humility and gratitude. Feral cats don’t need much; regular meals, a community, and a safe environment. Strays, cats that lived in a home but are outside because they are lost or have been dumped by their owners, don’t hold a grudge and are able to heal and trust once they are placed with a responsible owner. They typically make the best pets because they know they are safe. One stray we rescued had a broken tail. Neighborhood kids knotted a string to his tail and on the other end of the string they tied a can so when he ran, he dragged the clanging can behind him. The string tightened and cut through the tip of his tail. A feral cat wouldn’t let anyone get near him so we knew this cat didn’t belong outside. He was a scrawny black and white tuxedo and once we had him, he hung his head and balled himself up; he had shut down. After he was fully vetted, we found an adopter. Darlene, a local woman in the community, contacted me and said she wanted him. At least she was willing to try and see how he got along with her dog. When he went to Darlene’s home, it was dicey at first and I wasn’t sure it would work out. The dog wasn’t the issue. Griffin liked the dog and the dog tolerated him, but Griffin peed on the couch and hid whenever anyone was around. Having a tough time adjusting to life inside, he was not an ideal pet. However long he had been living on the streets, it was enough to forget home life. I was afraid we would have to find another option for him, maybe a working cat in a business or a barn to control the mice and rats, but Darlene persisted. We encounter the worst people who abuse cats and we also see the best; Darlene is the best. Not giving up on Griffin, she worked hard to gain his trust. Soft spoken and gentle, Darlene got Griffin to settle in and adapt. When Griffin died, Darlene sent me this text:
“Hey Holly, Tomorrow, it will be four years since you brought Griffin to my home all scruffy and smelly. I just wanted to let you know that Griffy was the most wonderful, beautiful kitty with the most golden heart. He brought so very much joy to my life. I adored him beyond words and my heart is in pieces. Maybe it is the fact that I expected to have him for much longer but this has been brutal. Thank you for bringing him into my life. Everyone that met him loved him. He was with me at all times – never left my side. I’ll miss him forever. You saved him from the street and he saved me from everything.” The last sentence of Darlene’s text echoes in my head. Griffin saved her from everything. We help the cats and stop the cycle of cats being born outside to a harsh life but it is more than that. Rescue is in the core and I pour my heart into it. Helping the cats feeds my soul and keeps me going. It levels me and gives me a purpose when I am floundering. I think about my father’s words, “God takes care of those who take care of innocent little children and innocent animals.” Rescue work saves lives and that is spiritually satisfying. Zelma allowed us to bring four of her cats to be fixed that first visit but we are still chipping away at it. Johnny wrangled the cats into traps as they twisted and clawed at him. These cats were more feral than friendly because they were breeding inside the house and not getting socialized. A hoarder mentality is intractable and tough to break but they are not evil people. They believe they are doing a good deed and don’t understand the health issues for the animals or themselves. Even though we offered to get the cats adopted, Zelma wouldn’t hear of it; she wanted all of them home with her. When we returned the cats that were fixed, Zelma was sitting on her perch focused on the blaring television. “How are the cats, Zelma?” I shouted over the din. “They’re good. Thank you. Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas to you too Zelma!” Then I made a promise to the rest of the cats we needed to trap, “We’ll be back for you.”
Holly Malkasian is an editor, essayist and accomplished cat trapper. Her work has been published in the Rye Record and she am an editor at thefiftybest.com, an online lifestyle publication. Holly has studied personal essay form at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.