The story of a missing Crown Heights kitty has sparked heated discussion among Brooklyn cat lovers, with some saying a rising interest in helping strays has seen their pets “cat-napped” by people who think they’re doing the right thing.

After Crown Heights resident Melissa Walker posted about her pet cat Kitah being taken to a shelter by a rescuer, the Bed-Stuy community Facebook page erupted in comments.

At least seven people in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy reported cats being taken recently by people mistaking them for strays.

Some point the finger at an increase in feral cat rescue efforts in gentrifying neighborhoods, leading to pet cats that roam outside being mistakenly ‘rescued’ by those believing they are abandoned or stray.

However, local rescue groups are warning the community not to jump to conclusions, and to see the ‘cat-nappings’ as the rare exception to rescuers doing good work in the community.

Melissa’s story

Walker said her cat was taken by a woman working for a rescue at the start of this month.

The 43-year-old veteran said she’d noticed a woman coming into the private yard of the three-unit building she lives in around March 22, and leaving cat food.

Construction workers told her the woman was trying to rescue a pregnant cat, so Walker put up a note on the fence asking her to stop, fearing it would attract strays.

Her own cat Kitah — who is chipped and spayed — had sunned herself and played in Walker’s enclosed yard at will over the last seven years since she adopted her, and had always returned.

Melissa Walker and her cat Kitah. Photo: Melissa Walker

But around April 1, Kitah went missing. Walker was distraught.

“I am a 12 USMC and ARMY veteran with a tour in Iraq. Kitah and I survived a fire together six years ago and I had stage 3 cancer in 2019 – 2020. So she is my old lady who has been my constant,” she said.

Walker posted in community pages, checked ASPCA groups and started looking for the woman who had been putting cat food in her yard. On April 6, the woman reappeared at the property, and Walker went running out to ask if she’d trapped a tortie cat.

“She said yes,” Walker said. “Explained she was new to Crown Heights and was strolling the area to get a ‘feel for’ where cats are in need.” Walker said she apologized profusely and told her Kitah was in New Jersey, and shared her number.

The situation intensified when the woman stopped taking her calls, Walker said, but she eventually ended up connecting with the shelter that had Kitah and picked her up from Woodbridge, New York, on Saturday.

Melissa Walker’s cat Kitah. Photo: Melissa Walker

Her cat now has ear docked, which is done to signify a cat has been neutered or spayed.

“I am still irate over that,” Walker said. “After they already mutilated her they shaved her belly and saw her tattoo marking her spayed.”

Walker said the main issue was not the rescue, it was individuals who affiliate themselves with reputable rescues and then “go rogue in neighborhoods they aren’t familiar with.”

“As Crown Heights gentrifies more, this is becoming a bigger and more common issue,” she said. “They are picking up bodega cats, barber shop cats and any cat they see. With no regards for the cat culture of the neighborhood they just moved into.”

Community reacts

Walker posted her story to Facebook as it unraveled — at first in the hopes of finding Kitah, and then updating people on the situation.

The posts prompted discussion on the Bed-Stuy Facebook group. An April 7 invitation for people to share their stories of “cat-napping” had more than 300 comments a week later, with seven of the comments from others who said their pet had been mistakenly taken by people trying to rescue the cat.

Some pointed the finger at gentrifiers “thinking they are helping,” but with a “savior” mentality.

The post garnered hundreds of comments. Photo: Facebook / Screenshot

Others didn’t understand the link to gentrification, saying anytime a cat is taken from private property is simply a crime, and nothing to do with the changing demographics of neighborhoods.

One woman was open with the fact she once mistakenly took a bodega cat home, thinking it was stray after finding it wandering the street at night. The next day she asked around the neighborhood and found its owners, who suggested they wouldn’t let it roam free at night anymore.

Local cat rescue volunteer Donna Sachs said the post was spreading misinformation. She said cats shouldn’t be allowed outside unattended.

“I think there is WAY less cat THEFT than you imply. It’s possible that the person/people picking up ANY cat are taking the cat to be scanned for a microchip to help find the guardian and to keep him/her out of harm’s way,” she said.

Helping stray cats

There’s been a boom in interest in getting the city’s feral cat population down, especially amid the pandemic, as people notice an increasing number of stray cats in the neighborhoods and become attuned to their plight.

At least half a million cats are estimated to live on the streets of NYC, with thousands euthanized yearly. A process known as Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) is one of the key tools in reducing the cat population at a neighborhood level.

Photo: Pexels

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, and rescues have seen an increasing interest in getting certified in recent months.

