As Hinata Sato opens the gates to an overgrown lot at the Columbia Street Waterfront, dozens of cats emerge from makeshift shelters, discarded wooden pallets, and traffic barrels.
A colony of more than 30 feral felines has called the patch near the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey piers their home for some two decades, drawn by the nooks and crannies among stacked containers and idle trucks, and local animal lovers have taken care of the roaming furballs ever since.
“It’s like a special spell from the cats that I’m under. I picture cats eating and it just brings me joy,” says Sato, a local restaurant manager who, along with about half a dozen other volunteers, is part of a group called Brooklyn Waterfront Cats.
The group provides fresh water and food to the clowder of kitties daily and ensures they don’t overpopulate the docklands and adjacent residential areas with a process called Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR, whereby licensed trappers take the cats to a vet to be spayed or neutered, before releasing them back into the open, according to a veteran member.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you just let them be wild?’ We are actually keeping their population down by managing them,” said Vicki Devor, a pre-school teacher who has been taking care of the cats there for six years.
Feral cats that have undergone TNR are marked by having the tip of one of their ears clipped. The Columbia Street cats have also all had their vaccinations such as shots for rabies.
The four-legged friends are a common sight all along the waterfront from the Brooklyn Bridge down to Red Hook, where one group of cats has regularly occupied the hay of a nativity scene along Van Brunt Street each December for the last few years.
Area cat lovers started noticing the colony at the Port Authority’s piers along Columbia Street back in 1995 and began taking care of them in an organized way on 2001, before the harbor agency asked the do-gooders to move them to a nearby city-owned lot.
They have added several small waterproof shelters for the cats to retreat to during rain and the cold winter months, including a group of purr-pose plastic “apartments” recently donated by a local couple.
They have shelters for almost all of the cats, but the group has also launched an online fundraiser to help pay for more units along with money for food and medical expenses.
Because one of the Brooklyn Waterfront Cats’s key missions is to keep the local population under control, Devor asked that the exact current location of the colony not be published for fear of pet owners dumping their unwanted felines there.
Visiting the Columbia Street group for a daily meal is the most enjoyable part of the effort, according to Stephen Icardi, another one of the feeders.
“Every time one of our feeders comes into the lot, they come out of the woodwork — it’s like the opening scene of ‘Cats.’ They pop out of little openings and tires,” said Icardi, who also owns three house cats. “It’s always a nice break for my week to be able to go down and feed them.”
Icardi also manages the group’s Instagram page where he posts updates along with glamor shots of the cats basking in sun. He says he’s gotten to know their individual personalities and hang out together in different groups.
“There’s this one cat, Dora, we lovingly call her ‘table cat’ [because] she’ll jump up on the table and eat out of the can — she won’t even let you put it on the ground,” he said.
While the majority of the cats are not socialized to humans and thus not suitable for adoption, some are “feeder-friendly,” according to Devor, a licensed TNR trapper who works with five cat colonies across the borough.
“There are definitely three or four down there that could be put in homes,” she said.
While taking care of all the cats is a lot of work, Devor still enjoys seeing the fuzzy friends.
“On a beautiful day they’re doing the cutest things and you just sit with them and watch them,” she said. “They’ve become like extended family.”