When two local Samaritans picked up a cat in Wallenburg Forest park in Riverdale, NY in August, delivering it to Dr. Shirley Koshi, a local vet, for treatment for a respiratory infection, it was the beginning of a story that has garnered international attention. The dispute about the ultimate fate of the cat led to the cyberbullying of Dr. Koshi, and her eventual suicide. The story is chronicled in detail in previous posts and video on this website. It will be also be covered by a Hearst newspaper affiliate on Sunday. But as the saga of the unfathomable behavior of the individuals involved unfolds, the equally sad story of the cats in Wallenburg Forest Park has been lost in the shuffle.
NYC, like several cities across the country, provides a public program for stray cats. The NYC Feral Cat Initiative,is a part of the Mayor's Alliance for Animals, that serves as a care giving program for feral cats. The focus of FCI is the TNR (trap, neuter and return) program, which trains volunteers to pick up these cats, provide them with basic healthcare, have them neutered and return them to the neighborhood from which they were found. This works says FCI, because it "immediately stabilizes the colony and reduces tensions in the human community because no new litters are being born and the nuisance behaviors often associated with unaltered cats (spraying, fighting, crying) are dramatically reduced. Additionally, natural rodent control remains in place."
It is worth noting that other states have considered similar legislation. In Florida, advocates for feral cats have put forward legislation to allow for TNR programs. Opponents have vigorously opposed the proposed law arguing that the bills would ""authorize the public hoarding of cats by feral cat activists, in the face of potential public health and property value impacts, as well as predicted high mortality for native animals," In addition, the Center for Disease Control has argued against the creation of these colonies because of the risk they may pose as rabies reservoirs. Some 300 rabid cats are reported each year in the United States, says Jesse Blanton, a CDC epidemiologist.
Nevertheless, it is clear that what the NYC program does not do, is establish feral cat colonies in public parks. Nor does it allow "cat rescuers" to adopt domestic cats at local shelters and release them back into the wild. At the heart of the story of Dr. Koshi's death was a custody battle over Karl, the cat picked up by good Samaritans from Wallenburg Forest. The cat was ill and taken to Dr. Koshi for medical care. Two weeks later, the alleged cat owner appeared to retrieve Karl.
Gwen Jurmark, the Yonkers woman who claimed ownership of Karl, declared on the web that she rescued him from a shelter and placed him in Wallenburg Forest, where he became a resident of a cat colony maintained by herself. But without proof of that ownership, Dr. Koshi refused to release the cat. Dr. Koshi also wrote on her website that she was concerned about the treatment of the cats in the colony, "These poor cats, [far] from having a roof or a shelter, are back in a Public Park, free to roam as strays, with no proof of annual examinations and vaccinations and most of all a warm home... Dumping them in wet, freezing parks is a foolish thing to do"
Ms Jurmark enlisted the aid of radical animal rights groups such as Veterinary Abuse Network, Regret a Vet, The Toonces Project and other "advocacy" sites. They vehemently demanded Karl's return to Ms. Jurmark, slipping from arguing over custody of the cat, to levying vile and personal attacks on Dr. Koshi that destroyed her business and her psyche.
In the aftermath of Dr. Koshi's death, we visited the Wallenburg cat colony. Many of the cats that we observed were clearly not feral. However, they were suffering not only for food but for attention. Most of the living structures, described by Julie Catalano of Veterinary Abuse Network as "luxury accommodations" were converted dog houses. Others were merely boxes covered with garbage bags. It did not appear that they had been fed, cared for or given water in several days.
As Ms. Jurmark, Veterinary Abuse Network and Regret A Vet apparently scrambled to scrub their sites of comments that would lead to a cyberbullying complaint, the cats they supposedly advocate for have become pawns in a power struggle over who has governance of stray cats.
We reached out to several City agencies for clarification regarding the legal status of the cat colony in Wallenburg Forest with mixed results. All agreed that park regulations do not provide for the creation of feral cat colonies on public land. Also agreed is that they are a potential health hazard to humans, as well as the animals themselves.
Nathan Arnosti, a spokesperson for the Parks Department said, "At least three NYC Parks rules and regulations may apply to feral cat colonies in public parks: the abuse of park animals (§1-04 g); failure to control animals (§1-04 i); and littering, polluting, dumping, and unattended property (§1-04 c)." When asked who will enforce the regulations by investigating who placed the cats there and their future welfare, Mr. Arnosti said, "Further questions on this issue should be directed to Animal Care and Control, which partners with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene."
Alexandra Silver, a spokesperson for Animal Control responded, "AC&C Field officers rescue injured and sick cats; we do not pick up stray cats and do not have enforcement powers. If animal cruelty is suspected, we urge New Yorkers to contact the NYPD via 311 to report animal cruelty (911 for crimes in progress)."
As of this writing the ASPCA also did not care to address the issue. So where does this leave the cats in the park? Unless the agencies involved stop "turfing" the issue elsewhere, cats will continue to be adopted from shelters, and dumped in our local parks.
To sign the petition to urge the New York State Department of Criminal to investigate the cyberbullying of Dr. Koshi and to view some of the things written about her online, click here.