NYC Feral Cat Initiative

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is the only humane and proven-effective method to control and eventually reduce the stray and feral cat overpopulation crisis.

New York City Feral Cat Initiative logo


New York City has a long history of working to manage the stray and feral community cat overpopulation problem. Between 2005 and 2019, the NYC Feral Cat Initiative (NYCFCI) of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals (the Mayor’s Alliance) was a driving force leading the charge in New York City to humanely reduce their numbers through Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).

Tens of thousands of free-roaming cats live in the backyards, alleyways, vacant lots, and other outdoor spaces of New York City. Some of the cats are strays who have become lost or were abandoned. But the vast majority of the free-roaming cats in New York City are “feral” — not socialized to humans. Feral cats are the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats. Born outdoors and having lived with little or no human contact, they are wary of people and have learned to survive in whatever place they call home — whether it’s someone’s backyard, an industrial park, or any number of other outdoor locations. Collectively, these stray and feral cats are generally referred to as “community cats.”

As early as the 1970s, a few concerned individuals in New York City began implementing TNR for community cats.

TNR is the only humane and proven-effective method to control and eventually reduce the stray and feral cat overpopulation crisis. With TNR, cats are trapped, spayed (females) or neutered (males), vaccinated against rabies, surgically and painlessly ear-tipped on the left ear for identification, and returned to their territory. Here their caretakers provide them with food, shelter and, when needed, medical care. Whenever possible, young kittens and friendly cats are taken in for adoption.

TNR performed consistently in a neighborhood has the potential to reduce intake at the city’s shelters and, consequently, to reduce euthanasia rates. TNR is effective and humane, unlike traditional trap-and-kill or trap-and-remove. Both trap-and-kill and trap-and-remove result in the “vacuum effect” — when new, unaltered, and unvaccinated cats move into the emptied area and breed, with no caretaker to monitor the cats over the long term.

A TNR “mass trapping” potentially involves neutering all of the cats during one trapping project. Mass trapping immediately stabilizes the colony and reduces tensions in the community because no new kittens are being born and the nuisance behaviors often associated with the mating of unneutered cats (fighting, yowling, and the smell from spraying of intact male cats) are dramatically reduced. An added benefit to the community is natural rodent control. These “working cats” are providing a vital service to their communities.

Ultimately, the goal of TNR is to improve the quality of life for cats living on the streets, and to remove kittens born outdoors and find adoptive homes for them. From a public policy perspective, TNR alleviates the strain on the city’s shelter system by stemming the tide of unadoptable feral cats entering the shelters, taking away valuable cage space for adoptable cats and far too often resulting in euthanasia of adoptable and unadoptable cats. As a result, TNR helps to reduce the unnecessary killing of cats simply because there isn’t enough room for them in the shelters.

In 1990, cat enthusiasts Becky Robinson and Louise Holton created Alley Cat Allies (ACA), a formal network for managing feral cats. ACA was instrumental in getting the New York City TNR scene off the ground from their Washington, D.C., headquarters. ACA connected New Yorkers interested in starting TNR, but who had no local means to find one another. Once a few key NYC players were connected with help from Alley Cat Allies in 2000, TNR in New York City took off.

When the Mayor’s Alliance was founded in 2003, thousands of cats were still being euthanized at NYC’s Animal Care and Control shelters, today known as Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC). The Mayor’s Alliance recognized that in order to transform New York City into a no-kill community where cats and dogs were not euthanized for lack of space in the shelters, the community needed to dramatically intensify efforts to reduce the number of feral community cats entering and being killed at the city’s shelters.

In June 2004, the Mayor’s Alliance created the NYC Feral Cat Council, comprised of individuals and non-profit organizations in New York City caring for community cats and performing TNR. The goal of the Council was to formalize and provide visibility for the network of people and groups doing TNR in New York City.

But we quickly recognized that we needed to step up efforts to effectively meet the challenges of expanding TNR in the community. And so, the following year the Mayor’s Alliance evolved the NYC Feral Cat Council into the NYC Feral Cat Initiative (NYCFCI).

