Boston’s cat patrol keeps feral colonies under control
They’ve brought stray
cat populations down using a strategy imported from England.
THE PILE OF CAT TRAPS in
Carole Pollastrone’s SUV clatters as she slowly drives the
mostly treeless streets of Chelsea. A cardboard flat of cat food
covers a chunk of the dash. More cans are tucked into the door
pockets. The remains of an iced coffee swish in a voluminous
plastic cup. Though the temperature is forecast to break 80 on
this early spring day, Pollastrone is, as she puts it, “dressed
for a nor’easter,” her pink lipstick notwithstanding. She’s been
up since before 5, when it was still cold, but that only
partially explains her heavy boots.
“I’ll take you to the
dungeon,” the 55-year-old Pollastrone says.
Five days a week, usually
more, she traps stray cats in Chelsea, East Boston, and Lynn,
often responding to calls from people she’s met while trapping.
Sometimes she goes even farther afield, if Lynn Animal Control
calls to see if she can pluck a loose tabby out of someone’s
yard in, say, Nahant. If the cats are friendly or young kittens,
she takes them to animal shelters to be adopted. If they can’t
stop hissing at an outstretched hand, they go to be spayed or
neutered as well as vaccinated for rabies and distemper. Then
she releases them where she caught them.
Pollastrone has pretty much
devoted her life to helping cats, ever since she fed strays as a
kid in Revere’s projects. Right now that means working overtime,
since as the area’s temperature rises, so does the number of
kittens. Until they are about 8 weeks old, kittens can easily
learn to live with humans if they are exposed to us and trained.
As time passes, though, the kitties become much more difficult
to socialize. It isn’t impossible, but it’s a huge chore and
makes older kittens hard to put up for adoption. “I hate
returning a four-month-old to the streets,” she says.
We pull over in front of a
tired three-decker in East Boston. Pollastrone knocks on a gate
to its backyard to make sure that no dog awaits us on the other
side. Hearing none, she charges in. I follow her along a trail
of junk and through an ajar, weather-beaten door into a dark
basement. Two years ago she noticed a mother cat climbing in one
of the basement’s windows, and got permission to trap there.
Since then she’s trapped 20 cats here, but now there’s a mother
with new kittens and a tomcat she has yet to catch.
The air is thick and sour.
Pollastrone walks ahead with a flashlight as we carefully step
over and around knee-high mounds of broken lamps, open
suitcases, moldy boxes, and forgotten toys. Pollastrone shines
her flashlight on what appears to be a dead possum curled in a
“Back here,” she calls and
plunges ahead into the garbage and the gloom, aiming the
flashlight’s beam ahead of her, leaving me in the black. I
follow the gleam of the highlights in her hair, which falls to
just below her shoulders. My foot lands on something that feels
like a ripe banana; I fear it is a dead rat.
“No luck,” Pollastrone calls.
The traps are empty. As we
turn to leave, Pollastrone holds the flashlight so I can see
where I’m stepping. The dead rat turns out to be a piece of foam
rubber. Still, I avoid treading on it a second time. Pollastrone
will return in a couple of hours to check the traps again. When
I ask her how she can stand going in the “dungeon,” she says: “I
get such astronomical self-satisfaction from helping the cats.
It’s really my therapy.”
NO ONE KNOWS for sure how many
cats roam the city of Boston, though one estimate says 45,000,
with 10,000 living in Dorchester and Roxbury alone. Some of
these cats are pets that people let out to prowl the day away.
Many more are abandoned pets and their kittens. Such offspring,
which have never known the touch of a human hand, are feral.
Until relatively recently,
most of these street cats were not spayed or neutered, so they
had litter after litter. In our clime, a cat can give birth
roughly three times a year, averaging four or five kittens each
time. So the colonies grew and grew — in junkyards or abandoned
buildings or forgotten basements, anywhere that provided some
shelter. Not all municipal animal control is mandated to pick up
stray cats, so the problem went largely unchecked. The colonies
swelled. But a few years ago, signs emerged that growth was
being reined in. A central reason why is Pollastrone and her
There are many volunteer cat
trappers in Greater Boston, but only about five are as devoted
as Pollastrone. Though there are male cat trappers, these five
are all women, mostly middle-aged. Some also work full time,
including in the marketing department of a private equity firm.
