It’s 9:30 a.m. on a bitter cold Saturday morning, and Linda Goldsmith is crouched down in a snowy Hampton Bays backyard, cracking open a can of cat food and dumping its contents into a metal bowl.A dozen small, straw-filled cat houses line the northeast corner of the fenced-in yard. As Ms. Goldsmith distributes food and water, furry heads begin to poke out of some of the houses and through gaps in the wooden fence.
Every day, volunteers like Ms. Goldsmith tend to feral cat colonies throughout Southampton Town, and while these volunteers schlep around bags of cat food and gallons of water to help sustain the lives of the cats in these colonies, they are simultaneously working to curb the feral cat population on the South Fork.
These scattered cat shelters fall under the purview of an initiative dubbed “Operation Cat” created by the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, or ARF, a Wainscott-based nonprofit. The program calls for volunteers to bring feral cats to free or low-cost neutering locations, then maintain those cats in a colony by feeding them daily and providing basic shelter.
“Volunteers come here every day to put out food and water for about 20 cats,” Rita Del Rey, ARF’s Operation Cat coordinator, said while visiting a colony in Hampton Bays on Saturday, February 8.
That morning, Ms. Del Rey and Ms. Goldsmith, the latter of whom works for the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, or SASF, but volunteers her time with Operation Cat, handled the duties of feeding the cats at that location, which is usually tended to by other program volunteers. Ms. Goldsmith asked that The Press not disclose the colony’s location for the protection of the cats.
There are dozens of similar colonies throughout Southampton Town, Ms. Goldsmith said, many of which are managed behind restaurants and businesses, where cats are drawn to scavenge for food.
“While you’re out shopping, there are five or six colonies of cats behind stores on Main Street or Jobs Lane [in Southampton Village] that are waiting to be fed,” she said.
These maintained colonies help control cat populations because, by nature, feral cats are territorial and do not allow other felines to join their colony easily. The neutering and spaying of the cats living in these colonies also help prevent a spike in population, she added, while also noting that it reduces nuisances, such as the screaming and hissing of cats in heat.
Feeding the colonies prevents them from scavenging through trash cans in search of food, Ms. Goldsmith explained, adding that these colonies also can control rodent populations, an added bonus for hosting restaurants. With an average feral cat life span being six to eight years, these colonies die off relatively quickly, according to volunteers.
“I’ve experienced it firsthand,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “I had over 150 cats at [a Hampton Bays restaurant] and now I have four, and that’s just over the course of a couple years.”
Another overarching goal of the maintained colonies is to limit the number of cats in shelters throughout Long Island, as many of these facilities are forced to euthanize animals because they lack the proper space and resources, Ms. Goldsmith said.
Local animal shelters have stepped up efforts this year to limit the feral cat population both on the South Fork and across Long Island with the help of a mobile spay and neutering facility.
Thanks to a $135,000 grant secured in August from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, SASF was able to purchase a van in January that serves as a mobile spay and neutering clinic. Last month, the mobile clinic neutered more than 50 cats in a problem area in Mastic Beach and, more recently, the van helped SASF fix more than 20 cats in Southampton Town during an event held Monday at the East Quogue Methodist Church. ARF sponsored Monday’s event, which cost approximately $1,200 to run.
Until 2010, SASF was operated by the town as the municipal shelter, but was closed due to budgetary problems. It then re-opened as a nonprofit, but still acts as the community shelter and operates in the same building as Southampton Animal Control, albeit not on the taxpayers’ dime.
The mobile clinic, Ms. Goldsmith said, is designed to bring neutering and other veterinary services to low-income areas, where problems are most prevalent because people don’t have the means of taking animals to veterinarians and there are fewer community shelters. SASF held mobile clinics in North Sea on January 18, Riverhead on January 19, and Patchogue on January 26 and February 8. The next clinic will be held on Sunday, March 2, at the Southold Animal Shelter in partnership with the North Fork Animal Welfare League. Most of these clinics require sponsors to cover the $1,200 cost of operation.
Although community members are encouraged to bring feral cats to these mobile clinics, Ms. Goldsmith said SASF staff often must go into feral colonies and trap cats that don’t have the tip of their right ears cut off—a marker that indicates a cat already has been fixed. On Sunday morning, staffers braved the snow and bitter cold temperatures to seek out feral cats, finding colonies occupying empty buildings in three Flanders neighborhoods. The majority of the cats fixed at Monday’s clinic in East Quogue were from Flanders, while others were from Southampton Village and parts of Westhampton.
Susan Reilly, a member of Responsible Solutions for Valued Pets, or RSVP—an Eastport-based organization that provides animal services primarily to the Riverhead area—brought three cats to Monday’s event, two of which were from Cypress Avenue in Flanders and the other from the Riverwoods mobile home park in Riverside.
Ms. Reilly said RSVP often works with other shelters, such as SASF, and has goals similar to those of Operation Cat.
“Our group tries to do as much trap-neuter-release as possible,” she said. “Whenever there is an opportunity like this, we try to participate.”