Meet my neighbors, Rashida and Spike

Back in the fall, I posted about feral cats and how we can help them through the winter. Since then, so much has happened in our own yard, I wanted to post an update!

I first started noticing feral cats when we lived in Brooklyn, New York. We fell in love with a friendly cat, Tomate, who disappeared one winter. It tore me up not to help, and then it tore me up even more when I saw the consequences of my inaction. That was a turning point for me – I realized that if I truly cared about these neighbors of mine, I needed to take some responsibility.

I began distributing literature about low-cost and free spay and neuter programs, and protesting the cruelty of breeding operations and shops that sell animals from breeders. We adopted three ferals in Brooklyn, who have become much-loved members of our family. And here in Ithaca, I’ve begun to help out with trap-neuter-return (TNR) efforts in my area, thanks to my friends at Browncoat Cat Rescue.

Last summer, a feral mama cat (we now call her Quincy Jones) unexpectedly showed up and gave birth to kittens in our garage, which we had accidentally left open. We kept the door propped for her so she could come and go, and unfortunately had to move two of her beautiful babies to the side of the road when they were hit and killed by a car one morning. But two survived, and have been hiding out in our garage ever since: A brave and playful tortie girl we call Rashida Jones, and her timid, elusive orange tabby brother, Spike Jonze.

In the fall I borrowed some traps and began acclimating them to eating inside (with the doors fastened open). I left water out every day. It got colder. I managed to get Rashida spayed at the Tompkins County SPCA for free, and she recovered in our house for three days. I brought her brother in too (but couldn’t get him an appointment to be neutered, whoops), and briefly wondered if they could be socialized before coming to the understanding that it was too late for that – they are very wild beings who appear to prefer their freedom over anything we have to offer, and their mother searched and searched for them when they were inside, which broke my heart since she’d already lost her other little ones. I borrowed shelters, later supplementing with another I made myself, as well as lots of straw for insulation. We tried keeping the whole operation outside the garage, in an effort to move them out (we feared cat-possum wars, mid-winter, which are yet to materialize), but in the end the garage seemed the most humane place, given the weather and our uncertainty about the efficacy of the shelters.

This has been a real lesson in empathy and limits for me. I have such a hard time not worrying about them; I go out to fill their bowls them every morning and come back in shivering and worried that they didn’t make it through the night – but when I look out the window, there they (almost always) are, eating happily and playing in the snow. Still, I can’t help but worry. It’s cold out there.

Cats don’t fit naturally into any local ecosystem.

I hope to get Spike neutered when it’s a bit warmer and he’s eating in the traps a bit more reliably (he always watches Rashida to see if she gets trapped, and she’s so brave she always does!), and maybe one day Quincy too, and I hope to avoid future litters of kittens showing up here (I hear there’s another TNR activist who lives nearby!), but I’m realizing that this is an ongoing situation that has no easy solutions. Like it or not, some of my neighbors are here because we human beings failed to take responsibility for keeping our tiny tigers from escaping/multiplying, and now they are here to stay. They may not fit naturally into this ecosystem but they’ll do their best to decimate it! Did you know that after human beings, cats are the next species most responsible for the extinctions of other species? Songbirds and small mammals simply didn’t evolve to deal with this threat we’ve introduced to their environment.

So, I think I may feel bound to feed these ferals for many years to come, to keep them from eating my tinier friends — though I’d rather be filling bird feeders. (Sorry, cardinals and sparrows and chickadees! Maybe next winter!) It may be a bother and an extra expense, but I can afford to make it happen, and the alternative seems to be to allow more suffering to occur if I don’t act, so I feel that to deny this clear need in my immediate community would be immoral.

How should vegans relate to cats?

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a strange calculus for a vegan to buy fish and birds in cans to feed to predators, instead of buying seed to feed to tiny prey animals who really need winter support. But I don’t know of a better solution to this quandary. If you do, please, share your wisdom!

Some animal allies say that the best way to help reduce animal suffering is to abstain from having companion animals, and to be totally vegan, i.e., not to put yourself in a position wherein you have to buy animals to feed to another animal. For a very long time, that was what I did. And I watched feral cats live and die outside my window. When we finally broke down and began adopting ferals off the street, we only did so when we’d done enough research to lead us to believe that we could safely feed cats a vegan diet. We faithfully tried to stick to this, home-cooking meals nearly every day, running a vegan cat forum to try to help get support, and paying for extra veterinary care to handle allergies and pH issues that all became unnecessary when we finally let our cats move to a non-vegan diet.

So let’s just say I’ve tried really, really hard, from a lot of different angles, to find a way to deal with the cat overpopulation issue, as a vegan, and this is where I’ve landed. I make compromises. I buy dead fish and birds in cans on sale at a pet food chain store because that’s all we can afford, a decision I would previously have judged harshly. But life is complicated. Being vegan is complicated. And if I’m going to cause suffering, this is the way I want to do it, I guess: In the service of Rashida and Spike, who never asked to be born in my garage, and their mother Quincy, and paradoxically, to the sweet songbirds and voles and moles and mice and chipmunks and squirrels who also want to live long, healthy lives in our shared ecosystem.

We can support cats and their prey.

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