The ASPCA told BK Reader it had not received any requests for assistance regarding rescuers taking pet cats, but it encouraged all cat owners to make sure their cat has proper identification. 

“Cats allowed outdoors should wear a collar and an ID tag with the owner’s phone number visibly listed. And for both indoor and outdoor cats, an ID tag paired with an implanted microchip can help ensure that owned cats are returned if he or she becomes lost.”

A rescuer’s advice

Meanwhile, Rachel Selekman, member of Neighborhood Animal Rescue Network-Central Brooklyn (NARN-CB), said she believed the situation with Walker’s cat was “an outlier,” and warned of blowing it out of proportion.

“It would be tragic if the tireless work of rescuers to combat the ever-growing feral cat population was tarnished or misunderstood when one rescuer makes a mistake and doesn’t handle it well,” she told BK Reader.

Selekman said her Bed-Stuy rescue group TNRd or rescued more than 250 kittens and cats in 2020, “and we didn’t trap anyone’s pet by accident.”

She said rescuers also often come across what they call “dumped friendlies.”

Photo: Pexels

These are cats who lived inside and were put outside by their owners and do not have the necessary survival skills to make it on the street. Some may even wear collars.

She said it was possible that a pet cat could be mistaken for a “dumped friendly,” but unless the cat is in distress her rescuers take the precaution of asking around, visiting it over a few days, and checking and posting on Lost and Found Pets of Brooklyn.

Selekman said this cat was a rescued “friendly.”

If the rescuers do end up bringing a cat inside, they check to see if it’s microchipped. 

Selekman said there was a “big difference” between kidnapping cats, “which no rescuer I know would condone,” and trapping a cat on public property that turns out to be someone’s pet.

“Believe me, nothing would make a rescuer happier than to know that the cat they have is someone’s pet — but that rarely happens.”

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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

5

  1. Keep your cats inside ! The elements aren’t friendly for house cats to survive in. Cats domesticated themselves for a reason. If you love your cat, why would you risk their lives letting them out? Besides other animals attacking there are people who do horrible things to felines. Cats get hit by cars, tick bites , fall down wells…too many risks to mention all could be prevented if you spray/neuter and LEAVE YOUR FUR BABY INSIDE for their safety and longevity! Indoor cats live 3x longer than outdoor cats.

  2. I think it’s great that there’s rescues and people out there helping homeless cats , but these rescuers really need to think before they just pick up cats that are outside running loose , they NEED to ask the residents where these cats are before just grabbing them and assuming their stray or feral .
    My husband and I were adopted by a tnr cat ,( we can tell by her clipped ear ) we’ve tried bringing her into the house but she doesn’t like being indoors and definitely doesn’t get along with other cats and we have 4 , but she seems to have decided our porch is the perfect home , she only allows my husband and I to touch her .
    We live in a 55+ community and most of our neighbors have cats that they allow outdoors , in the 5 1/2 years that we have lived here we’ve seen the SPCA people here multiple times trying to trap people’s cats , IT’S RIDICULOUS and theft plus their trespassing on private property !! We and our neighbors have repeatedly called the SPCA and the police on these people , but they keep showing up knowing that all of the cats here are owned !!!
    Some Rescues are great but alot of them take it too far and they ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to A- trespass on private property without permission or a legitimate reason B-Steal people’s pets because they’re outdoors and C-Just assume that because a cat or cats are outdoors they don’t have a home .
    We actually had one of these dam Spca people come on our porch trying to take our cat when they could CLEARLY see her heated cat house food/water bowls and she was LAYING IN HER CAT BED !!!!!
    SERIOUSLY did she look like a stray !?!?

  3. I’m curious as to how many of these “free range” cats end up crushed under the wheels of a vehicle every year in this neighborhood?

    Contrary to what some cat owners believe, cats do NOT need to roam at will in order to love fulfilled and happy lives. If I find a cat in my yard or garden, on roaming with no owner accompanying them, I will trap or other humanely capture the animal, have it scanned for a microchip, and if it has none I will find a good home for him or her.

    People think nothing of just letting their cat go outside unconfined and unsupervised, roaming both public and private property and we’re all just supposed to tandem by and watch the cat get hit by a car, or become coyote food, and releasing themselves any where they chose–when it’s not a healthy, safe, environmentally ethical nor polite and neighborly thing to do.

  4. It is the responsibility of the cat owner to get their indoor/outdoor cat a collar with a name tag and microchip. Also, if your cat goes missing, immediately put up fliers with picture on the block as rescuers check for fliers for a couple of days after rescue.

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