The Queen of Street Cats

New York City has more than a million feral felines. One Queens resident has a humane—and controversial—plan to save them all.

No one opens a can of cat food quite like Debi Romano. Gracefully, she peels back the metal lid and dumps the mushy contents onto a pile of dry cat food. With mesmerizing speed, she opens and dumps cans like a seasoned assembly line worker, tossing the empties into a plastic bag.

Working out of the trunk of her red Camaro, she puts the food into disposable containers and places them under dumpsters and cars, near fences and building crawl spaces. Romano spends four hours every night hitting five Queens neighborhoods and feeding upwards of 100 street cats. She goes through $2,000 of cat food a month, and puts forty dollars worth of gas in her car every other day.

When she was twelve, her mother predicted she would become “that crazy cat lady.” Now fifty-four, she probably is New York’s ultimate one. The last time she skipped a night’s feeding rounds was during Hurricane Sandy, and only because she physically couldn’t leave her house in Queens Village.

Defying the stereotype of a cat lady wearing a fur-covered bathrobe that smells like canned tuna, Romano never leaves the house without lipliner and mascara. She has thick salt-and-pepper hair and owns more than ninety pairs of shoes. The term “cat lady” doesn’t offend her; she even dressed up as one for Halloween. “I’ve dealt with many crazy cat ladies,” she says, laughing. “And yes, we do have a bad reputation of being nuts. I think a lot of people start out with good intentions, but then it does drive you mad. How I’m not crazy is beyond me.”

If Romano’s not feeding cats, she’s probably doing something else cat-related. Always wearing a cell phone earpiece, she answers forty to fifty “animal emergency calls” a day. Romano and her friend Rosary Immordino run the nonprofit SaveKitty Foundation, “a no-kill, all-volunteer Queens-based rescue group” that helps people feed, shelter and sterilize feral cats.

Debi Romano in 1964, at the age of five. Behind her is the word "cat," which she wrote on her family home.
Debi Romano in 1964, at the age of five. Behind her is the word “cat,” which she wrote on her family home.

New York City has more than a million street cats. If you’ve spent time in the city, you’ve likely seen them lurking behind dumpsters and smelled their urine on a hot day. Perhaps their battle cries have kept you up at night.

“A feral cat is a dangerous animal,” Romano says. The New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene agrees, writing on its website that because feral cats are often aggressive and diseased, their “abandonment and overpopulation are significant problems.”

But between females having multiple litters a year, and the endless supply of abandoned pets, these cats won’t be disappearing from the streets anytime soon. Many self-described feral cat caretakers, like Romano, say they can solve the city’s cat problem without slaughtering thousands of animals. Critics believe their plan will make the situation worse.

* * *

“Don’t leave plates, or you’re just asking for trouble,” Rosary Immordino instructs. Thirty or so cat-loving men and women have gathered on a Saturday morning in the basement of the Langston Hughes Library in Flushing, Queens. It’s an eclectic group – young and old, with accents from abroad and from deep in Brooklyn – but one with a common concern for the feral cats they see around the city.

Romano and Immordino frequently teach this three-hour class in Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), a population control method that, as the name implies, involves capturing feral cats, bringing them to vets to be neutered or spayed, and then putting them back in their alleys or abandoned buildings. For Romano, TNR is the only humane solution to the city’s cat problem, since the alternatives are slaughtering the animals, or letting them reproduce and continue running wild.

“Debi’s been doing TNR since before it was even a concept,” Immordino says. Romano was seventeen when she TNRed her first cat and hasn’t stopped since.

“People don’t see what I see, they don’t know what I know,” Romano says. “My phone just goes all day long with animal atrocities, horror stories…” Her voice trails off. “I’d rather they not be born.”

SaveKitty and other pro-TNR groups flaunt success stories, while opponents — many of them bird lovers — counter with what they say is evidence of failure. Tension between cat and bird people is nothing new; it flares up from time to time in the news, and on the streets in bowls of poisoned cat food or sabotaged cat shelters.

