By Dianne Fanti, M.S.
When we moved to a little side street in Southwest Baltimore 13 years ago, no one knew why there were so many stray cats there. Sure there were theories like, “it’s because we live across the street from the woods and people dump strays in the woods.” One thing was certain, there were an abundance of cats that you could tell had once been pets, since they were still in pretty good condition and were for the most part friendly.
Puzzled, I looked at it like a mystery to be solved. The first thing I did was contact our local animal shelters to see if they would offer free spay/neuter for these strays if I agreed to take care of them. Fortunately, they had a program like this that they called the Community Cats Program, since there are just too many stray cats in the city for them to take in and find homes for. There is a network of Community Cat Caregivers throughout this city and others I’m sure, who look out for the strays, leaving food and shelters for them. Many care greatly about the cats and spend time with them as well, socializing them and finding them homes.
The second thing was to try and figure out why this was happening, how these good-natured, little cats ended up on our street, totally abandoned. There were many mysteries to me at this time – why were the seniors indifferent to the cats and the kids afraid of them? What can we do about the neighbor who traps the cats and does heaven knows what with them? How do we find them homes, and how do we get people to start participating in the free spay/neuter programs, so we can eventually solve this problem?
Clearly this was a herculean task, and yet for some reason, I felt called to respond. So what I thought would be a short-lived and temporary problem, took years to fully resolve since I had to discover resources and learn on the go. Fortunately, by the end of my time there, we did in fact find homes for all of the stray cats! Wanting to spare people of this lengthy process, I wanted to write this article to share how you could circumvent the trial and error, and to share what we know works.
Having been involved in community work for a long time, I’ve had the good fortune to know how change really occurs if it’s going to be successful – that it’s going to require time, commitment, and an immersive experience.
I knew the cats were friendly, and so I thought that it might help to lead by example. When I would see the neighbors, I would go to say “hi” and the kitties would follow and I would pet them while we talked. Slowly, the indifferent seniors would say in a surprised tone of voice, “My, those cats sure are friendly.” I would respond, “You know, they’re a lot like people, if you’re nice to them, they’re usually nice back to you.” And so through repetition and exposure, we won over some of the seniors to the point where some started to look out for the cats and take care of them.
Then there were the kids. I’m not sure why but they would scream when a cat crossed their path, freaking out them and the cats! I would say, “It’s okay, see, they really are friendly. They won’t hurt you.” And so little by little we won over the kids, to the point where now many of the kids stop and pet them as they walk down the street and play with them a little.
Then there were the teenagers, who one of the seniors yelled at when she saw them shooting paint balls at the cats. Fortunately, that seems to have been an isolated incident. The hardest thing to figure out was what to do about the neighbor who was trapping the cats and making them disappear.
How disturbing and disheartening it was to have the cats just disappear after going to all of the trouble of making them appointments to be fixed, getting them with the carrier-traps, taking them up to the animal shelter, and picking them up and releasing them after they’d been fixed. Never mind the attachments we form through looking after them each day and socializing them, in order to try and find good homes for them.
For months and months, I had no idea why some of the cats were disappearing. Worse still, on a few occasions, I could hear them but couldn’t find them. Finally a friend and I went searching and found one in a trap in a neighbors yard and we let him out. Then we had to try to figure out how to talk with this neighbor.
I tried to explain to these neighbors that I was trying to be a part of the solution and getting them fixed and those I could to new homes, but they wouldn’t listen. They literally stood at the door and yelled at me. I was so disturbed by the man’s behavior that I started to tell him that I would have to record him when he wanted to talk with me, and surprise surprise, he stopped approaching me. So I had to find another route to stop this cruel behavior. The animal shelter recommended calling the police, but that’s never a good idea when you have to live or work near the person who’s exhibiting problematic behavior!
First, I let all of the neighbors know what was going on, which seemed to temporarily stop him in his tracks. I guess it acted like a kind of social policing. Later, I enlisted a very kind neighbor to act as a go-between and let those neighbors know what I was doing to help solve the problem. She had seen my records from the animal shelter and knew how many cats I had gotten fixed. And so with that final measure, he stopped.
My young neighbor, Kenny and I wondered how we could get people to start fixing their cats. He had told me, “Kids bring kittens to the school and other kids take them home, and the parents let them stay for a while and then put them out.” “Aha,” I thought with a flash of understanding, “so this is how they become someone else’s problem!” So we went to the animal shelter and they gave us fliers that we could post and share.
We would fold these fliers and leave them by the mailboxes on our street and the other nearby streets. Then we began to take them to nearby churches, community centers, libraries, schools, and anywhere we thought people would help to get the word out and we could reach more people.
Little by little, the community started to stabilize and we were able to make quite a difference – neighbors adopted kitties and helped to find homes for them, and kids helped out in our community cats initiative. We were also able to help other neighbors with the strays they took in, like one who’s cat was dying and I was able to get help for while at an appointment for one of the strays to be fixed at the rescue.
Even with all these efforts, there were never less than 15-20 cats to take care of! As you can imagine, that was quite an undertaking. I also ran a nonprofit project called Friends of the Homeless National Resource Center from my home for those who are marginalized, and volunteers would say, “But these cats are homeless, why aren’t they part of the project?” After hearing this so many times, I went to overseers and Board and asked if they could be included in the project and received their approval.
In 2021, I was moving and felt that I needed to find a home for the remaining cats. Fortunately, one of my neighbors adopted three of the front yard cats, and another neighbor couple said that they would look after two of the backyard cats. That left 12 cats to find homes for, so we began spreading the word.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, in fact it is the only thing that ever has.” I’m often amazed by what we can accomplish when we work together in community. Much to my surprise, friends reached out to other friends, and I got plugged into a network of community cat caregivers, and between all of these contacts, we found homes for the remaining cats!
Getting the cats to their new homes is quite a long story in itself! So I’ll skip over that and get to the good parts. Here’s the beautiful thing that happened in this endeavor:
~ 100 cats were helped and found homes! Many were spayed/neutered, received their shots and medical care when they needed it, and had safe homes outside where they were loved and fed.
~ Our community came together for a common goal – a psychologist friend of mine used to say, “Nothing brings people together like a common purpose,” and it truly felt good for many of us to be able to help our community.
~ Several kids were able to participate and learned how to do the trap-and-release work and to care for the cats. As a cat who used to run away from him was now wrapping himself around his leg, my young neighbor Kenny said to me, “Cats like me now because of you, Ms. Dianne.”
~ One of the young people who was inspired by our work adopted one of the cats and is helping the strays she adopts to become service pets. Now I’m inspired and I’m thinking that the three I kept might make really good service pets too once the pandemic is over.
~ In a strange twist of fate, after the neighbor who had trapped the cats passed away, we needed an extra carrier-trap to transport one of the cats to her forever home, so I asked his housemate if we could borrow his trap. Without hesitating, she said, “Yes and you can keep it.” So I asked if it could be donated to a friend who does a lot of the trap-and-release work and she said “Yes.” So now the man who was trapping the cats, most likely desperate to get them to another area, ended up helping the cats indefinitely in an unexpected way. Isn’t it funny how things can come full circle?
On a final note, our work continues as some take this model into other communities. We have shared our recipe for solving this problem of stray cat over-population on our website at https://friends-of-the-homeless.com where you can find sample fliers, potential resources, and more.