One plays tennis in the morning, has lunch with her girlfriends,
and then pulls on her trapping clothes. This small cadre brings
in the largest number of cats among them. Pollastrone guesses
she picks up 200 to 300 each year.
Unless the cats are friendly
enough to put up for adoption, all the trappers use an approach
known as TNR — trap, neuter, and return. It’s not a quick or
easy fix, but as friendly cats are removed from a colony and the
remaining feral ones are fixed, fewer and fewer kittens are
born, and the group stabilizes and gradually shrinks. Great
Britain pioneered TNR in the 1950s to reduce its population of
stray and feral cats humanely. The technique took two decades to
cross the Atlantic, yet even then TNR was a small, underground
movement in the United States. Trappers had to pay vets out of
their own pockets to have the cats fixed, typically at full
price, say $400. When low-cost spay and neuter procedures were
developed in the 1990s, trappers could finally afford to have
many more cats fixed.
Today, more than 650 US towns
and cities have adopted TNR as an ordinance or policy, according
to Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda, Maryland, organization that
started in 1990 to help promote the technique. Major humane
organizations, such as the American Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Animals, officially support it. But there are
naysayers, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,
which believes it is inhumane to release feral cats outdoors
except in specific circumstances. The American Bird Conservancy
objects to TNR for a long list of reasons, not least of which is
how effectively felines hunt our feathered friends.
The TNR effort in the Boston
area has gotten a boost in the past five years as shelters have
become more involved with helping stray cats. Both the
Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
and the Animal Rescue League of Boston organize free or low-cost
spay/neuter services for feral cats. One such initiative allows
the MSPCA to fix both pets and strays from Dorchester, Roxbury,
and Mattapan for $10 each at its clinic in Boston.
As it has become easier and
less expensive to get these cats fixed, the trappers have
escalated their efforts. Kit Lilly, president of the board of
Charles River Alleycats, a nonprofit dedicated to homeless cats
in Greater Boston, says trappers working with the organization
now catch about 1,300 animals a year. Lilly, a former banker who
spent her free time trapping cats in Cambridge and Brighton,
partnered with other trappers to coordinate their efforts,
helping found the volunteer organization in 2002. Alleycats has
become essentially a clearinghouse for all things stray cats.
The organization fields calls from people about strays and
colonies and works to teach and equip them to trap the cats. If
they cannot, it will dispatch volunteer trappers.
Years of combined effort by
shelters, organizations like Charles River Alleycats, and
independent trappers like Pollastrone are finally showing
results, which any visitor to a shelter like the ones run by the
MSPCA can see — empty cat kennels. At the MSPCA, the number of
incoming strays has declined at all three of its shelters
(Boston, Cape Cod, and Methuen). Fewer cats going into the
shelter has translated into fewer cats being put down —
euthanasia has dropped by more than 80 percent at the MSPCA
since 2010. On the streets, trappers are finding fewer kittens
than in years past, a clear sign that their hard work is
beginning to pay off.
Cat trappers are unsung heroes
who mostly want to stay unsung. One says she doesn’t want her
photo taken; she doesn’t want people to know what she looks
like. Another talks on the phone but demurs when I suggest
Kit Lilly (with her rescue cat, Randall) is board president
of the Charles River Alleycats,
a nonprofit dedicated to
homeless cats in Greater Boston.
A third won’t let me use her name. They hope through
anonymity to avoid being labeled “cat ladies,” as one says, or
because some people object to trapping and may even like having
the kitties around.
Cat trappers also don’t like
to say where they are working, for fear that people might
abandon their pets there or, worse, do something awful to them,
like poison them. That’s why Anna Lam repeatedly asks me not to
write down this address in Milton, close to the Dorchester line.
Someone on this block had called Charles River Alleycats to
report numerous stray cats and kittens roaming backyards.
Alleycats asked Lam, who traps the most cats of any of its
volunteers — 500 to 600 a year — to see what was up. At first
she couldn’t find any cats. So she walked around the block and
noticed a bunch in one yard. She knocked on the door. The woman
living there was feeding at least a dozen on her back porch.
On a raw March morning, Lam
and I sit in her small car in the woman’s driveway, watching
four cats dance around the traps she’s set. Lam tucks paper
dishes with food and other goodies at the back of the long
cages. Then she makes sure they are on flat ground. Otherwise,
the trap will rock and spook the animal before it can be
captured. A cat has to be hungry enough to go in. These cats
seem hungry, but vigilant, perhaps because they have seen what
happened to other cats that stepped inside. Lam has already
caught a number of cats from this yard, including a calico with
a gaping wound. These remaining kitties are doing their best to
eat the canned food and slimy chunks of mackerel from outside
Lam is small, with an emphatic
way of talking. She rarely smiles. She often sighs heavily. Her
Chinese-Vietnamese family immigrated to Boston when she was 18.
Lam raised a family here. After her two children left for
college, she began volunteering at the Animal Rescue League,
which eventually led to trapping. Now she can’t stop, though she
worries it puts stress on her marriage. Lam works as an
administrative assistant and devotes her weekends to the cats,
but sometimes also goes out on weeknights if she gets a call
about an injured cat. She usually has a few in her basement that
are recovering from spaying or an illness. She pays for the food
and litter herself and often covers the cost of veterinary
“Anna has the bug. She knows
there are cats on the street suffering and she can’t look away,”
says Kit Lilly of Alleycats. The commitment is why more people
don’t seriously trap, Lilly says. When she trapped, she
constantly had seven or eight cats in her garage recovering from
spay/neuter surgeries. “It probably caused my second divorce,”
she says. The demands of trapping are also, partly, why
Alleycats prefers to work with community members, to show them
how to catch abandoned and feral cats in their own yards. A
community problem requires community participation, Lilly says,
and there are areas that still need a lot of help, such as
Brockton. The hard-core trappers shouldn’t have to do it all,
Lam, however, is old school,
and she doesn’t have a lot of faith in her fellow man when it
comes to cats. In the car, she rails that the homeowner must
have fed them this morning, even though she told her not to.
They aren’t acting like hungry cats. They are dillydallying, and
then one, a tiger, puts his front paws on the propped-up trap
door and closes it from the outside. A white cat behind him does
the same. A third, a calico, raises its head and looks toward
the car. Our eyes lock.
“Don’t make eye contact with
the cats!” Lam barks at me. But it’s too late. Seeing me, the
cat races away and the others scatter. Lam sighs and then gets
out of the car to reset the traps. It starts to rain. Cats don’t
like the rain.
“This could take hours,” she
says, and sighs.
POLLASTRONE MAKES HER WAY into
the dungeon’s hopeless filth several more times on the afternoon
I step on the “dead rat.” The traps are empty each time. In
between, she searches in vain for a mother cat on Grove Street
that someone in the neighborhood had called her about.
In her early days, Pollastrone
regularly saw kittens smashed on the roads in Chelsea and East
Boston. There were far more stray cats than hours in the day to
catch them. Shelters wouldn’t always have room for the friendly
cats she picked up. She was discouraged but pushed on, devoting
more and more time to trapping. Now shelters call her to see if
she has cats to bring in. Most of the colonies she encounters in
Chelsea and East Boston are not producing kittens.
“Someone told me at the start
that it would take about ten years, and I didn’t believe them,”
she says. “They were right.”
But all it takes is a few
unspayed, abandoned pets or an overlooked feral or two to make
another colony, so Pollastrone cannot relax. Which is why when
night falls, she wades through the dungeon’s heaps of junk one
more time. When she shines her flashlight deep into the
basement’s darkness, two sets of eyes blaze from inside the
traps — the tomcat and the mother cat. The next day, she
captures the kittens.