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The Case of the Homeless Cat

[Feline Characters in New York City]  [Witch Cats and Cat Ghosts]  [Cats and Birds]  [The Case of the Homeless Cat]  [More Cat Articles] 

( Originally Published 1936 )

When I think of homeless cats sad little pictures pass one after another through my mind.

A scrawny mother cat lying on the edge of a filthy snowbank in an alley, hugging a kitten up to her breasts with her arm. The kitten is dead, but she will not believe it. She licks the wet little body all over and purrs her cat lullaby, "T-r-r, t-r-r!"

A large, black tom, bewildered but dignified, making his slow way along Broadway in the theater district. He walks unevenly, one paw held up; it is swollen to the size of three. With his white spats and necktie he might be a sick old actor out of a job. He looks up into the faces of the matinee crowds as if he would like to tell someone about it, but no one notices him, and he hobbles into a corner and lays himself resignedly down.

The cellar of a closed restaurant, with eyes peering out of the darkness, the eyes of abandoned cats. There must be twenty of them, and two dead kittens lie in a pool of water on the floor. The eyes gleam with terror and hunger, for there was a great noise days ago in the restaurant, trucks rumbling up to the door where the cook used to toss them scraps, and then the cellar door slammed on them, and they have been here ever since, with no scraps. Still it is home, and how the starved creatures dodge and flee from the woman who crawls down the steps to save them.

Midnight on Rivington Street, New York City. It is a sleety night, and most of the people have gone indoors. So the cats come out. Scores upon scores of them, old and young, mostly bony and mangy, creeping among the garbage cans and plunging their claws into the coverless ones, fighting over a fish head or the remains of a sandwich.

A summer station for unwanted cats in Seward Park, New York. Tiers of cages, full of cats, cats of all colors and sizes and ages, handsome cats, hideous cats, cowering cats, bristling cats. More cats arriving, in baskets or clutched in the bringers' hands. Some of the people, reluctant to have any part in destroying an animal, set their cats down on the pavement and hasten away, and the old man in charge picks them up and carries them to cages. A shabby young man of the agitator type loiters by, looks at the cats, stops.

"What you going to do with these cats?" he asks. The old man has his hands full with an injured cat, and a woman who has been looking at the cages answers. "I suppose most of them will be put into the gas chamber," she says. "What else can be done with so many cats? Who has homes for them?"

"A pretty country, that can't even take care of the cats," the boy grumbles.

"That's what we get all the time," the attendant observes to the woman. "Tryin' to do the best we can with the an'mals, an' lotta folks thinks we're cruel."

Figures are printed telling how many homeless cats there are in this or that city, in this country, in the world. They are guesses; nobody knows. I read that the A. S. P. C. A. estimated that there were 1,500,000 cats in Greater New York, and that i,ooo,ooo had homes, 5oo,eoo were strays. But I do not believe that two thirds of the cat population have homes. I think it is the other way around.

The homeless cats are not all miserable. Some of them have their moments. It is a great moment in the day of a score of Greenwich Village cats when Dan Fratini, a big-hearted truck-driver, brings them the dinner of broken meats that he has begged from restaurants. He spreads a newspaper in a convenient corner, sets out dinner, and calls. He never has to call more than once; the guests know the hour.

Dan is one of a good many New York people who have a heart for the homeless cat. There is a little stenographer who always spends an hour, after her day's work is done, in looking for strays in the deserted canyons of the financial district, where there is poor picking for cats. Those she finds she takes to an animal refuge, and then she goes to her late dinner. She has done her good deed for the day.

Dan and the stenographer represent the two schools into which the friends of cats are divided. One school believes in gathering up homeless cats and taking them to some humane agency, to be placed in homes if possible, and if not to be mercifully destroyed. The other school thinks that if they are fed they can take care of themselves on the street. But it is to be feared that the samaritans of this school, intending to be kind, are adding to the problem of the homeless cat. The cats they keep alive and at liberty inevitably breed, and so there are more and more strays.

Cats sometimes form colonies and flourish for a time. There was once a handsome tribe living among the rocks in a vacant lot in the upper end of Manhattan. The patriarch of the colony was black and white, and the kittens born there were all black and white, no matter what the color of the cats that moved in. Tenants in a neighboring apartment house fed them, and they looked very prosperous, lying on the rocks on a warm afternoon. Then builders came to blast for a new apartment house, and the colony broke up in terror. There is no security for the unowned cat.