Helping the feral cats of Chinatown

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Nonprofit TNR Utopia teaches the public how to trap, neuter and return stray felines to the wild NYC streets


  • During the TNR Utopia session at Meow Parlour. Photo: Cullen Monroe Ormond

  • Denizen of the cat cafe. Photo: lovinkat, via flickr

  • Hanging out at Meow Parlour. Photo: lovinkat, via flickr

The futuristic exterior — a stark contrast to the weather buildings with dirty awnings that line sleepy Hester Street — is a surprise to passersby. A glass-windowed wall protects the word MEOW, which commands attention in white, chunky letters. But within that word, if you look closely, you will sometimes be able to spot a pair of yellow eyes peering out into the street. Or spot a deft blur of fur, a force briskly pouncing on some invisible object.

Step inside the glass door and all of the dots will connect. For a small fee, visitors can enter the glorified animal shelter, which is also New York City’s first-ever cat café. If I was a stray cat living on the streets of Chinatown, I would pray to a four-legged, furry divinity to be rescued by the Animal Care Center of New York City (ACC) and where they are swiftly taken to the Meow Parlour.

At Meow Parlour, there are opportunities for visitors to interact with kitties in a non-traditional way. You can eat with them. You can play drag bingo with them. Or they can be your yoga partners. But on a recent Wednesday night, 16 cat enthusiasts were training to catch, neuter and release feral cats back into the wild New York streets.

TNR Utopia, a non-profit organization, was hosting their fifth workshop. Husband and wife Louis Lotitl and Michelle Haverkamp and friend Sharon LaPenta assisted in rescuing over 400 cats in 2018. Their mission is to teach the public how to properly trap, neuter and return (TNR) as many feral cats as possible to their respective neighborhoods.

“It’s just about raising awareness,” said Haverkamp. “Cat ladies don’t have to be old ladies, it can be men, women, young or old, anyone who cares.”

Lotitl and Haverkamp became certified themselves after a feral cat colony infiltrated their backyard in College Point, a neighborhood in Queens. After hearing the benefits of TNR certification (the ability to rent cages from the ASPCA along with free neuter and transportation services) they completed the workshop immediately. LaPenta was inspired to get certified after living in Jamaica, Queens and seeing the plethora of feral cats there.

Each host wore a badge of adoration for felines, whether it was Haverkamp’s bright purple socks featuring several cat faces or the curvy outline of a cat’s body dangling from LaPenta’s neck. Students at the workshop too wore all types of cat paraphernalia like beanies with cat faces or sweaters stitched with feline friends.

TNR Utopia began to list the advantages of the TNR method and the crowd feverishly took notes.

1: Population management. Cats that are brought into the ASPCA will be given abortions if they are pregnant, or spayed or neutered, which limits the number of members in the feral cat communities. Also, because of their territorial nature, additional feral cat colonies will not approach the area. It will be one colony until it fades away.

2: Rodent control. Feral cats do not accept food from humans because of a random chance that is unfairly doled out at birth. When a cat is born, if it does not receive human interaction between three to eight weeks, it will become feral and never trust humans. So cats in the wild feast off of rodents. If a tenant is fearful of rats infiltrating their apartment, a feral cat community is a major benefit.

3: Do not adopt a feral cat. A feral cat has identifiers that are different than a stray. Feral cats have clean fur and make loud growling noises. Stray cats are often dirty and interact with humans but do not last long in the wild.

As the attendees’ heads were buried in their notepads and the only audible sound was pencils scribbling on paper, no one noticed the cats slinking around the Meow Parlour.

Then it was time for a 10-minute break with one rule: do not, under any circumstances feed the felines. Feeding the cats could provoke a fight — growls were already heard among the rescues who were trying to assert dominance. But over cheese pizza, people shared their reasons for attending the workshop.

Janine, a video shot manager for television who lives in Greenpoint and preferred to only use her first name, described how one of 11 feral cats in the colony in her backyard became trapped in a wall of a vacant apartment next door that was at under construction. She pleaded with the landlord and construction members to rescue the cat with little success. Janine feared that time was running out. So, she went rogue and broke into the apartment. Within five days, she had lured the cat out, had it neutered and set it free.

Some volunteers came for less exciting reasons. “I live on St. Marks Place and I always see stray cats. I wanted to do something to help,” said Cecilia Fu, a cat owner who works in the communications department at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). While Fu was speaking, Joanna, a school teacher in Manhattan who lives on Long Island, sniffled in the background.

“I’m actually highly allergic to cats,” said Joanna. “But I’ve had a cat colony outside my apartment which I feed, but I’m moving to Brooklyn soon and wanted to be able to use official resources.”

After the break, the three-and-a-half-hour workshop dwindled to a close. The audience was taught how to close the trap door using the DIY bottle method: a bottle (they used a sparkling water bottle) with a string attached holds the trap door up, and as soon as the cat steps to the back of the trap you rip the string, slamming the door shut. However, Lotitl admitted that with all of the cat-rescuing he and his wife do, they invested in a trap that has a remote-controlled trap door.

As tokens of their attendance, participants received beige, initialed identification cards. The newly certified TNR affiliates gathered their belongings and said their goodbyes, wandering out into the quiet darkness, most likely passing still unknown feral cat communities, waiting to be saved.

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