Like many areas of Hyde Park, the East 62nd Street alley is a space in transition. Filled with dumpsters and overgrown patches of weeds, it is sandwiched by newly minted apartments and older buildings fallen into disrepair. Notable, however, is the absence of rodents.
This alley is distinct from others in the neighborhood in that it is home to a small colony of feral cats.
Hyde Park resident Jill Adams unofficially adopted the colony last summer, after noticing the cats while walking her dog. She returned later with food, but after months of caring for and feeding the cats, she took a job downtown and made arrangements to move to Oak Park.
Faced with the prospect of moving north without a car to make the commute to the cats’ alley feasible, Adams turned to the University of Chicago Marketplace and posted an online advertisement.
“Looking for someone to feed wild cats. Will pay,” the ad read.
It was then that Mary Jean Kraybill, director of development at the Divinity School, and Terren Ilana Wein, the Divinity School’s director of communications and public relations, stepped in.
“I like Marketplace and browse it frequently,” Wein said, “and one day I found an ad asking for someone to feed cats, and they were going to pay.”
Intrigued by the prospect of someone willing to pay a stranger to feed strays, Wein told Kraybill about the ad, and Kraybill contacted Adams. Kraybill, who first came to the University as a graduate student in 1980, is a volunteer at Tree House Animal Foundation, a no-kill cat shelter that advocates the Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) method for dealing with stray cats.
“Mary Jean and I both had the reaction of ‘Well, I’m not going to go to an alley and feed cats every day,’” Wein said. “But I guess Mary Jean and I thought we could come at this from the TNR angle…. At some point we could see the completion of the project, and that was very appealing.”
The pair’s TNR efforts began in March, and so far, Wein said that 12 cats from the alley have been neutered and released and that they hope to do the same for the estimated dozen remaining felines.
“Jill Adams didn’t have the resources for this,” Wein said. Adams, who has remained active with the colony since meeting Kraybill and Wein, moved north last Saturday. For Kraybill, it was partly Adams’s passion for the cats that drew her to the project.
“I’d just never met someone who would be willing to pay someone to feed wild cats,” Kraybill said. “I thought, ‘If someone cares that much, how can I as a cat lover not respond?’”
Once captured, the cats are driven in what Kraybill jokingly calls her “feral-catmobile” to Pets Are Worth Saving (PAWS) Chicago, which boasts a program specifically for strays snared by TNR activists. For $20, PAWS will spay or neuter any cat that is brought in and give it a volley of vaccinations and basic health treatments. A small notch called an ear tag is made in each treated cat’s ear to help distinguish it from those that have not yet been taken in.
“It isn’t an option to kill them all,” Kraybill said of the estimated 700,000 stray cats in Cook County. “This is a problem that humans have created, and to try to solve it by killing cats is really inhumane.”
Kraybill said that although she does not think feral cats pose a threat to Hyde Park residents, wild cats can become problematic without TNR intervention.
“The males tend to fight a lot, and you have the yowling in the alleys that people find so distasteful,” she said. “I think the big problem is having cats around that are not spayed and neutered.”
While some wild cats can be domesticated depending on their previous exposure to humans, the majority of the cats in the colony are not just strays but truly feral and are happier wandering the alleys of Hyde Park, they said.
To raise awareness about the felines, the pair started a blog, hydeparkcats.blogspot.com, that Wein maintains with updates about the progress of the work.
The pair’s TNR efforts attracted citywide attention after the Chicago Tribune featured the project in an April 27 article, which resulted in an outpouring of both emotional and financial support.
“It’s very heartwarming to me,” Kraybill said. “People are so willing to help and really care about the cats.”
But Wein stressed that while the pair appreciates monetary donations, the project also needs additional staffers willing to donate their time.
“Part of the problem is a manpower problem,” Wein said. “We’ve gotten a lot of donations thanks to the Tribune article, but we still need people to come out here and help actually catch the cats and drive them down to get taken care of.”
For the present, at least one more cat lover is joining Wein and Kraybill in their TNR efforts. Third-year Erin Wonder contacted Adams through Marketplace and has taken over feeding the cats four days a week.
“The hope was just to help out over there,” Wonder said. “We’re not just feeding them but kind of cutting down on the proliferation of cats in the neighborhood.”
As University students prepare to leave Hyde Park for the summer months, Kraybill and Wein worry about the future of other cats in the neighborhood.
“I’ve been at the University for five or six years now, and every year you see the animals that students have just dumped,” Wein said. “Getting a pet is a commitment, and not just for three years.”
Kraybill echoed Wein’s sentiments, pointing out that domesticated cats are unadapted to life in the wild.
“These cats were domesticated centuries ago, and they belong in houses with people and not on the street. And now there’s a huge problem with these cats.”
For the pair, the 62nd Street project is an effort to create a world hospitable for everyone, human and non-human alike.
“I think we say a lot about ourselves as a society by how we treat the weakest members, including animals,” Kraybill said.
“This work is trying to imagine the kind of world that I want to live in, where the weak and animals that don’t really have power are treated with respect and dignity,” she said. “I feel that we as responsible human beings have an obligation to help animals that are out there because of us.”