“We need to focus our efforts where we can do the most good,” Immordino tells the class. “You need to know about the failed alternatives because people in the neighborhood are going to say to you, ‘Why don’t you just remove them?’” She explains that getting rid of one colony simply makes room for a new one to move in, and that a lot of complaint-worthy behaviors like noise and smell go away once a cat is neutered.

While not included in the acronym TNR, it’s important to mention that continuing to shelter and feed neutered colonies are central components of the TNR philosophy. Yet whether ferals should be allowed to live and whether people should feed them are related, but separate issues.

So should feral cats be euthanized? The question boils down to differing views on animal rights and competing scientific claims. Wildlife journalist Ted Williams ignited debate this past spring when he suggested in an article for The Orlando Sentinel that “TE” — trap and euthanize — replace TNR. For Williams, like many others, the situation is black and white: Feral cats are invasive species that harm native birds.

Even PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says on its website that it “cannot in good conscience oppose euthanasia as a humane alternative to dealing with cat overpopulation.” The organization isn’t convinced that TNR programs “are truly in the cats’ best interests.”

Romano puts food down in Queens Village for several neighborhood felines.
Romano puts food down in Queens Village for several neighborhood felines.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, on the other hand, endorses TNR “as the only proven humane and effective method to manage feral cat colonies.” In the FAQ section of its website, under the question “don’t feral cats kill birds?” the group writes that cats “prefer to kill rodents,” and that “other issues, such as the decline of natural habitat and use of pesticides, have a greater negative impact on bird populations.”

Last January, the Nature Communications journal published a study that estimated free-ranging cats—a term that includes both feral and outdoor pet cats — kill between 1.3 and four billion birds annually in the U.S. The figures were surprising, far higher than any previous estimates, and got everyone in the bird and cat worlds up in arms. But whether the study, which has since been criticized for its methodology, warrants mass feline euthanasia depends on who you ask.

Alan Beck, an animal ecology professor at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Center of the Human-Animal Bond, calls the data on bird deaths “a little sloppy.” But, he says, “lots of studies show that cats will kill even if they’re not hungry.” No amount of kitty chow will crush this urge.

So what does that mean for the feral cat feeders? Well, if you thought whether to euthanize or TNR cats was a hot debate, the question of whether to feed them might just be an even more contentious one.

Cats are opportunistic and “will go wherever there is food,” says Carol Haspel, a biology professor at LaGuardia Community College. When there’s a feeder, they come like magnets.

Earlier in her career, Haspel researched feral cats in New York City and documented a surplus of available food. As skilled hunters and scavengers, she says, they’ll find plenty of food waste and more than enough rodents to eat. “As part of the natural wildlife of our city,” she continues, the size of the feral cat population should be determined by the environment’s carrying capacity. Without human intervention, “it will balance out.”

Haspel is a scientist, but she’s not heartless. She grew up feeding feral cats in the basement of her family’s Brooklyn apartment building and understands Romano’s motivation. It “serves the human psyche to connect,” she says. But “by feeding, people are just encouraging a population.”

* * *

On a chilly December night, Romano parks her car by a tall fence on a residential block in Astoria. “There were two cats, and one cat disappeared five weeks ago,” she says. “I’m sick to my stomach every night when I come here because I don’t know what happened to that cat. Is it stuck somewhere? Did it die quickly? Is it still alive? Is it hungry?” She gets out of the car and begins filling a plastic dish with cat food.

“Every night of my life I go through this.”

The 2013 Camaro that Debi Romano does her work in.
The 2013 Camaro that Debi Romano does her work in.

According to Beck, the impulse to feed and care for feral cats and dogs is triggered by our innate desire to nurture. “We view dogs and cats not as wildlife,” he says, “but as extensions of family. And we have to take care of our family.” Doing so is often “as important, if not more important to the feeder than to the cat.”

But is it really good for the cats?

