By Marc-Yves Tumin
Last week, I saw Snowy once again, for a moment standing before me in the bitter chill, a wraith, a spectral presence, a shadow of white smoke on the pavement, thin and alert and furtive as ever. The poor homeless creature has been wintering on a construction site since she was abandoned with her kittens in a park a year ago. Their newborn eyes had not yet opened. Only a pair survived. I've been observing Snowy since last April. She's ermine-like, preternaturally shy and supremely intelligent. Though she's taken food from my hand, my efforts to catch her have been in vain. When Snowy had more kittens, I spent two weeks rescuing them. And when the cold weather set in, she had a third litter, rescued with the assistance of Good Samaritans.
I kept thinking of Snowy while I interviewed Karen Howard, the indefatigable founder of NYC Rescued Kitties, one of many volunteer groups that care for feral critters. Janet Jensen has portrayed them in "Shadow Cats: Tales From NYC's Animal Underground" (Adams Media). Howard designs fashion accessories for a living, and launched her pet project in July 1999.
She describes on her Web site how "Robin was so terrified when someone put him out to fend for himself, he climbed to the top of a tree and stayed there for four days, until some firemen helped us get him down." And how "Frosty was put on the street without any claws, so he couldn't climb to safety." And how "Little Binky at eight weeks old was so eaten up by fleas that the vet could not even draw any blood from her veins."
"I used to volunteer for another group," she told me. "But I was doing a lot of work for them, and one day it was time to go off on my own. We care for about a hundred cats at a time. We have a core group of half a dozen people that do most of the work, but we have some volunteers who come in and out, and other volunteers who do different things for us like program the Web site." Placing rescued cats for adoption is "a slow process," she continues. "You want to make sure it's a good home, and not just find a home and find it back out in the street again. There's a never-ending supply of homeless animals, that's for sure."
Does the fierce city have a responsibility for feral creatures? "What the city is doing is just exterminating them. They're not trying to find homes for them, I mean, they're trying on a very small level, but from what I understand, the CACC puts down about 70 percent of the animals.
"There are groups that spay neuter and maintain. The Humane Society has a feral program where they do spay/neuter. The problem in the city is that they still die, they get poisoned; people don't want them on their property; they're hit by cars, so their life expectancy is not very long." How does she pay the freight? "We have not received any funding from the city. I've talked to other groups that were trying to get funds; they didn't get anything. We went to this meeting with the Mayor's Alliance, where they were trying to get funds, but the idea was to spay, neuter and adopt as many animals as possible, not really caring if the animal was going to a good home. It was more about numbers. We don't believe in just turning them out."
As if affected by the wrangling over the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the cultural wars and the debate over fiscal policy and foreign affairs, local rescuers seem unable to unite under an umbrella organization. Even the spaying of pregnant cats is contentious.
"Each group has its own ideas about how to do things," Howard said. "And nobody wants to work with each other because they don't agree on things. Within each group it's hard enough to keep everybody in that group! I doubt enough groups would want to get together."
Epilogue: Snowy still clings to life but she's suffering. As the arctic blasts unspool, I can trace her tracks in the ice. When I last saw her, her beautiful coat was dirty; her paws were surely hurting; she must have been in pain. I've never seen such a slender, ragged creature. "The fire for which all thirst" must burn brightly within her, but you can help by sponsoring a homeless cat or kitten for a few dollars a week. Call NYC Rescued Kitties at 212.353.9783, or your local animal rescue group. It's a cruel, cold, ravenous world out there.