The NYCFCI provided a more robust approach to addressing the community cat issue by offering a range of concrete services and resources to individuals and organizations caring for community cats and performing TNR, and provided a “port of entry” for members of the general public who wanted to help community cats by getting involved in TNR.

Free TNR Certification Workshops
Over the years, the NYCFCI trained thousands of individuals to perform TNR. These trainings lead to certification of TNR caretakers, which made them eligible for free services and resources. Among the many benefits available to Certified TNR Caretakers was free spay/neuter by the ASPCA, The Humane Society of New York, and The Toby Project.

Free Specialty Workshops
As an adjunct to Certification workshops, specialty workshops were presented regularly to provide focused instruction in bottle-feeding, taming kittens, developing community relations, building winter shelters, advanced trapping techniques, and other TNR-related topics. In 2012, the NYCFCI received a $16,000 grant from the Petco Foundation to fund teaching workshops nationally for the Initiative’s most in-demand workshop: Socializing Feral Kittens for Adoption. We presented these Train the Trainer workshops in New York City, Chicago, Oregon, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Canada, with instruction provided by NYCFCI veteran educators Mike Phillips, Valerie Sicignano, Kathleen O’Malley, and Sheila Massey.

Free Trap Bank
Provided Certified TNR Caretakers with free loans of traps, dividers, and cages.

Free Transport of Cats & Traps
The Mayor’s Alliance Wheels of Hope transport program provided free transport of cats to and from spay/neuter appointments, and free transport of traps.

Free Giveaways
The NYCFCI orchestrated numerous giveaways of free cat food, straw, and winter shelters to Certified TNR Caretakers.

Free Posting of Adoptable Cats on NYCFCI’s Petfinder Page
This valuable initiative gave Certified TNR Caretakers a means to promote for adoption tamed feral kittens and domestic strays who had been living among community cats in their colonies.

Grants to TNR Organizations
NYCFCI administered $12,000 in grants to support TNR organizations and individuals, thanks to funding from In Defense of Animals. NYCFCI also administered over $100,000 in grants provided by the ASPCA over several years for individuals doing TNR to pay for adoption and TNR related expenses. NYCFCI also secured a Maddie’s Fund grant for one year to support spay/neuter of community cats at private veterinarians.

Colony Registration/Google Maps
Using confidential information supplied by colony caretakers, we mapped the locations of colonies on password-protected Google Maps, which were accessible only to NYCFCI staff. Thus we began our attempt to quantify the number of cats living in colonies citywide. This project also provided a valuable tool to connect experienced caretakers with newly certified caretakers who might need mentoring assistance. Further, it helped identify home colonies for community cats brought to ACC in order to facilitate their timely return to their colonies. Moreover, it provided caretakers with a tool to find temporary assistance with their colonies in the event they needed assistance.

Free Help Desk and Online Support
Through an informational website and phone line and dedicated email addresses for Certified TNR Caretakers and the general public, we provided information, resources, and guidance to TNR caretakers and the general public about TNR. Online support featured free community relations promotional materials and handouts — brochures, posters, and door hangers — in English and Spanish.

Networking and Educational Events
The NYCFCI orchestrated numerous events over the years. Some events provided valuable networking opportunities for the TNR community. Others offered unique educational opportunities for experienced TNR practitioners as well as newcomers to TNR.

Networking Events
The Mayor’s Alliance presented its first TNR networking event — the Feral Cat Caretakers Summer Soiree — in August 2010. Two years later, the event was renamed Fall Feral Feline Fiesta and moved to October to coincide with ACA’s National Feral Cat Day. This event, presented by the NYCFCI and hosted by the ASPCA at its Midtown office for several consecutive years, brought together more than 100 Certified TNR Caretakers for an evening of food and entertainment, raffles and giveaways, and valuable opportunities to meet fellow TNR enthusiasts in a relaxed and collegial atmosphere.

