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For This Group, Cats Are Where It's At

Neighborhood Cats promotes TNR in New York City and beyond

Neighborhood Cats promotes TNR in New York City and beyond

When a stray cat crossed his path in September 1999, Bryan Kortis decided to help. He didn’t even know what a feral cat was, but he got a quick education after trapping some and ending up with few options for placing them. Seven years later, Kortis’s organization, Neighborhood Cats, has trained hundreds of colony caretakers. Working in conjunction with the New York City Feral Cat Council (a project of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals), Neighborhood Cats employs Kortis as its full-time executive director; he leads three half-time staff and two part-timers. About a dozen volunteers serve as “coaches,” helping local citizens trap cats for spay/neuter surgeries. An expert in collaboration with government agencies and animal welfare organizations, Kortis is working with The HSUS on a guide to communitywide feral cat programs that will soon be available for purchase online. He spoke recently about his group’s efforts with Animal Sheltering editor Nancy Lawson.

© Meredith Weiss/Neighborhood Cats

You spend a lot of time emphasizing the need for professionalism and collaboration. Is that the greatest challenge to changing people’s opinions of trap–neuter–return (TNR) programs?
It’s not so much changing people’s opinions; it’s advancing it to the next level. It’s making it so it’s not just an anecdotal thing that sometimes people do with the cats in their backyard—but is really practiced on a wide scale. It’s not the kind of work that lends itself on a large scale to volunteers running it. You need people who really do this as their job, and so … it has to be brought into the rest of the professional animal welfare community.

That seems to be the reason that some of these programs either die out or don’t get started—they rely on basically full-time volunteers. How can that be changed?
I think shelters need to realize that TNR should be a part of their programs. The ASPCA in New York City is a good example. They have a mobile spay/neuter program, and they don’t have somebody who does nothing but TNR, but it’s their professional staff that schedules the appointments and runs their trap bank, for example. … We even have a little program in Long Beach, New York, that Neighborhood Cats runs. It’s called Long Beach Cats. And we have a part-time coordinator. She works maybe five to ten hours a week. That’s all that’s really needed for a community that size, but it’s still needed to make sure the [volunteer] trappers and the vets and the equipment and everything [else is] matched up and the bills are paid.

Running the Numbers

Though Neighborhood Cats serves mainly as an education, advocacy, and coordination service, the group has a few colonies of its own. These pet projects prove how well TNR is working in New York City.

Atlantic Beach: A small village of about 2,000 people, Atlantic Beach hired Neighborhood Cats early last year to spay and neuter its 140 feral cats. After the group sterilized 89 percent of them, there were only three kitten sightings in all of 2005. Before that, the summer resort had “literally hundreds of kittens born every year,” says Kortis.

Riverside Park: On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, this park hosted 70 ferals when Neighborhood Cats came on the scene, says Kortis. Now less than 30 roam the grounds.

Rikers Island: Working with other animal welfare groups, Neighborhood Cats implemented TNR in 2002 on this 400-acre site that’s home to both inmates and cats. Through adoption of non-feral strays and sterilization of ferals, the original population has decreased by about 33 percent.

Many organizations have too few people doing all the animal control, rescue, cleaning, and caretaking back at the shelter. What would you recommend for people in that situation who do have a feral cat problem and want to do something more for them?
A lot of shelters have an adoption coordinator who’s a volunteer, but they come in and they treat it like a job. They’re there at the same times each week, and they make a commitment to put in a certain number of hours at certain times. So professionalizing it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you pay somebody. But it can’t be, “Well, I’m free, let’s see, every third Friday, except maybe I have something to do next week.” It’s got to be somebody who’s willing to be professional about it.

Can you explain your philosophy on the monitoring of colonies?
I think it is critical. That’s the long-term commitment. Without that, it just goes back to the way it was in a few years.