“I’m not sure,” he answers. “The truth of the matter is that animals are fine. There are parts of the city where they’re not being fed and they’re doing just fine.” Perhaps putting out some food for a few cats in your backyard is relatively harmless, he adds, but “walking around the streets feeding cats is probably a problem.” He believes this type of serial feeding behavior may facilitate the spread of disease, which tends to happen when animals concentrate unnaturally, and it probably contributes to rodent population growth, since cats aren’t the only ones eating the food put out for them.

“I just feel that most people go through their lives, and what do they do?” Romano asks. “They don’t give a shit about people, they don’t give a shit about animals, and they have no purpose here.” Caretaking, she says, is her life purpose.

“I’m not a religious person, but I just feel like I’m blessed with knowing why I’m here. And this is why I’m here. I’m here to help animals.”

She calls her work never-ending, and admits it can be less than rewarding at times. But, she continues, “when I go out at night and I see these little cats head-bumping each other because they know that I’ve come, that makes it all worthwhile.” Romano smiles and says triumphantly, “nothing is going to stop me from feeding these cats. Nothing.”

As part of the TNR class, students receive a 161-page handbook that covers everything from caring for cats in traps to constructing winter shelters. Written by Neighborhood Cats, another local pro-TNR group, the handbook decrees it “inherently cruel and irresponsible” to stop feeding a cat you’ve been caring for on the street. They also call it unproductive because hungry cats looking for food “will encroach further and further into inhabited spaces.”

Beck, however, has never seen any scientific evidence that you have to continue feeding a wild animal after starting. It survived before a feeder, he says, so the argument is probably more of “a rationalization than anything based on objective evidence.” Remember, he adds, “all of this is our projection of what we think is happening based on our human values.”

So do feral cats really depend on humans? Or might it be the other way around?

* * *

“This is the worst one,” Romano says, shining a flashlight into a basement crawl space at the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City, Queens. She points the beam at a brown stain on the floor. “All throughout these buildings there are puddles of human waste that bubble up from broken pipes.”

Romano knows the layout of all thirty-one basements in this public housing complex, after spending seven months working with the Housing Authority to clear them of cats. Wearing a hazmat suit and helmet, she inspected every nook before giving the okay to seal the spaces. Covered with water bugs, spiders and crickets, she worked in the summer heat with no ventilation and crawled when there was no room to stand or squat, extending her arms into dark spaces, feeling for stragglers. In the end, she is confident she got them all.

“Anything I do, I do overboard,” Romano says. It’s hard not to admire her dedication, especially because she acts with contagious spunk, cursing and laughing and speaking her mind. She used to be a body builder, but as with so much else in her life, she gave it up for cats.

“It’s a blessing and a curse. It gives me purpose, but controls my life.”

In search of a specific feral cat, Romano shines a flashlight under a vehicle at the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City, Queens.
In search of a specific feral cat, Romano shines a flashlight under a vehicle at the Ravenswood Houses in Long Island City, Queens.

The SaveKitty Foundation receives about $80,000 in annual contributions and grants. Most goes towards cat food and vet fees; neither Romano nor Immordino take any compensation. Romano and her husband get by on the money he makes as mechanic and the pay she brings in from small cleaning jobs or from taking a litter of kittens off someone’s hands. SaveKitty has brought thousands of feral cats to veterinarians for neutering, and placed hundreds of rescued ones into adoptive homes.

Romano takes pride in changes she has seen; areas that once crawled with aggressive cats and kittens have stabilized with a calmer, smaller neutered population, she says. Other TNR-certified caretakers also feed and maintain colonies all over the city, registering them in a confidential online database. There are forums and resources for questions, websites about building low-cost winterized shelters, and mass-email notification about trapping projects and adoptions. There’s a big effort among caretakers to network and collaborate, to share information and tips, and even to lend trapping equipment. It’s an impressively organized world of dedicated individuals, but not everyone thinks their efforts are as effective as they claim.