Educational Events
Feral Cat Summits: In 2004, New York City hosted the first National Feral Cat Summit, organized by Valerie Sicignano of the newly created NYC Feral Cat Council. TNR practitioners from around the country gathered in New York City to attend lectures and workshops with experts and share information on issues related to feral cats. Subsequent National Feral Cat Summits were held in 2005 (Philadelphia, PA), 2006 (San Francisco, CA), and 2007 (Orlando, FL).

Boot Camps: In December 2008, the Feral Cat Caretaker Boot Camp!, was presented in New York City. This day-long workshop, sponsored by the Mayor’s Alliance/NYCFCI, PetSmart Charities, In Defense of Animals, and Animal Haven was presented at Animal Haven in SoHo. Sixty-five attendees from seven states came to learn advanced techniques for trapping, winter shelter building, colony set-up and care, neighbor relations, and feral kitten bottle-feeding and taming. Presenters included some of NYC’s brightest TNR stars, including Tammy Cross (Kitten Little Rescue), Nancy Fahnestock and Carole Milker (CSM Stray Foundation), Jesse Oldham (ASPCA/Slope Street Cats), Mike Phillips (Urban Cat League), Michael Rubenstein, DVM (The Humane Society of New York), Valerie Sicignano (In Defense of Animals/NYCFCI), and Meredith Weiss (NYCFCI/Neighborhood Cats).

Kitten Palooza: The following year, the NYCFCI presented its first Kitten Palooza!, a series of free workshops on working with kittens as part of TNR projects. These workshops were sponsored by PetSmart Charities and instructed by Dr. Tina Waltke of Manhattan Cat Specialists, Mike Phillips of Urban Cat League, Nancy Alusick of Animal Care & Control of NYC, and Valerie Sicignano of the NYCFCI. The series was repeated in 2010 and 2011 in various New York City and New Jersey locations.

Architects for Animals: In December 2010, Architects for Animals teamed up with the NYCFCI to present Giving Shelter, an exhibition of avant-garde outdoor winter cat shelters designed by some of New York City’s most creative architectural teams. Following the high-profile exhibition at the prestigious Steelcase Showroom in Midtown Manhattan, the Mayor’s Alliance distributed the shelters to Certified TNR Caretakers throughout the city for placement in their local community cat colonies. This first event was so popular that it was repeated several consecutive years and received extensive coverage in both mainstream and architectural media.

On September 27, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Local Law 59, which endorses TNR as the approved and recommended method for controlling and decreasing the numbers of free-roaming community and feral cats in all areas of New York City, public and private. This landmark legislation recognized TNR as the preferred method of managing feral cat populations. The Mayor’s Alliance/NYCFCI was a strong proponent of, and helped to craft, this important legislation.

In 2012, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene posted on its website information about TNR and a list of organizations that conduct TNR in New York City. That same year, the NYCFCI introduced new educational materials and distributed them to Community Boards and City Council Members to educate those government entities and the general public about TNR and the services provided by the NYCFCI.

In 2015, NYCFCI’s Director of Education, Kathleen O’Malley, conducted a first-ever TNR training for members of the NYPD. This was a monumental step forward in more firmly establishing TNR as the preferred method of managing the city’s community cat populations by familiarizing NYPD officers about TNR practices, enabling them to work more effectively and collaboratively with the TNR community.

Over the years since its founding in 2005, the NYCFCI’s reach had grown nationally and internationally. NYCFCI representatives demonstrated for community leaders and cat caretakers in other cities and countries how to manage their community cat populations through TNR.

Having provided guidance and information to thousands of people who care about New York City’s feral and stray community cats, and providing TNR training to more than 14,000 individuals over the years, in 2019 the Mayor’s Alliance transferred its NYCFCI assets — including personnel, training and outreach materials, and physical equipment and supplies, including a transport vehicle — to Bideawee, an organization that possessed tremendous capacity, both fiscally and organizationally, to take the program to the next level.