But that’s the piece that I think a lot of agencies get hung up on, right? They worry that they don’t have an accounting system for what’s going on in those colonies.
We just launched It’s an online colony registration system where we are trying to track what’s going on in the colonies. But that doesn’t fully address the question of accountability. The thing is, you have to look at what’s your alternative. So you may not like that you have to trust Sally to keep an eye on her ten cats for the next five years, but what are you going to do otherwise? Just let them reproduce? What you can do is train her and provide support services and create a network. And then it depends on the size of the community. In smaller communities, you can keep track of her and her cats. If you’ve got 30 colonies in town, it’s not that hard, but if you’ve got 3,000, it’s just not practical. And you can either do this or you can do nothing, which is what most places do.

So TNR has actually panned out for you in terms of not having new cats join the colonies and such?
One of the things that’s hard about TNR is it’s hard to get really good data. The cats often live in these very kind of elusive circumstances. But on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when we started, there were large feral cat colonies all over the place that were not neutered. There were any number of situations— I can name all the blocks and things. That was six years ago, and now you hardly ever see a kitten on the Upper West Side. The adults are almost all sterilized. It’s been a dramatic change. At one point—I think over the course of three years—there was a 73 percent drop in the number of stray cats coming from the Upper West Side to the shelters.

You discuss in your materials how to deal with hostility toward TNR. Have you run into that situation with a lot of people who are sort of just at that fed-up stage about the cats in their community?
Misunderstanding and some hostility is just to be expected almost at every level at this point. Maybe in ten years that’ll change. People are skeptical. I understand why because it’s counterintuitive. The intuitive thing is, “Well, if you want to reduce the cat population, go ahead and trap them, but don’t bring them back. Won’t that be a lot faster?” There’s that ring of simplicity, and if you say you’re going to reduce the cat populations by returning them, people just roll their eyes at first. So it takes a little bit of explaining.

© Meredith Weiss/Neighborhood Cats
When they are part of a managed colony, feral cats can spend less time on scrounging for basic necessities and more time on sitting pretty.

You talk about holding community meetings to explain TNR. I think that’s where maybe a lot of people misstep—they leave that collaborative part out.
You don’t have to hold a block meeting, although it’s nice if you do. But it could be that you meet with the co-op board or you meet with the landlord or you meet with the [superintendent]. But you don’t just march in and start working. Otherwise it comes back to haunt you when you skip that step and then down the road there’s a problem and you don’t have any support.

What happened with the first sizeable colony you worked on?
In the very beginning, we were able to get in through this one business to do the trapping. The cats hung out in their backyard, and that’s really where we kind of learned the ropes. And we put out winter shelters, but what happened was we were just too enthusiastic, and [the business owners] got sick of seeing us every day. And after all the cats were fixed, they were like, “Alright, no, get out of here.” So we had to start feeding them somewhere else. I look back at it and I understand. We were just so [excited]; it would snow and we’d be there right away with our shovels. They’re trying to run a business. And so then we started feeding at another part of the block [at a different business], and that was through a fence, and the [superintendent] didn’t want to give us a key to get into the lot. So we would feed through the fence, and all the food and everything would be visible from the sidewalk, and what we found was that people would drop their cats off there. I was taking in three, four, five abandoned cats a year and having to find them homes. Eventually, though, we got the trust [of the building managers], and they gave us a key to get in and we started to hide the food behind a bunch of rocks and boulders so that it wasn’t visible. We haven’t had a single abandoned cat since then.

So how should a feral cat caretaker approach a local shelter about collaborating?
I think you have to look to build a coalition. And the number-one thing is you have to let people contribute what they’re comfortable contributing— and also realize that that can grow and change over time. In the beginning when we approached the ASPCA, what they had to offer was, “We’ll host your workshops.” We didn’t say, “Oh, we want free spay/neuter; we don’t want you to host a workshop.” We just said, “Thank you,” and started taking advantage of that. And then they got to know us, and then other agencies got involved. If a shelter just wants to offer moral support, a pro-TNR policy statement might get you to convince a local vet to participate. … And if a vet just wants to do a few spay/neuters once in a while, then you accept that. You might not be able to have enough resources to address the whole problem in the beginning, but you can at least begin to build a system that will.

