City Howl Help Desk: Ending stray-cat problem is no easy fix

A stray cat. (Juliana Reyes/Staff)
A stray cat. (Juliana Reyes/Staff)
Posted: February 08, 2012

DUSTIN Laws was surrounded. There was the yowling at night. The cat squatting in his flowerpot, claiming it as a litter box. And, of course, the frisky felines right in front of his house, doing the deed.

"It's, like, take it somewhere else!" Laws said.

Stray cats were taking over his tiny Queen Village block.

It's not the only cat invasion in the city. We also spoke with the president of the West Passyunk Neighbors Association, who said that dozens of stray cats were seeking refuge in an RV abandoned in a vacant lot on Snyder Avenue.

Stray cats are a part of city life. But things can get out of hand, Laws said, when a neighbor starts feeding the cats, as one of his did this summer.

Not just little snacks, either. We're talking feeding stations made of cereal boxes that evolved into "cat condos," as another frustrated neighbor put it.

Chained to a grate on the side of the cat caregiver's house, one of the condos is an overturned compost bin with a hole cut out of it as a doorway. There's food, water and what looks like hay in there.

Since this practice started, Laws has noticed several new cats around, and kittens, too.

Last month, his neighbor chained another cat-condo to the fence of the community garden across the street from Laws' house, but Laws wouldn't have it. He tried speaking with the neighbor, and, though she agreed to get rid of the newest cat shelter, she refused to do away with the others, he said.

When we visited the block, we saw four cats, including one slinking out of the compost-bin cat condo. We weren't able to speak with Laws' condo-building neighbor, but we wondered: Is there anything Laws can do to stop his block from going to the cats?

CITY CATS 101: There's a vast network of people who care for stray-cat "colonies." That's because, advocates say, there are tens of thousands of stray cats in Philadelphia.

How'd that happen? Simple - people don't get their cats spayed or neutered, then let them out, or abandon them. Add the fact that cats can get pregnant at five months old, and you've got a lot of cats on the loose.

Lots of folks care for these cats. Project M.E.O.W., a volunteer group focused on stray cats in West Philadelphia, has 150 cat "caregivers" in its database, said founder Debby Boyd.

It's also not uncommon for residents to get frustrated with a neighbor who's feeding cats. But there are two important parts of stray-cat care that shouldn't be forgotten: neutering the cats and communication.

"If you're not going to fix them, you're just adding to the problem," said Kathy Jordan, president of the volunteer group Philly Cats Council.

All the advocates we spoke with support trap-neuter-return, or TNR, as a method of stray-cat care. It involves trapping the cats (many stray-cat groups, like the Philly Cats Council, lend out humane traps), taking them to a clinic to get fixed (some clinics will do the surgery for as low as $30 per cat) and then releasing them. Last year, the Philly Cats Council spayed or neutered 3,500 cats at its clinic at the Pennsylvania SPCA.

Communication is also key, Boyd said. If you don't let your neighbors know the benefits of what you're doing, you run the risk of ticking them off. Not everyone wants to share his block with a bunch of cats.

Laws' neighbor told him that she wanted to get the neighborhood cats neutered, but he hasn't seen any traps yet.

ARE THE CATS OUTLAWS?: If cats take over a block, is there anything city government can do to help take it back?

The city says there's not. It can't stop neighbors from feeding cats, said deputy managing director Brian Abernathy, because doing so isn't against the law. (Strangely enough, it's illegal to feed just one kind of animal in Philadelphia: pigeons.)

Abernathy added that the city does not have the resources to trap stray cats. The city does occasionally partner with Penn Veterinary School to offer $10-per-cat TNR clinics (there's actually one next weekend).

We'd recommend a little more publicity for efforts like that. When it's done properly, stray-cat care can be good for the neighborhood. But done poorly, it can attract other wild animals, including rats, or turn the community garden into one big litter box.

Got an incoherent city service problem? Tell us about it at, @phillyhowl on Twitter, or 215-854-5855. More columns at

. Juliana Reyes reports for It's Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY (and funded by the William Penn Foundation) that seeks to explain where your tax dollars are going.

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