Fate of Albany's "Wellies" an example of good feral cat management, advocates say

Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, April 5, 2009

ALBANY -- The Wellington Hotel, in the shadow of the state Capitol, once housed tomcatting politicians.

But lately, it mainly just housed tom cats -- many of the black and white tuxedo variety, a fitting elegy to the Wellington's finer past. One was even named Mario Wellington, for former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who stayed in the hotel before he moved to the Executive Mansion.

And so as wrecking crews started sending the long-vacant hotel to oblivion last month, they evicted the last of a tenacious colony of feral cats living for years in the crumbling State Street landmark.

The Wellies, as their caretakers call them, are no strays -- house cats reared on Iams that wandered off to sow some oats. The vast majority were born wild, having never known human contact and living having lived the extra-legal lives of feral cats in New York.

State law has very little to say on what to do with wild cats, according to the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Aanimal control officers, in Albany and elsewhere, tend to leave them be unless they're injured or appear sick.

Tthat's where folks like Diane Metz come in.

Metz, a community planner who lives off Delaware Avenue, is one of the leaders of the Wellie Project, a conglomeration of animal lovers and trappers who subscribe to an increasingly popular theory of feral cat management known as TNR, for trap, neuter, return.

The idea, Metz explains, is that the most effective way to manage wild cat populations is not to round them up but to sterilize them.

Simply killing them, says Brad Shear, executive director of the Mohawk & Hudson River Humane Society, only decreases the competition for food in the cats' urban wilderness and causes them to live fatter and have larger litters.

"For a lot of people it's controversial," Shear acknowledged, but added, "it's better than some other options. ... If you just keep taking cats out of the environment with the same resources, the cats that are left are going to have an easier life."

So Metz and others associated with SCRUFF -- Spaying Capital Region Unowned Feral Felines -- staked out the beleaguered State Street block, trapped the cats humanely, had them having them spayed or neutered at a cut rate courtesy of local vets, vaccinated them for rabies and distemper and returned them to their haunts with someone to look after the them.

Of the roughly 30 cats trapped around the Wellington, nearly 20 have been adopted, a half-dozen have been released back downtown and some remain with her, Metz said.

Ralph Mazorra, who for 14 years has worked at the parking garage on Howard Street behind Wellington Row, has most often been the caretaker for the cats that returned.

Mazorra, 64, lays out trays of 9 Lives Dry and Science Diet cat food for the felines and provides a black bed for them in a rear corner of the garage, where -- other than the food trays -- the only outward signs of their presence are ghostly paw prints on Mazorra's dusty old gray Chevy Blazer.

"They must have been humans in a past life and done something really wrong to deserve that kind of life," he lamented.

the wild cats aren't otherwise going away.

"It's a man-made problem, we did this," Sikule said.

(Citing the possibility that the felines might be carrying disease, Albany police do not encourage feeding.)

Ravena Mayor John Bruno is a convert toTNR. His village has adopted the approach to deal with the colonies of ferals digging up lawns and rooming under porches.

"It was really getting out of control. Way out of control," Bruno said. That was before village leaders set aside several thousand dollars to pay a woman -- known as the "Cat Lady" -- to oversee Ravena's program.

"I haven't gotten a complaint in about six months," Bruno said.

Veterinarian Susan Sikule of Just Cats Veterinary Clinic in Guilderland acknowledged TNR is not a quick fix but noted the wild cats aren't otherwise going away.

"It's a man-made problem," Sikule said. "We did this."

for the often irascible ferals -- about a half-dozen have been released back downtown some still stay with her, Metz said.

Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.