Latonya “Sassee” Walker (images courtesy of “The Cat Rescuers”)

For four years, New York film directors Rob Fruchtman and Steven Lawrence followed cat rescuers as these unsung heroes went about the uphill battle of feeding, adopting, trapping and neutering Brooklyn’s exploding population of street cats. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the resulting documentary, The Cat Rescuers, starts its national theatrical run at the IFC Center on July 5.

“I thought there was some kind of interest in a film not just about cats, but about the people who love them,” said Fruchtman during a phone interview. “I had always been curious of people who spend enormous amounts of time at the risk of their own personal relationships or jobs.”

There are at least half a million street cats in New York City, according to the film. That’s one feral or abandoned cat for every one living in an apartment or house. The film—the dispiriting subject matter of which is buffered by the characters’ spirited humor—introduces us to four New Yorkers who are diving into the gargantuan challenge of fixing the problem.

Stu (Stuart Siet) is a quiet and soft-spoken electronics engineer whose day job is to maintain radio communications for the FDNY. He had his first chance encounter with the street cats when he couldn’t walk his dog until dawn. After he grabbed food and went back out to the cats waiting for him on the sidewalk, it became a habit. “I think the general impression was that I’d gone totally crazy,” he tells the camera. “Who goes out of their house at five o’clock in the morning to feed a bunch of cats?”

Claire Corey

Claire Corey is a painter who lives in Bed-Stuy and works a full-time job in advertising and graphic design. Her husband used to flip out about her devotion to rescuing and adopting cats, but he tolerates it more now. “I think he just is, ‘Well this is who I married. I’m stuck with her…’” she tells the camera good-humoredly.

Tara Green is a tireless health-care administrator living near Coney Island; adopting two strays saved her from continuing down a path of substance abuse, she says. When she decides to buy a home that will offer her more room, the logic is: “More room, more cats. I’m single and staying single and I love my cats.”

Tara Green

Finally, Sassee–Latonya Walker–is a street-wise former rapper turned legal investigator living in Canarsie with her teenage daughter. Fruchtman and Lawrence recorded her, Stu, Tara and Claire as they went about their daily activities, and dedicated their early mornings, after-work afternoons and Sunday mornings to combing the borough’s alleys for strays. In the process, they educate the public about TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return), the humane and efficient population-control method that’s put forth by animal advocates and non-profits but not actively supported by the city government.

Bedford+Bowery reached out to the city’s Health Department’s (DOH) Press Office for comment but did not hear back. On their website, the city authorities acknowledge cat abandonment and overpopulation are “significant problems in New York City” and that street cats create “public nuisances” and can be carriers of rabies and other diseases. They also raise the topic of TNR. The DOH agrees that “sterilizing cats halts reproduction and mating-related nuisance behaviors.” But the website also states that the DOH “neither prohibits nor specifically endorses TNR as a practice, nor the groups that are involved with TNR.”

The city does financially back the Animal Care Center, or ACC, a private contractor under the DOH, and which Lawrence said did “terrific work” rescuing injured or surrendered animals, cats included. “ACC works aggressively with rescue groups to limit the number of animals who are euthanized,” he said. “The city does support that work, but what they are not directly supporting is trap, neuter, return.” B+B also reached out to the ACC to hear more about the work the organization did, but didn’t hear back.

According to Fruchtman, the population-control approach of the ACC is a passive one to a swiftly growing problem (in seven years, one unspayed female and her offspring can multiply into 370,000 cats).

He recalled a time when New York City had dog-catchers, now a non-existent job because street dogs are no longer a problem in the city. “We want cat-catchers; to catch them and neuter them and prevent them having litters. Or to get adopted. That’s the humane way and also the efficient way. And the city doesn’t do that,” said Fruchtman.

Kathleen O’Malley, from the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the privately funded Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, believes that getting cat-catchers would require a staff of tens of thousands of people. “I mean. It’s a big city, there are a lot of cats out there,” she said in an interview. What is offered instead are TNR certification workshops and the support services provided by the private nonprofits. The government has also devoted funds so that ACC can provide better services.  

“The city committed to building more service shelters in Queens and the Bronx, which they are in the process of doing,” said O’Malley. “So, it’s baby steps, I hope to see the day when there is a city agency that is taking care of TNR, but that is not an item that has been brought to the agenda to my knowledge.”

In the end, The Cat Rescuers hopes to change the perspective of viewers; in the words of Lawrence, “you can’t walk the city streets and see a cat and not think about that cat’s existence and what it might be going through.”