Will Zweigart didn’t realize the scale of the city’s cat issue until he moved to Flatbush from Fort Greene.

Suddenly, he and his partner started seeing cats everywhere. A lifelong cat-lover, and problem-solver by nature, he started researching and discovered the reality: Hundreds of thousands of cats live on the streets of Brooklyn, and there is no sustainable solution in place.

“The presence of outdoor cats can be an indicator that the area is underserved in other key ways, which explains why we didn’t see the cats before,” he said.

He helped one cat, discovered a cat colony, learned about the practice of sterilizing and vaccinating outdoor cats, and in 2018 founded Flatbush Cats. The nonprofit — which now has more than 340,000 YouTube followers — is focused on reducing the outdoor cat population in Brooklyn.

Today, Zweigart, a strategist at an ad agency, is using his skills through Flatbush Cats to find solutions that could help NYC’s cat population for good.

“New York City has had a cat overpopulation crisis for decades, people just don’t talk about it or don’t live in the neighorhoods where it exists,” Zweigart said. “The scale of the problem is massive.”

Pandemic cat population booms

At least half a million cats are estimated to live on the streets of NYC, with thousands euthanized yearly, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Due to state guidelines, many clinics that neutered street cats suspended the procedure in March 2020.

Adult street cats lived a hard life with a lot of unnecessary suffering, and a lot of the kittens born outside didn’t survive, Zweigart said. “Cats don’t belong outside here, they’re not native to this area.”

The process known as Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) is one of the key tools in reducing the cat population at a neighborhood level. Any person can get certified to catch cats in their area, take them to a clinic to get neutered and vaccinated, and then release them back into the wild.

“If you see cats on your street, you are the best person to help them,” Zweigart said.

The problem is not many people know how. Zweigart is on a mission to get as many people in Brooklyn and beyond certified and confident doing TNR.

Flatbush Cats Founder Will Zweigart. Photo: Supplied / Flatbush Cats

When the ASPCA stopped doing its TNR trainings due to the pandemic, he asked if he could help them take the training online. Within a couple of months, they were up-and-running, and they’ve been hugely successful.

Last Saturday, Zweigart and the ASPCA trained more than 110 new TNR volunteers in a free two-hour online session. He estimates he’s trained upwards of 500 new volunteers in the last few months, most of them from New York City.

He’s also created a Facebook page where TNR-certified volunteers can share information, and is piloting a mentor-program in East Flatbush and Flatbush for the newly-certified.

“If we can train everyone to be a block captain in Brooklyn, and they have the resources to help, it starts to feel more manageable.”

A bigger issue

Despite this win, Zweigart realized early on that neutering street cats and releasing them wasn’t going to fix the problem for good.

“If our works starts with cats on the street, that’s just like scooping buckets of water out the basement without turning off the faucet.”

Photo: Flatbush Cats

The core of the issue is making spay-and-neuter more accessible and affordable. Zweigart said it was no use training hundreds of people to TNR, when there were only limited affordable neutering appointments available. Even today, there is not one high-volume, low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic in Brooklyn.

Plus, people who own domestic house cats need to be able to access affordable neutering services. Unfixed domestic house cats are the source of the street cat colonies we see today, but getting your cat neutered at a private vet clinic can cost around $500.

“We realized this is a vicious cycle,” Zweigart said. “We could rescue hundreds of the cats and the cycle will continue until we move upstream. So that’s why our focus is on structural change: making it easier to volunteer in the community through TNR and making spay and neuter accessible for low-income neighbors in Brooklyn.”

In the coming months, Flatbush Cats is planning to launch a large campaign to bring low-cost spay and neuter resources to Brooklyn, and it hopes city officials take note.

It’s currently in the research phase, running numbers, gathering data and talking to “low income pet owners who deserve to have this option available.”

The challenges include paying for real estate and vet staff in Brooklyn, but Flatbush Cats is determined.

“We’re going to chase after it, because that’s what necessary.”

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a freelance writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

Join the Conversation

6

  1. We have been TNR certified forcsome time. We oversee a colony on our property, and try to have as many as possible spayed/neutered. We have socialized over 60 kittens, and had them adopted thru Sean Casey Animal Rescue. We do not have access to the Spay/Neuter services. So we bring them to the vet thru Sean Casey. We need local services thru the program to stifle reproduction

  2. This is a laudable effort, but I see one huge flaw: the “return” part of the program. We in NYC, the US, in fact the world, are seeing a huge diminution in wild birds due to cat predation. Returning feral cats to the streets seriously adds to that problem. Adoption and euthanasia are, sadly, the only solutions.

  3. I hope a solution can happen soon for all the cats. To bad there wasn’t homes for all of them. I know a lot of them are feral. That is really expensive $500 to have a cat spayed or neutered/ with vaccinations.
    I wish you all good luck in the future to help eliminate so many euthanized kitties. I love cats so much

  4. Thank you for what you are doing for cats in the area! I care for 3 colonies near Flatbush and woodruff ave.

  5. TNR is a great program but, as the article mentions, we need more access to clinics that will neuter the cats. I have been involved with TNR for several years now and am grateful to Tara who brings the cats to a clinic for me. She is a very caring individual and we need more like her.

  6. Thank you so much. We need low cost Neutering in Brooklyn. On nextdoor.com we have a cat lovers group that has many people taking care of cat colonies. It is so sad, especially this time of the year.

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