Feral Cats Inspire Architects’ Shelters for N.Y. Jungle

In one corner sat a house built with 300 used aluminum cat-food cans, each stuffed with insulation. Another was made from discarded foam panels, wood and other found materials. It looked like Swiss cheese but accommodated as many as three cats.

These were some of the entrants in the “Architects for Animals: Giving Shelter” contest, held in Manhattan. Leslie Farrell, who works for Francis Cauffman Architects, founded the contest three years ago to raise awareness and funds for the half million or so cats that live outdoors in New York City’s five boroughs.

“No animal should have to live on the streets,” Farrell said. “They need food, shelter, medical care.”

The contest offers no prize. Farrell said the winner gets “bragging rights” and gratitude. “I’m thankful for the architects who give up their time to do this,” she said.

Zimmerman Workshop built its entry out of a cooler wrapped in sheet moss held together with chicken wire. It was designed to blend in with the garden environment where it will be placed. M Moser Associates’ Cat Coop is a series of elevated pods of birch plywood, insulated with compressed foam and carpet.

A video camera will air a live feed of the eventual feline inhabitants, for researchers and general-public voyeurs.

All of the projects will find a place somewhere in New York City’s gardens, parks or backyards.

Working with caretakers for feral-cat colonies -- yes, there are such people -- the architects came up with designs for practicality, aesthetics and not least of all cat-friendliness.

Rescue Group

“I grew up with animals and really value them,” Farrell said. She became more aware of urban feral cats after moving to an upper Manhattan neighborhood. She discovered the nonprofit Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a rescue group that can help and advise people on living with feral cats humanely.

No one seems to know how many feral cats roam the parks and gardens in New York City. The Mayor’s Alliance says the number of “community cats,” a population that includes feral as well as domesticated abandoned felines, is somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million.

“They are adept at hiding and they are adept at reproducing,” said alliance president Jane Hoffman, adding that two cats can produce 62 cats in just two years.

To keep the feline population from overrunning the city, the alliance’s Feral Cat Initiative helps New Yorkers with programs to trap, neuter or spay outdoor cats, then return them outdoors. Cats are also vaccinated for rabies and are “ear-tipped,” in which the left ear is painlessly trimmed so that the specimen is easily identified if trapped again.

Heating Pads

The creative designs in the contest will provide some lucky cat colonies with warm, clean homes. While the designers and builders here are justifiably proud of their shelters, not all will say exactly where the structures will be placed. One handsome wooden structure equipped for electric heating pads will end up in a private Upper West Side garden.

Another entry, from Pilot Projects, is a simple schematic for constructing “cat forts” out of materials found in Central Park, such as tree branches and discarded plastic bags. The do-it-yourself designs are based on American Indian shelters.

Pilot Projects spokesman Scott Francisco wouldn’t tell me exactly where the cat tepees will be placed because the Parks Department doesn’t want to draw attention to the shelters, fearing they might encourage less-conscientious humans to abandon more cats.

Digital Kids

Francisco said the shelters, designed to be built by children 10 to 13 years old, are for cats, but they also are meant to mitigate what he called “the over-digitization of childhood life.” He believes the younger generation is being dulled by virtual realities rather than real ones. The cat project is “a small opportunity to give kids a chance to break out of that and engage in the physical world.”

The “trap, neuter, return” program is touted as an efficient solution for urban dwellers whether they love or hate cats. With neutered and spayed cats, there’s less fighting and caterwauling in the backyard, and no smelly marking of territories.

For those who don’t mind living near an outdoor cat colony there’s an upside. “You are not going to have a vermin problem,” Hoffman said. “There’s a reason why the ancient Egyptians let cats live in their granaries.”

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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