Stray cats get a rough deal. Life on the streets is a cold, hard existence, even with a thick coat and a full set of claws to protect them. In big cities like New York, the situation is even worse. Not only do the stray cats of the city have to deal with the constant worry of where their next meal is coming from, but there’s also the never-ending traffic, the busy streets, and the general craziness to deal with. Fortunately, the plight of stray cats in New York isn’t quite so hopeless, nor so lonely, as it once was.
As a child growing up in Greenpoint, Subway maintenance supervisor Thomas Doerbecker was surrounded by cats, dogs, turtles, snakes, fish, and birds. It imbued him with a lifelong love for animals that’s proving invaluable to the stray cats of the Big Apple. Doerbecker has been extending the hand of friendship to the city’s cats since 2017. Over the course of just three years, he’s helped rescue and save dozens of stray felines. At a time when everything seems just a little grimmer than it ever has before, Doerbecker’s story is just what we all need.
Rewind to the Thanksgiving weekend of 2017. Thomas Doerbecker, a life long animal lover and cat fancier, is spending the weekend at work. Midway through his shift, his manager approaches him with a strange request. A stray cat has been wandering around Brooklyn’s subways for weeks. Transit workers had been working to lure it out but so far, the cat has been resisting all rescue attempts. Could Doerbecker help out?
“My boss knew I take care of cats. I said I’ll go try,” Doerbecker, a 27 year veteran with the MTA, recalls to the New York Post. Doerbecker went out immediately to buy what he’d need to get the job done. “I brought a trap, a humane trap like they use to catch raccoons and stuff like that,” he says. He also bought plenty of cat food to try and tempt the stray out of the subway’s cavernous depths. The ploy worked. ” (I) baited (the trap) with some food. He went in and we caught him,” he recalls.
Carrying On the Good Work
Since his first rescue in 2017, MTA bosses have called on Doerbecker’s services around 2 or 3 more times. But these days, he doesn’t sit back and wait to be asked – he actively works to help as many strays as he can. Over the past few years, 57-year-old Doerbecker has recused dozens of strays, making it his mission to pull as many endangered kitties from the city’s perilous rail yards as possible. “I don’t like to see a cat running on a track,” he says via Newzinto. “They run and hide if a train comes, but a stray cat, sooner or later, is going to get hit.”
Using humane spring traps, Doerbecker entices the cats with food and treats. Once he catches them, he gets them fixed before deciding on the best course of action. He prepped himself for his duties by signing up for a “trap, neuter, release” class at a local animal rescue center. The course trained him in the basics of how to safely catch cats, along with the importance of getting them neutered or spayed. But according to Doerbecker, he’s been able to figure out most of it through good old common sense. “They teach you how to catch,” he says. “They tell you how to do it, what kind of trap to use, but it’s basically common sense.”
The Importance of Trap-Neuter-Release Programs
Common sense or not, Trap-Neuter-Release programs play a vital role in stabilizing the ever-growing feral cat populations of cities like New York. As Alley Cats Allies explains, the programs work by instantly ending reproduction, ending the constant stresses of mating and pregnancy, and by removing socialized cats from the colony. Once re-released, feral cats are statistically more likely to live long and healthy lives. Their coat condition improves, they stray less, and they tend to put on a healthy amount of weight. During one 11 – year study into the impact of Trap-Neuter-Release programs at the University of Florida, 83 percent of the cats in managed Trap-Neuter-Release colonies were found to have been living in those colonies for more than six years, indicating an average lifespan comparable to that of pet cats.
A Better Life
Once the rescued cats have been fixed, Doerbecker decides on whether they stand a chance of being rehomed. As feral cats are almost impossible to re-home (unlike strays, feral cats have never learned how to live alongside humans, and are usually much too skittish and nervous around people to be domesticated), Doerbecker will re-release wild and feral cats into a safe area. Stray cats that have lived with people before and could comfortably do it again are re-homed. “If they’re good, if they’re trainable and I think they could be adopted out… I’ll try to get them adopted out,” Doerbecker explains.
Over the years, he and his wife, who live on Staten Island, have even offered several of the rescued cats a home themselves. Their current menagerie is made up of six cats of their own and seven foster cats. Two of his permanent feline residents, Peanut and Rusty, are ones that Doerbecker has rescued. In total, Doerbecker reckons he’s saved around 50 cats from the rail yard where he works in Sunset Park. It’s a big number already, but Doerbecker has no plans on stopping there. Despite his efforts to save as many cats as possible, their numbers are still increasing, while the risk they face is as great as ever. “You got loose cats all around,” he says. “I’ve seen cats run over. It’s not a great environment for an animal.”
It’s not, but thanks to Doerbecker, it’s an environment that many cats don’t have to suffer for long.