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Here Kitty, Kitty: Pet Lovers to the Rescue!

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Slope Street Cats, a Park Slope-based group of volunteers held together by a love of what they do and a snazzy web site, are helping to thin Brooklyn’s feral cat population, one colony at a time. Founder and president Jesse Oldham, a 31-year-old who moved into her 22nd Street apartment three years ago, was floored by the huge stray cat problem that was evident as close as her own street. “I saw cats sleeping in the snow and in cardboard boxes, that I couldn’t touch,” she said. That’s the difference between “stray” cats and “feral” cats: strays may have once been housecats, whereas feral cats are born and raised on the street, and have never been domesticated. They are wild, subject to the elements and are usually afraid of people. Oldham wanted to help these cats, and help control her neighborhood’s feral population. She learned about “trap-neuter-release,” or TNR, in which volunteers set out to try and capture feral cats in humane traps, bring them to a vet and have them vaccinated and “altered” (spayed or neutered) and then return the cats to the street. All that work isn’t easy – or cheap. It takes hours upon hours of trial and error, setting and resetting cages, and hundreds of dollars in vet bills. Oldham soon realized she couldn’t go it alone, and looked to the World Wide Web. “There was no TNR going on at all in Brooklyn,” she said. So in 2004, she started the Web site slopestreetcats.com to help locate like-minded people who doing the same thing and to help share their resources It seems to have worked, as in the case of David Green and his wife. “We’d been feeding stray cats on our own, but we didn’t know anything about the between ferals and strays,” David said. So they took a workshop through Neighborhood Cats, a TNR organization in Manhattan, and operated on their own until a mass e-mail from Slope Street Cats reached them. “We got picked up through Web,” he said. The Web has been key to the group’s success, Oldham said. “One of the reasons I even bothered forming the group is so it had a name,” she said. “When you’re just doing TNR, people are wary. But when you have a group doing TNR, and it has a name and a face, it lends it some validity.” Now, Slope Street Cats, a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization with nine volunteers, is still Brooklyn’s only TNR program. Those services are executed on a case-by-case basis, Oldham said. People in neighborhoods all over Brooklyn request help doing TNR work on colonies of cats near their homes. They then go to the same workshop the Greens attended – it’s now mandatory – and learn the ins and outs of TNR. “We’ll do it for people who can’t to it themselves,” Oldham said. “But the workshop weeds out a lot of people right off the bat.” Of course, such operations come at a price, and Oldham used to pay for most of the costs associated with it out of pocket. Now that Slope Street Cats is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, much of what she spends is a tax write-off. A small amount of money, Oldham said, also comes from the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, but the lion’s share of recouped funds comes from TNR and adoption fees. Each cat or kitten taken off the street, fixed and returned comes with a $75 fee. And cats that are adopted have a $30 fee attached. “It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s something,” Oldham said. “People will often give a lot more,” she added. “They see what we’re doing and will write us a check on the spot.” And even those who don’t give financial support often help out however they can. “People pretty much are usually amenable, once they realize once you’re not going to hurt the cats,” Oldham said. “Even if they don’t like the cats.” Sometimes it takes a little warming up, she said, but eventually most people come around. “Even when people pretend they’re not interested, they see us trapping and bring us sardines,” she said. Of course, there are those who would prefer the cats dead to neutered, and they’ll often resort to feeding cats food laced with arsenic or rat poison. But poisoning is not only illegal, but also counterproductive, said Rose-Marie Whitelaw, a Slope Street Cats volunteer. “It doesn’t hurt the colonies, just the cats, cats when [people] poison them,” she said. “The intact members just breed up the numbers again. Kittens can come in and replace the others anyway,” she said. Oldham called it the vacuum effect. And, Oldham added, poisoning cats – or other cruelty to animals – is a felony in New York. Also against the law is dumping pets on the street, something that tends to happen after the holiday season. When all the “Christmas puppies and kittens,” bought as pets for eager children, become too much to handle or undesirable, the unfortunate animals often end up alone, hungry and helpless. “People lock cats in garbage cages in February and let them starve to death,” Oldham said. ‘Crazy Cat Ladies’ There are some men involved in TNR work – David Green, for instance, or Bryan Kortis, the executive director of Neighborhood Cats – but it’s accepted fact that most of the volunteers who do TNR work are women. “In rescue, guys aren’t that prevalent – I think they think it looks wussy,” Oldham said. One volunteer recounted a time when “some guys saw us trapping, and they came out and brought us this book… and some sardines,” she said. “When guys see the traps, they get excited, but other than that…” she trailed off. “I was feeding a cat in the street the other night, and two guys walked by. The were like, ‘Crazy cat lady,’ shaking their heads,” said Slope Street Cats volunteer Elyse Shuk, of Boerum Hill. “It’s a term I really dislike.” Oldham said that the concept of a “cat lady calendar” had been half-jokingly tossed around. “It’d be called, ‘When cat ladies attack – crazy cat ladies turned hot,” she said. “I’ve seen these totally drop-dead gorgeous women doing cat rescue,” Whitehall said, saying ex-models could be enlisted for the photographic endeavor. “There’s no reason why that stereotype should persist.” And all the women volunteers agree that there’s “definitely that stigma, that women who love cats can’t get a man, that they have the cats instead of a boyfriend,” Whitehall said. But most of the female Slope Street Cats volunteers are attached. The next question then becomes, “What does your boyfriend think of all this?” “If he had an issue, he wouldn’t be my boyfriend,” Oldham said. Even so, “You really do meet some crazy nuts,” Whitehall said. One woman she encountered referred to herself as an “animal rescuer/animal behaviorist,” and refused to help the TNR project near her home, saying the kittens belonged with her. “If you’re really a behaviorist, do you really think these 5-week-old kittens took a stroll across the Prospect Expressway?” Oldham said. One devout Catholic Whitehall met had issue with the entire TNR idea, because it involved birth control. And, of course, there are the people who just get too attached to the animals they’re trying to help, potentially sabotaging the whole project. “People get possessive over the animals. If you have an intense, unreasonable bond with an animal you never touch, you can’t do this,” Oldham said. “It takes a special kind of person who can do that, and get nothing personally out of it.” For more information visit www.slopestreetcats.com.

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