“They’re deluding themselves if they think they can control the population,” says Haspel, the biology professor. When she hears about TNR, the scientist in her comes out. “I’m a cynic,” she says, laughing. “But you have to be in my line of work.” Haspel thinks neutering feral cats can help the problem, but she’s skeptical of major success stories like Romano’s. “How does she measure this?” Haspel asks. “Has it been independently verified?”

Perhaps people fixed broken windows, started covering trashcans, or cleaned up litter and garbage in the area, she theorizes; perhaps new feeders attracted animals to other neighborhoods. Unless “you know for sure that the environment remained the same, and all other variables were accounted for,” you can only conclude that there’s a correlation.

Romano prepares dishes of cat food for feral cats in the driveway of her Queens Village home.
Romano prepares dishes of cat food for feral cats in the driveway of her Queens Village home.

“And correlation is not cause-and-effect,” she says.

Haspel suspects Romano and others are motivated by altruism, and in her research found that street cats and caretakers have a mutually beneficial relationship. A feral cat doesn’t need a human feeder to survive, but it certainly makes its life on the street easier. “By providing companionship and an opportunity to nurture,” she wrote in an article for the journal “Anthrozoös,” “free-ranging cats make a contribution to city life beyond their value as predators of pest species.”

* * *

There is a good deal of scientific and psychological research on animal hoarding; it’s even the subject of an intervention-style Animal Planet show. Beck explains that individuals tend to become animal hoarders after a major life change or crisis, like the death of a family member, but there are multiple theories for why it happens. “Hoarding implies a psychological need that may not be as wholesome or as important to the animals,” he says, “but your identity becomes tied up in it.”

Could being a serial feeder be a variation on hoarding? He thinks it’s possible. “Perhaps being a hoarder is related to being a serial feeder, but serial feeding is maybe a bit more socially acceptable. Maybe it’s a nice way of dealing with hoarding feelings?” Either way, when compared to hoarding, Beck believes “feeding probably does less social damage. So if you have to become a hoarder or a feeder,” he says laughing, “I would recommend you become a feeder.”

Feeding certainly has value for Romano. “I never know where the next call could take me,” she says. “I have no time constraints — that’s what I love about my life. It’s exciting.” That’s not to say it’s easy. Romano is haunted by memories and images of animal abuse. “I’ve seen things and I’ve heard things that would drive a normal person mad,” she says. She can still picture the beheaded kitten she found as a kid, and tears up at the thought of it.

But she won’t let emotions immobilize her. “If I lose it — and there were a couple of times where I thought that I was going to go crazy,” she says, “the animals won’t get help and I won’t be able to do this anymore.” Her biggest fear is dying and leaving behind cats that depend on her.

“I want to run into burning buildings, jump on train tracks, stop traffic,” Romano says. “I’m a rescuer; the best damn rescuer in New York City.”

She also calls herself “the Karaoke Queen.” She usually only goes to the Karaoke bar Shout in Astoria every other Saturday, but tonight, even though it’s a Sunday and she’s in the middle of her feeding routine, she decides to stop in “for just one song.”

A feral cat in Queens Village knows to get food under Romano's second vehicle.
A feral cat in Queens Village knows to get food under Romano’s second vehicle.

She parks her Camaro, the interior of which smells faintly of cat food, and confidently walks inside. Ordering a Kahlua on the rocks, she chats with some people she knows while waiting for her turn. “I’ve gotta have some fun, right?” she says with a playful smirk. Romano sings a Pink song, and later one by Jefferson Airplane. When she’s done, she hands the microphone to the next singer and walks outside to her car.

“This is my escape,” she says. “No one talks about cats when we’re at the karaoke bar.”

* * *

Miriam Wasser is a professional adventurer-turned journalist who also really loves animals. She recently graduated as co-valedictorian from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and received a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.Follow her on Twitter @MiriamWasser.

Brad Horrigan, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a photojournalist and multimedia storyteller based in Queens.