New York City’s Sheila Massey doesn’t wear a mask and she doesn’t have any superpowers that I know of, but she is a real-life Catwoman, the protector of feral, abandoned, and otherwise stray cats who call Washington Heights home. While you won’t catch Sheila leaping from rooftop to rooftop in Manhattan, you can find her doing battle with the city council and working alongside the New York Police Department to enforce humane law.
Shelia also helps run a feral-cat colony where she lives. All of the cats that make up Sheila’s colony are named, and everyone in the community knows them. The cat colony calls the Washington Heights Community Gardens home, and thanks to architect Leslie Farrell of Francis Cauffman, the cats even have their own high-rise — Leslie designed a five-story cat shelter, which is located in the gardens. The structure even has a fire escape, giving the structure that NYC feel.
Sheila’s cat colony isn’t just known among New Yorkers — in 2010 Animal Planet featured the colony on its Must Love Cats. Two of the cats who ran Sheila’s colony back then, Mr. McGee and Sampson, were featured on the episode. "Mr. McGee and Sampson were two very friendly cats, and we went around the neighborhood putting flyers under the doors alerting people to our local T.V. stars,” Sheila says. “The show really helped educate the neighborhood about TNR and the work we were doing."
I talked to Shelia about her love of cats, TNR, and her feral cat colony:
Catster: So where did this mortal’s love of cats begin?
Sheila Massey: I reluctantly adopted a female cat that I named Sadie. I was like, “Why is this cat following me all around, I’m a dog person!"
I was married at the time, so I asked my husband and he said it’s your cat, it’s not going to come in the bed or anything. Needless to say, after a couple of weeks we were crazy about Sadie.
I think you definitely fall in love with the individual, not the species, as when I got Sadie I didn’t even really know how to pet a cat. After a few weeks we would whistle and Sadie would come running, and of course by then Sadie was in the middle of our bed and we would be contorting ourselves around her so she would be comfortable.
We decided to take Sadie to the vet to get fixed, and the vet asked why we named the cat Sadie. We were confused until the vet mentioned the two little testicles on Sadie! I guess we didn’t know where to look! My relationship lasted longer with Sadie than my husband, as Sadie lived to be 16, and he totally changed my life with animals.
Tell us about your current cats.
I have three rescues, one who is still semi-feral, who I rescued after Hurricane Sandy. She had been living out on the street for about six months, and I was finally able to trap her and bring her inside. Even though she was off the street she kept meowing away, and that’s when I noticed the four nipples on her. She was nursing and the kittens were still out there somewhere.
I had seen her hanging around this brownstone. So at four in the morning I went out there with a flashlight and discovered a shed that had all this sports equipment in it. The next day I headed back over there and told the owner that I thought they might have some kittens living in their shed. The owner knew that I was involved with trap, neuter, and return. They helped me take out all the sports equipment, and sure enough once we got it all out, here come these four little kittens bouncing out. I brought all four kittens back to my apartment so they could nurse with their mother.
When you trap a feral cat, they are typically very quiet as they are outdoor cats and they are usually mad that you have trapped them. In a way feral cats are the best house guests because they are so quiet. Her constant meowing told me that she most likely had kittens out there who needed her. Once she was reunited with her kittens they were all happy as can be.
Once the kittens were old enough to be adopted I found them homes, and the mom was now only semi-feral, so I didn’t want to put her back out there. It’s funny as she now sits in my window looking outside all the time, but the one time Marjorie got out on to the fire escape, she let me pick her up and bring her back inside. She’s not very trusting of people — one day she will let me pet her and the next she is hiding underneath the bed.
The reason I call her Marjorie is she was very protective of her kittens and she would make that noise that Marge Simpson makes when she is angry at Homer. I didn’t plan on having three cats, but that’s just the way it all worked out.
What is a cat colony and how are you managing TNR?
Most cats who live outdoors are born outdoors; in a way, they prefer to live how lions live. They tend to like to live in groups and usually form around a food source. In New York City you have a lot of restaurants putting out garbage or friendly people putting out food for the cats. For the most part these cats tend to be social animals, so they form a colony together.
Feral cats haven’t had a lot of human contact. They may come up to you, but they just really want you to put the food down and don’t really want to be pet. Most of these cats prefer other cats to humans.
Trap-neuter-return is a feral cat initiative part of the Mayor’s Alliance of New York City. The Mayor’s Alliance will train you how to trap cats and then return them to their colony. These cats don’t want to be on your sofa; they want to be with their colony. By feeding the colony every day these cats aren’t going around scratching at garbage bags, and more importantly by having a colony in your neighborhood you are keeping the rats away.
