In Upper Manhattan, Community Cats Make Good Neighbors


Coco Bean, Betty and Grady Tate have got themselves a pretty good gig.

In return for performing security duties, they get free room and board, medical care, and an ever-growing group of fans.

Who are these lucky individuals? They’re three of the 11 feral and stray cats that comprise the Monte Calvario Colony near the Morris-Jumel Community Garden in Washington Heights, N.Y.

The community garden has two dozen plots where area residents grow vegetables and flowers and host neighborhood parties. The cats keep rats away from the veggies and the people who use the facility, and in return they get all the vet care they need — including neutering and vaccinations — and a steady supply of food and water. They even get warm winter accommodations in the vacant lot next to the garden, in the form of Styrofoam boxes sheltered beneath a tarp and filled with straw.

Sheila Massey, a Washington Heights resident and member of the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, has been taking care of the colony for three years now.

Before Massey and the organization got involved, people saw the cats as a nuisance: They fought, sprayed urine, yowled, scavenged for food anywhere they could find it, and produced litter after litter of kittens.

Now, under Massey’s care, the cats are still wild — they weren’t socialized in homes during their kittenhood, so they will never be house cats — but they no longer annoy the residents with their disruptive and stinky behavior.

Massey’s job, and those of community cat caretakers all over New York, may become a little bit easier, now that the city has announced its plans to increase financial support of animal care in the city by nearly $10 million in the next three years. Part of this program includes rules to register TNR programs and support them in their efforts to reduce the number of stray and feral cats on the city’s streets.

The plan will have to be approved by the City Council before it goes into effect.

Even if the new funding comes through and the regulations are passed, Massey’s job will continue to require the great dedication she already gives to Morris-Jumel Garden’s cats. Every night she brings a bucket of kibble, a jug of water and cans of food to the locations around the garden where the felines live. It’s a delicate balance, providing enough food for the cats without leaving any extra to attract rats.

Massey gets assistance from a few other local residents who assist with feeding and watering, and help to deter the cats from soiling garden beds by leaving the ground very wet and covering it with branches before the plants sprout. Along the way, the group also educates garden users about the community cats in hopes of dispelling fears about parasites or diseases like toxoplasmosis.

Even the cat haters have come around, Massey says, since they’ve seen that the free-roaming felines aren’t such bad neighbors after all. By spaying and neutering the cats, they become good citizens.

And that absence of rats thing probably doesn’t hurt, either.

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