Playing cat-and-mouse over JFK airport's strays

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am

New York

Normally, a home near an airport isn't a great place to live. But when there is no other choice, even an airport can be a comfortable shelter.

This is not Tom Hanks in The Terminal, when he played an immigrant who was stranded in John F. Kennedy International Airport for several months because a coup in his home country made his passport invalid when he was in the air. No, these unauthorised residents of JFK don't need a passport or a visa.

These are feral cats, mostly runaways from airport cargo or abandoned after reckless owners brought them to the airport without clearing the paperwork for them to board the plane.

Some other animals have suffered the same fate but the cats' high reproduction rate has rapidly created a visible community. Nobody knows their exact number, although some estimates put this at 500 or more. Over the years, they have settled in the 2,000 hectare area of the airport, but now they are suddenly on the authorities' wanted list. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, launched a programme last autumn to trap the cats and remove them from airport land.

But it was soon stopped by furious animal-rights activists and the resulting negative media coverage. But last Monday activists received a call from the Port Authority, telling them the programme had resumed.

An authority spokesman said cats wandering around the airport posed safety and hygiene problems for the 50 million passengers that use JFK annually. And he said trapped cats would not be hurt but only sent to 'proper authorities'. But activists believe the only thing waiting for them is death because with 44,000 pets being abandoned every year, the city's animal shelters are overcrowded. The cats are also too wild to be adopted.

'It's like saying I just drove the train for the concentration camp, I didn't exterminate people,' said Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor's Alliance for NYC Animals, a network of animal shelters. Activists have been trying to persuade the agency to adopt the so-called 'TNR' procedure - Trap-Neuter-Return - which allows the animals to stay in the environment they are familiar with after they are sterilised.

'This is by far the most effective way to reduce their numbers,' said Bryan Kortis, executive director of Neighbourhood Cats, an organisation that aims to reduce the stray cat population.

Although some groups are willing to provide free neutering for JFK's cats, the offer apparently has not been accepted. The Port Authority itself was playing a cat-and-mouse game with the media, not responding to phone calls.

But in some previous comments, including a memo from JFK's general manager Susan Baer that warned workers they would lose their airport identification tags if they fed the cats, the authority indicated it was concerned that stray cats or wild birds could get in the way of aircraft.

Activists said cats run away from noisy engines and birds never dare to grab food from cats. There is no known accident caused by stray cats in the airport so far.

But to some passengers, the whole cat issue is irrelevant given the problems US airlines have been facing lately. 'The delays are a bigger problem, much more serious than the cats,' said Kevin Sid, a frequent flier through JFK.

Tomorrow: London