How caring for homeless cats healed a homeless woman

Connie Porter is a Street Sense Media vendor based in Washington D.C. who has become known to locals as “The Cat Lady”. For the last five years, she has been taking care of the city’s large feral cat population and working alongside the Humane Rescue Alliance to have the animals trapped, neutered and re released. Taking care of these strays has helped Connie both to deal with her own challenges and to find a sense of purpose in life

“I feel privileged to serve them. I’ve even buried a few of them,” says Connie, who is known to many in D.C. as “The Cat Lady.” She began her mission on July 13, 2013, when she found a large colony of feral cats in Southeast Washington, D.C. She started feeding the cats and notified the D.C. Humane Society (now the Humane Rescue Alliance), which began trapping, neutering and releasing the cats.

“I have compassion for these cats,” she tells me. “They don’t have the choices people do.” Connie knows that although she is homeless, she can go to a hospital if she is ill, can go to a church for a meal, and can temporarily stay with relatives or in a homeless shelter. “Cats can’t do this,” she says. Because she has been homeless, she has great sympathy for feral cats: “If I can get a home for a kitten, then they have a home – a real home – before they become feral.”

Occasionally, people have gotten angry at her for feeding feral cats. Two years ago, she was feeding feral cats in a small colony in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. She could access their location only by walking down an alley, of which there are many in D.C. Due to the fact that these are service alleys used by sanitation trucks to collect trash, they are public property. One day a man whose home backed up on the alley challenged her and told her to stop feeding the cats and stop using the alley.

She reminded him that the alley was a public right-of-way and that feral cats are protected under D.C. law. In response, he sprayed her in the face with a hose. Connie called the police. Upon arrival, the Metropolitan Police officers explained that killing feral cats or interfering with someone trying to feed feral cats is against a municipal ordinance. The man was told that if he interfered with her again, such as by spraying her in the face with his garden hose, they would arrest him. He stopped hassling her.

In 2008, the Washington D.C. Animal Control Act of 1979 was amended to promote the policy of “trap-neuter-return”; namely, the municipal code was changed to support “utilization of trap, spay or neuter, and return practices as a means of controlling the feral cat population; provided, that all efforts shall be made to adopt out a trapped, tamable kitten.”

This has become the subject of great controversy. Local biologists now estimate there are 40,000 feral cats in D.C. and some have alleged that this ordinance is responsible.  According to Biologist Dan Rauch of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment, quoted by WJLA in a February 2017 story, “It’s going to come to a tipping point.” Rauch said that feral cats and D.C.’s native species cannot co-exist, remarking that “One hundred and thirty species of bird, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles [are] in the U.S. National Arboretum and they are all in trouble.”

Organizations on different sides of the issue vehemently disagree over the effect of the ordinance as well as the number of feral cats. “The number of felines in the city is impossible to say,” says Lauren Lipsey, the vice president of community programs at the Humane Rescue Alliance. The level of disagreement over the number of feral cats is such that, over the next three years, an organization known as Project Synopsis, funded by a group of wildlife conservation and animal rights groups, is going to spend 1.5 million dollars to attempt a “D.C. Cat Count.”

Connie stays away from anything controversial. She focuses on feeding her cats and reminds everyone that these are feral cats, not domesticated house cats. You should not pet them because, if you do, they will most likely perceive it as an attack and scratch or bite you. She gives every cat a name based on their temperament or personality and, once they trust her, they will come when she calls. She feeds as many as 63 cats a day, seven days a week, and, because of this, the cats quickly start to recognize her. They will walk to her and brush up against her legs.

“There is such a wide variety of cats, it’s amazing,” she says. “Blue-haired Persians, Bengal cats, long-haired cats. Every type!” She can only feed them in daylight because predators come out at night—such as raccoons (which are often rabid), an occasional fox, and even possums. They can all be dangerous, she says, not only to the cats, but to her. Other predators include dogs and, of course, people.

Connie identifies colonies of feral cats and reports the locations to the appropriate agency. Further, in order to reduce the population of feral cats, she sets approved humane traps, which she baits with tuna or sardines. After Connie traps a cat, she contacts the Washington D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance. Their trained employees respond and take the cat to their veterinary hospital where the cats are spayed and checked for distemper and rabies. In accord with the D.C. ordinance, the Humane Rescue Alliance has a policy of trap-neuter-return.

Connie is committed to her work of feeding the feral cats that are scattered throughout three of the four quadrants of Washington, D.C. She pays for the cat food and her transit costs, as well as for a special gel that she places on the backs of the necks of her cats to kill fleas, ticks, and mosquitos. This amounts to several hundred dollars a month and she pays it out of her small disability check.

At a terrible moment in her life some years ago, Connie lost her camera, which contained 11,000 photographs of both cats and her relatives. She suffers from bouts of depression and became so depressed over the loss of these photographs that she contemplated suicide. But she kept asking herself who would take care of her cats if she did kill herself. No one. Because her nuclear family is dead except for her daughter, the cats that Connie feeds are her family. “When [I’m] feeding cats, there are no humans and no noise,” she says. “It’s peaceful.”

Connie has signed up for the next round of the D.C. Homebuyer Education Course to help her buy a house, which she ultimately wants to turn into a cat sanctuary. “Even when I die, cats will have a place to go,” she says. “It will be my legacy for them.”

Courtesy of Street Sense / INSP.ngo

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