BY MATT A.V. CHABAN
MAY 23, 2016
Zane was the first to disappear, followed a few days later by Dali. Freckles was barely breathing when they found him. Buzzy, by the time they rushed him to the hospital, his stomach distended, had died. When the police found Mama and her son Blacky festering in a parking lot, it was already too late. The Dutch Kills cat colony in Queens was gone.
For nine years, Barbara Garber, Rebecca Wolf and other volunteers have been caring for feral cats on dead-end streets at the edge of Sunnyside Yards. Like the roughly 500 registered cat colonies across New York City, this cluster in Long Island City, Queens, fluctuates with the seasons and the years. Cats are regularly abandoned there or simply appear. They die of old age or are hit by vehicles on busy Jackson Avenue. Some give birth to new litters.
While the Police Department’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad has looked into what might have caused eight cats to disappear or die within two weeks this month, the people who have cared for them have their suspicions.
Around the time the cats living on Dutch Kills Street began to get sick or disappear, dozens of large plastic rat traps were scattered outside a new 26-story apartment building, Halo LIC, on Purves Street, one block over. Some of the traps had been cut, creating larger openings, and clumps of beige poison littered the pavement.
“If that’s not overkill, I don’t know what is,” Ms. Garber said last week, as she and Ms. Wolf began disassembling the straw-lined buckets and plastic foam boxes on Dutch Kills Street that were the cats’ homes.
“It’s an atrocity is what it is,” Ms. Wolf said. “There weren’t even any rats, because of the cats.”
From Astoria, Queens, to St. George, Staten Island, the latest real estate boom has reshaped the city in countless ways. Just as it is affecting people, gentrification is displacing the city’s wild animals, too. Vacant lots, old factories, former warehouses and even shuttered hospitals are being redeveloped, forcing colonies of strays to find new habitats.
Complicating matters for these territorial creatures, the same developments that are forcing their colonies to relocate have made it that much harder for their caretakers to find new homes nearby.
“If they can make room for 10,000 people, they can make room for a few dozen cats,” State Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol said at a cat colony neighboring the Greenpoint Landing development site on the Brooklyn waterfront, where the keepers of two separate colonies fear encroaching construction.
But not all developers have clashed with their four-legged neighbors. Roosevelt Island has long been a haven for wildlife. When people began arriving at the Mitchell Lama apartment towers in the 1970s, so did their cats.
“You’d get cats that escaped, but also people throwing cats out of their cars,” said Rossana Ceruzzi, a former record and advertising executive who has been caring for the cats and other animals since she moved to the island 16 years ago. “One guy came down and pretended to be taking pictures, and when I turned around, he let a cat out of his backpack and ran.”
Some 70 cats live in four colonies on the two-mile-long island. Among the greatest source of felines was the former Goldwater Hospital, where many nurses and patients kept them as pets. When Cornell University took over the site about three years ago for its campus with Israel’s Technion Institute, Ms. Ceruzzi asked the schools to help rescue and relocate the animals.
“Cornell has a world-class veterinary school, it’s a land-grant university, and this is just part of those values, 100 percent,” Andrew Winters, the director of capital projects at Cornell Tech, said.
In addition to a few cats, Ms. Ceruzzi, a state-certified wildlife rehabilitator, rescued some raccoons and a family of opossums. About 20 cats now live in a fenced-in section of Southpoint Park, which opened in 2011.
Ms. Ceruzzi has found others less to be accommodating. When construction began on Four Freedoms Park in 2010 at the island’s southern tip, she was, understandably, denied access. And while the monumental expanse of granite designed by Louis Kahn has become a popular destination, Ms. Ceruzzi said that many of the fauna that once visited are gone, including a family of pheasants and a yellow fox.
Stephen Martin, director of design and planning at Four Freedoms, said that the site was a toxic landfill overgrown with weeds. “It’s true, we’re not putting out Kibbles ’n Bits for anyone, but the memorial is an ecological sanctuary in its own right, with gulls and crabs and cormorants calling our riparian shoreline home,” he said.
New Yorkers have long cared for strays, in alleys, bodegas and even some of the most rarefied addresses — for many years, a courtyard of the San Remo on Central Park West housed as many as 75 cats. Many of those underwent a practice known as trap-neuter-return. Since the passage of Local Law 59 by the City Council in 2012, that has been the sanctioned method for dealing with the city’s wild cats.
That method has been in practice for years at a colony of two dozen cats at a lot on 37th Street near 11th Avenue in Manhattan. Like so many parcels in and around Hudson Yards, this one is now poised to become part of a 1,005-foot, $3 billion office tower being developed by Tishman Speyer, the real estate firm that controls the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center.
When Corey Johnson, the local councilman, was contacted by the colony’s caretakers, he immediately turned to Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a pro-business group. Those were not the connections he was after, though. She is also a cat fancier.
“I was showing off my new cat at the State of the City last year, and Kathy overheard and immediately took out her phone to show off hers,” Mr. Johnson recalled.
Ms. Wylde estimates she has rescued as many as 100 cats. A longtime friend of the Speyers, she arranged a meeting between them and the colony caretakers, and they are working to find a new home for the cats — a challenge given the booming development on the West Side.
Ms. Wylde would prefer the city establish a feral cat sanctuary.
“A lot of people’s knee-jerk reaction is just, ‘Oh, get them off the streets and find them a good home,’” Ms. Wylde said. “As people working in welfare know, it’s hard enough to find homes for homeless people nowadays.”
In Long Island City, where Tishman Speyer is building three apartment towers, things have been less tame. When the developer started work on the towers last year, it received permission from the city to turn the end of Orchard Street into a staging area. Some 16 cats under Ms. Garber and Ms. Wolf’s care lived there. They were soon joined by generators, pumps, pipes, hoses and heavy machinery, which crushed most of the cat shelters.
Ms. Garber has since moved the cats under a metal staircase across from the site, but only about half a dozen remain.
The city issued three violations to the contractor last week, after a reporter contacted the Buildings Department about whether work on the street was allowed. Two of the violations — insufficient pedestrian protections and having a generator too close to a fire hydrant — were deemed Class 1, or immediately hazardous.
Tishman Speyer declined to comment.
Ms. Garber and Ms. Wolf are still trying to find out what happened on Dutch Kills Street. The Police Department has concluded its investigation without a culprit because Mama and Blacky were disposed of before a necropsy could be performed.
Phone calls to the offices of the Rabsky Group, the Brooklyn-based developer of the Halo LIC, were not returned. A man who answered a cellphone number listed on building documents under the name Rafael Rabinowitz, a member of the firm, said he was not Rafael Rabinowitz.
“I don’t know anything about any dead cats,” the man said. “I’m not involved in any of this stuff.”