An estimated 390,000 stray cats roam the streets of Philadelphia, and it’s Alley Cagnazzi’s job to make sure they are treated humanely.
As lead community cat coordinator for the Animal Control and Care Team, one of the city’s main shelters, Cagnazzi manages the cases of cats brought in and advocates for population control.
Most of the community cats — the preferred term for the stray felines — survive by foraging. Some are lucky enough to be trapped by one of the many volunteers and brought into ACCT’s shelter in Hunting Park. Some are adopted or, if an animal is too sick, humanely euthanized. Most are spayed or neutered then released back onto the streets through its trap, neuter and release program (TNR).
With spring kitten season nearly here, demand for services is growing, Cagnazzi said. Last year, ACCT took in just over 1,000 cats in March. But in January, the organization was forced to put a halt to its TNR program on hold with the departure of its lead veterinarian.
With the program on hold, how was your job changed?
It’s definitely made it more difficult. Even with our voucher program, cats aren’t being fixed at the rate we need them to be. ACCT is the most convenient option, so with us being shut down, people have very limited options. I’ve been trying to help others find unique solutions to the issue, but it’s so complicated. The easy solution is to come here, and I feel horrible that they can’t do that. I feel bad for the trappers and the cats as well. It’s been a struggle, and our overall mission has been affected negatively because of it.
You have hired a new medical director, who started on March 18. That must be good news for local trappers.
I’m hoping we can get the program started shortly after that so we can give some relief to the trappers. Trapping is already something they’re doing just because they want to. They’re taking time out of their lives, so I want to take away as many barriers as possible.
Let’s talk about you. How did you get involved with animal welfare?
I originally went to school for music business and did that for a few years, but I just didn’t like it. I wanted to do something that had more of an impact and something I felt good about doing. There was a lot of soul searching, but after some time I knew I wanted to do something with animals.
So you haven’t always been interested in cat rescue.
No. I actually grew up with dogs my whole life, and I honestly didn’t like cats. But it all started with my first cat, and then with my second cat, I knew I wanted to get involved because I found him on the street. I started volunteering at a cat rescue and then it blossomed from there. I started fostering, then trapping. And then I moved here.
You are the shelter, neuter, release coordinator, but your job is a bit more than that.
I plan events, keep track of the progress of community cats in the shelter, and try to advocate for trappers. A lot of my day is also responding to community members. I’d say about ten times a week someone calls with the question, “I found a cat. What do I do with it?” This program is only me right now, which isn’t great but we are working on it. I’m trying to deal with everything relating to community cats, but that’s just impossible. I know this program could be better if we had more manpower.
You see hundreds of cats come in and out of the shelter every month, some of which come from tough situations. What’s that like for you?
Animal welfare is a difficult place to be. It is an extremely emotional industry. We are all working towards the same goal, but because of the grey areas involved, people have very different opinions. There is a lot of disagreement with what pathways we should take to get to the end goal, which is saving these cats. People get so invested, which is amazing, but that can cloud judgment.
What are the toughest decisions you have to make in this job?
The one we face most in my day to day is deciding whether or not to release a cat back to the streets. Sometimes it’s a straightforward answer. The cat has been neutered, it’s healthy, we know it’s being taken care of, but isn’t a pet. But other times, it isn’t as easy. The cat could probably go outside, but there’s something that’s throwing up a red flag. It’s particularly difficult in the summer because we’re so packed and our options are limited. The decision to put those cats back outside can be difficult for me. Most of them will be fine, but there are those cases where you’re just stuck. I try to keep the goal in mind, which is to find the best option for each cat.
What about friendly cats? Do you typically release them, or is the goal to get them adopted?
People disagree a lot about friendly strays. I personally always lean towards returning the cat to its home outside. I think people put their own emotions onto the cat. Not every cat wants to be in a home. It might only be friendly outside, or it might get into a home and have difficulty adapting. I don’t think that stress is needed, especially if the cat is being taken care of by a dedicated colony caretaker. I want the shelter to be a short stop on these cat’s path.
You said that community education is the biggest challenge you face. Can you explain?
A lot of people see the cats as vermin. They just want us to come and take the cat away. It’s hard to get across to these people that if we take away one cat, another will just move it. I wish everyone could see the positives, like natural rodent control. Half of the people in Philly don’t even know stray cats are a problem in the city. And another portion sees the cats, and want to help, but don’t know what resources are available. I want everyone to know that it’s ok that these cats are outside, roaming.
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