Educate Yourself About Trap-Neuter-Return

If you are interested in feral cat colony management and would like to learn more on the topic, sign up for Humane Society University’s new online course, “Trap- Neuter-Return: How to Manage a Feral Cat Colony.” Taught by Neighborhood Cats, this self-paced program is $50 and details the methods and philosophies behind feral cat colony management. To read the HSUS position statement on trap-neuter-return, as well as profiles of community feral cat programs, visit

You’ve mentioned the fact that it’s really at a crisis point in New York City in terms of the numbers of feral cats. How do you not get totally overwhelmed and depressed?
Each piece of the problem that you address, you address comprehensively. So you’ve got 90 to 100 percent of the cats in the particular colony fixed. Not just a few, but 90 to 100 percent. You’ve trained the caretaker and they have a support network—then that piece of the problem is solved. Each day more and more pieces of the problem are being solved, so there’s progress being made. … So the reason I can keep doing it is because I started from when there was absolutely nothing. And now I see hundreds and hundreds of people getting thousands and thousands of cats fixed every year.

It really interested me when you talked in the video on your website about how much healthier cats are when colonies are managed. I know when they’re managed they’re well-fed, but I never realized how beautiful they can look. Why is that?
Well, one, they’re sterilized. You’re taking away the fighting. You’re taking away a lot of the roaming; you’re taking away a lot of the aggressiveness and the … tension. And then they’ve got a warm place to sleep and plenty of food. And I’m not advocating it by any means, but they are outdoors and they get a tremendous amount of exercise and fresh air, so you combine that with good food and shelter, and you’ve got very healthy animals. … They focus more on themselves than on reproducing.

© Meredith Weiss/Neighborhood Cats

Do you see a time in the future when there will be a lot fewer cats?
Yes. Right now, TNR is very much conceptualized as this sort of separate thing. It’s like an add-on to the car: you can have nice hubcaps or not. But really what people are going to start to realize is that it’s the wheel of the car. It’s part of a program. Right now, TNR is a band-aid. It’s stopping the bleeding that’s being caused by other problems. And eventually people are going to realize that we have to get to the source of the bleeding, too, and that TNR is a part of the solution, but it’s not the whole solution. So we have to learn to address abandonment and where these feral cats are coming from in the first place. We have to have a holistic approach to it.

So you’re talking about indoor cat campaigns and such?
I don’t know enough yet to advocate solutions. … I’ve been very focused on working with the feral cats on the streets, but more and more I’m starting to see that we need to present a fuller program so that it’s not just a TNR group—it’s a cat group [in which] we don’t just fix the cats; we also advocate for mandatory spay/neuter laws, we teach people how to properly care for their pets, we make owning an animal require somewhat more of a standard of care. I’m not an expert on that side of it, but I do know that it’s kind of oddly left out of the conversation right now. In fact, it’s so peculiar that you have some groups like American Bird Conservancy advocating cats indoors, and that’s seen as antithetical to TNR—when in fact they’re two sides of the same problem. They should be presented together, not in opposition.

So ABC itself sees it as two sides.
Yes. And then the TNR people see any kind of registration laws or licensing or things like that as antithetical to feral cats. And maybe the way they’re being used now, they are. But that’s what I mean. When we all get a little smarter about the whole thing, we’ll realize that the same groups should be presenting both [sides].

They want the same thing.
Exactly. … There’s another part of the equation in terms of what I see for the future. Right now there’s a lot of emphasis on adoptions as a way of lowering euthanasia rates in shelters. … And I think people are going to realize that sterilizing the feral cat population is an equal part of that solution, too. In other words, you keep adopting and adopting and adopting, but [you need to] address where the cats are coming from. In New York City, they estimate half of the kittens come from feral cats.


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