With the first snowfall arriving early, Harmony Fund volunteers are putting their winter rescue program into high gear. This is an annual race to keep the cats alive, and it seems that each year grows more intense than the last.
I remember heading out after a blizzard a couple winters ago when the white stuff was knee deep and wind chills split the air at 18 degree below zero. The snow slid down my boots like jellyfish. It hurt to breath. It hurt to blink. But that was the night the animals needed me.
New England reliably dishes out a wicked brew in January and February, but this was one of the worst arctic blasts we’d seen in decades and the animals were among the hardest hit. All up and down the North Atlantic, humane societies were deluged with calls about dogs in jeopardy of freezing to death at the end of their chains. Hikers were finding critically ill seagulls along the beaches. Barn fires cropped up from the portable heaters which tip like candles when bumped by a farm animal. And then there were the strays…
My mission was a hastily planned life support operation for the homeless cats of a place called Great Brook Valley, a low income housing development in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. With several hundred units and three times as many residents, it is a city within a city. Despite a sordid history of race riots and violence, today the Valley is a largely stable place for working families, although some gang activity continues. Because of the cultural and economic barriers to responsible pet ownership, many cats breed frequently and give birth under cars and in open stairwells.
We “Cooked” Them a Hot Meal in the Car
I headed over with my colleague Michelle Bruce who had devised a way to cook a hot meal for the cats. She lined the dashboard of her car with cans of wet food and turned the defroster on full blast. Within twenty minutes, the cans were hot enough to use an oven mitt.
When we arrived, Michelle and I saw cats running across the parking lots and springing in and out of dumpsters. We poked our heads inside to see how much food was available and found a pain that bit worse than the cold. Every scrap of palatable food was frozen solid, and worse yet, the rock hard remains of chicken legs and soups were covered in tiny teeth marks.
We knew we were looking at the hard evidence of a losing battle for survival. If not the cold, then dehydration was about to have its way with these cats. Yet somehow the suffering was invisible. Cars pulled in and out of the parking lot and people ran for their front doors as fast as they could. They simply didn’t see the tragedy only a few feet away.
We Had 60 Pounds of Cat Food & Delivered It All
Michelle and I were packing 60 pounds of kibble in the trunk of her car and some water for those quick enough to grab a drink before the wet stuff turned to ice. And although that wouldn’t measurably change the lives of the cats, it sure would help them stay alive one more night.
We set up a grid and decided to make two food drops in each cluster of buildings. In the courtyards, snow drifts were thickly crusted in ice. Every once in a while we’d hit a weak spot and fall through a hole two feet deep, but we did our best to skate the surface with sacks of food and even a few pet carriers just in case we were lucky enough to get our hands on a cat or two. We discovered that openings had been cut into the chain link fence encasing some of the basement stairwells. The cats had gone down inside but the heavy snow around the narrow perimeter made it very precarious for them to get back out.
I opened a can of wet food and reluctantly pulled off my glove to test it with a finger to make sure it wouldn’t burn. Then we laid out a meal a couple feet from the first stairwell and waited. In less than a minute the meowing began. It was a short haired tabby. He would have to choose between hunger and a fear of strangers. We coaxed and called to him as he jumped to the ledge and began using his paw to try and get the food from within the stairwell.
I was surprised at just how quickly the cat responded. Within seconds he was balancing along the edge of the stairwell and shimmied through a hole in the chain link. With his tail stiffly pointing at the stars, the cat began to devour the food. For a moment, the ice and cold stepped back and it was just the tabby with his meal. We pet him over and over and over again as he ate. He was so thin, so matted, so cold. But we had him now and all that was about to change.
More Cats Emerged from the Stairwell
Several other cats ascended the stairwell, but none would allow us to lay hands on them. So we left loads of food and a bowl of water and made a plan to come back with proper equipment and warmer clothing at least twice a week for the remainder of the winter.
We continued our search of the Valley and I secured a juvenile grey female with round golden eyes. She was checking dumpsters in a back section of apartments near the brook and appeared to be the only cat in that area. She was thin as a string bean with some cuts on one ear, but otherwise looked okay. I agreed to foster her at my house while Michelle took the tabby to hers. It was eight o’clock and time for us to go before we needed rescue ourselves.
This Winter’s Rescue Mission is Already in Full Swing
This season will be no different. I’ve already got a list as long as my arm of the cats that need help quickly and the only blessing is that the snow makes it easier to track down their nesting spots. If you care to make a donation to help our winter rescue mission for homeless cats, please visit the Harmony Fund’s donation page here to help us with the costs of veterinary care, spay/neuter, winter shelters for ferals, cat food, litter and more.
Below are a few photos of just a few of the grateful cats who came in for care over the last few seasons.