Once you have a managed colony, you know exactly how many cats are part of your colony, you know how much to feed them every day, and they keep the neighborhood clean.
Without TNR you have cats coming and going. If they aren’t neutered the males spray people. They get into garbage. Some people will take one in for six months then decide they don’t really want a cat and put them out on the street. An unmanaged colony is just a public nuisance.
Once you have a stable colony, the cats aren’t that welcoming to new cats who want to join. Currently in my colony we have two main locations, where seven cats live in one and two cats live in the other.
How time consuming is managing a colony?
When I started, I was doing it 365 days a year, but as time has gone by more people in the community would see me feeding the cats and ask about it. People took an interest in getting involved as the cats were keeping the neighborhood really clean, keeping other cats away, and keeping the rats away. We now have five people who help manage the colony and we rotate feeding them. We each have our day, and we even have a B team should someone be on vacation or sick. The program works fantastically.
Do any of these cats ever find a way in to someone’s home?
What happens when people abandon their animals? They typically take their cat to a different neighborhood so they can’t find their way home. We know how to spot if the cat is a house cat or street cat. House cats will nestle their heads against the bars, and some of them are beat up from being out on the street as they don’t have any street survival skills.
There was one cat in particular we named Gremlin, he was so beat up as the other cats were picking on him. You could tell Gremlin wasn’t a street cat as he was so terrified being out there.
With cats like Gremlin, it’s about the T and N but no return. You get them neutered and cleaned up, and because there is never any room at the shelters, I will take them in. I will get them set up in my bathroom for the first few weeks as they really need their own space at first. I will hang out with them, take a book or my laptop in there, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. If you are a cat rescuer you are going to spend a lot of time in the bathroom! I will spend time in there socializing with them, grooming them, and take a bunch of photos of them to help find the cat a good home.
I do my best to get a lot of information out there about the cat. Is it a lap cat, would it prefer to sit next to you, does the cat just like to look out the window, can the cat take care of herself? I try and give people a real feel for the cat, and have probably found about 50 cats homes this way.
I have been doing it for so long that I can’t just stick to my neighborhood anymore, as most people who want a cat have already rescued one. You really have to go all over the city. Eventually every cat has gotten in to a great home. At times we rescuers laugh and say we wish we could have been rescued by some of these people as there are a lot of rags to riches stories.
What are some of the biggest issues you face?
It’s all about educating the public. We really could use more public service announcements about the important role feral cats play in our society. I do a lot of public speaking, as I find a lot is just community awareness. the general response is people weren’t aware of how much great work and services these cats are providing.
What is humane law?
It is New York State law, it basically states that feral cats aren’t wild animals, they are considered to be domestic animals. They are beneficiaries of New York law regarding their treatment. Under humane law you can’t deprive these cats of food and water. These laws also prevent people from bringing harm to these cats.
Tell us about your recent work with the NYPD.
On Jan. 1, 2014, the NYPD took over control of humane law from the ASPCA. On Jan. 13, we discovered a cat poisoning in our neighborhood. Seven cats died, and we knew this wasn’t something random, we knew we had a killer in our neighborhood.
When I sat down with the NYPD they were flipping through their manuals as they didn’t know what to do as they had just taken over this new responsibility. I told them I wanted a police report filed and a necropsy performed to prove the poisonings. The NYPD called the ASPCA and were told that there had to be an eyewitness for there to be a crime.
That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Are you telling me if someone is robbed and there is no eye witness that a crime wasn’t committed? The NYPD was just following the lead of the ASPCA, but I kept hammering away at them.
The NYPD then sent two officers over to my cat colony to learn about TNR. When the officers showed up all the cats came pouring out, and since it was winter they were all fluffed out and happy. The officers’ first response was, “Well, maybe the cats ate a poisoned rat,” which I could only chuckle at as there hasn’t been a rat in this neighborhood in years.
After spending a little time at the cat colony, the officers went back to their precinct extremely enthusiastic about the cats. I then received a call from the Captain who informed me they were putting a story about the cats in their newsletter and that they had opened a police report about the matter, and that a detective had now been assigned to the case. A few days later I was talking to the detective and he asked, how does the world not know about this?
I have been so impressed with the NYPD turning on a dime and taking the time to learn about TNR and doing something about it. The case is still open and being investigated, and we have gotten a bunch of tips, and people have been questioned. I give the NYPD enormous credit for pursuing it.
How can people get involved and help with TNR and managing a colony?
You have to take a certification course that lasts half a day. What could be easier?
To learn about getting certified in New York City please visit the Mayor’s Alliance website. Outside of New York City contact your local chapter of the ASPCA.
Read more about feral cats:
About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. Connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter