From the Daily News

Haven for feral cats: Washington Heights garden rolls out red carpet for roaming felines

Harley, a feral cat, eyes dinner at the Morris-Jumel Community Garden in Washington Heights.

BY Amy Sacks
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Saturday, August 6th 2011, 10:23

Though their presence is widespread, feral cats are largely unwelcome in the city’s gardens.

That’s not the case at the Morris-Jumel Community Garden in Washington Heights, where the welcome mat is always rolled out for the neighborhood’s colony of free-roaming cats.

The bucolic garden, located on W. 162nd St. across from the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion — Manhattan’s oldest house — boasts two dozen plots where members grow vegetables and flowers and host neighborhood parties around the barbecue pit.

It is also home base for Coco Bean, Betty and Grady Tate, three of the 11 feral cats that make up the Monte Calvario Colony, named for the church next door that allows them to be fed in its parking lot.

In winter, the cats take shelter in Styrofoam boxes that are filled with straw and hidden beneath a tarp in the back of the garden. [in the vacant lot next to the garden.]

The cats earn their keep by steering the rats away.

“The greatest thing is that you can be a cat advocate and a people advocate at the same time,” said Sheila Massey, a local resident and member of the NYC Feral Cat Initiative who has been managing the street’s cat colony for the past three years. “By spaying and neutering the cats, they become good citizens.”

Under trap-neuter-return (TNR), rescuers can trap feral cats, have them spayed or neutered and return them to the same areas.

Once neutered, the cats protect the community against rats but no longer display nuisance behaviors such as fighting over mates, yowling in heat, rummaging through trash cans, spraying urine and producing multiple litters. Well fed, there is no need for them to scavenge for food.

For the first time, the city plans to issue regulations for TNR programs, which could help reduce the number of feral [stray] cats that roam the streets.

Still, maintaining the colony takes dedication. Every night, Massey leaves her apartment armed with a bucket of dry cat food, cans of wet food tucked into her fanny pack and a jug of water.

Her first stop is the Morris-Jumel Mansion wall, where Ralph and Harley, and sometimes Boris, await her arrival. Then she’s off to the garden and the nearby church parking lot.

A handful of the garden members help feed the cats, dispel fears about diseases like toxoplasmosis and work hard to deter the cats from soiling the plants and veggies.

That includes keeping the soil very wet and covering it with branches before the plants sprout, Massey said.

Knowing the amount of food to put down and not leaving empty cans behind are also key to keeping the rats away.

Meanwhile, a positive outcome requires cooperation, and the Morris-Jumel Garden is an exception to the rule, says Susan Richmond, executive director of the NYC Feral Cat Initiative.

“Without a cooperative effort, the situation becomes an ongoing conflict as the two sides disagree, cats are evicted and, inevitably replaced by other cats,” she said.

Last year, two of the cats, Samson and McGee, were adopted after the colony was featured on Animal Planet.

In recent years, even the cat haters have come around.

“We’ve found a way to use the free-roaming cats as our allies,” Massey said.

To learn more, go to http://www.morrisjumelcommunitygarden.wordpress.com.

To become a volunteer, go to http://www.nycferalcatinitiative.org [or email morrisjumelcats[AT] gmail.com]

amy.sacks2@gmail.co

There’s also another blog post on the Morris-Jumel Cats here.

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