By Berkley Sayre
The sun breaks out over the horizon on a warm New Orleans morning, and a stray orange tabby cat strewn out on a painted purple porch sleepily stretches its paws out wide. The hanging flags flutter as a breeze gently brushes through, jingling the wind chimes and softly waking the other few cats lying about the porch. To anyone passing by the house, one thing is abundantly clear; this person loves cats.
The eclectic owner of the house, Nita Hemeter, has dedicated her life to these animals and is facing the problem of overpopulation head-on. Nita is a retired microbiology medical technician who works tirelessly to help the cats of New Orleans. Whether they are stray, feral, or owned outdoor cats, cats can be found in every nook and cranny of the city. Nita believes this has to do both with the fact that New Orleans is a port city, and with the climate.
“It’s warm; it doesn’t get too cold, so the cats don’t freeze in the winter. You know, cats can survive on the streets here. There’s plenty of food, plenty of bugs and rats.”
MPH online reports that “Tropical storms such as 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina have only exacerbated New Orleans’ rat problem. In 2006 Erick Kinchke, owner of local firm Audubon Pest Control, described the city as ‘a rat’s paradise.’”
New Orleans’ abundance of food and warm climate allow stray and feral cats to effectively both survive and breed. According to The Humane Society of the United States,
“In the U.S., approximately two percent of the 30 to 40 million community (feral and stray) cats have been spayed or neutered. These cats produce around 80 percent of the kittens born in the U.S. each year.”
These low spay and neuter rates, combined with the favorable climate conditions of New Orleans, allow the cat population to get out of control quickly. One of the main ways to control the overpopulation of cats is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs, which is precisely how Nita is going about helping these animals.
“I’ve been trapping since 2014, but when COVID started, the vet clinics were shut down or limited operation. The SPCA was, you know, it was just crazy because it was hard to operate. You can’t do adoptions so they had all these animals there and no place to take them. The clinic couldn’t be open because you’d have a lot of people tromping through.”
Realizing this problem, Nita and Theresa Bridges decided to step up to the plate and start their own volunteer-based TNR program, Trap Dat Cat.
“We started off relatively slow, but as the weeks go by we slowly start to get more and more… so we’ve somehow survived and are paying the bills.”
On a weekly average, Nita and the gang trap, neuter, and return 35-40 cats from all over New Orleans. The Louisiana SPCA TNR program calls now go directly to Trap Dat Cat.
“We do the trapping for the SPCA.”
Not everyone immediately grasps what TNR is, and Nita has had run-ins with people who don’t realize that she returns the cats.
“I’ve had a few people call the cops on me, they don’t understand. A lot of people think we’re stealing cats. It’s like ‘gimme a Bible, I ain’t stealing cats!’… We’re bringing them back, we’re just getting them fixed. If they’re old enough they’re getting a rabies shot, you know, and then we just bring them back.”
When she’s not trapping, Nita plays the drums in two jazz bands.
“‘Some Like It Hot’ plays every Sunday at Buffa’s from 11am-2:30pm. I also play with ‘Sweet Substitute Jazz Band’ and we play once a month at Maison on Frenchmen… We play traditional New Orleans jazz which, you know, is the music that was born here. The music that New Orleans is famous for.”
Nita has lived in New Orleans since the 1970s and doesn’t plan on leaving. Theresa Bridges, Nita’s partner in founding Trap Dat Cat, is a full-time nurse anesthetist.
“So she works full-time, big time, high power job, but …now that I’m retired I can devote my time to doing this, and this is how you help cats.”
The SPCA does its best to get all the cats fixed, but Nita still has trouble fixing every cat brought in.
“We really need the veterinarians to participate because it really can’t just be the SPCA.”
Fixing an animal can cost hundreds of dollars, and those numbers are simply unrealistic at the volume that Trap Dat Cat is working with as a non-profit organization. There have been some professional volunteers such as Antoine Saacks, but it’s not quite enough for a non-profit TNR operation of this scale, and Trap Dat Cat needs more veterinarians to help.
Cat overpopulation in New Orleans is a real problem, and Nita finds that most people don’t have the resources to care for a litter of kittens.
“There’s just not enough homes for all these cats that are born. Kitten season is a friggin nightmare!… On the 21st of December the days start getting shorter. And this sends a message to the cats’ optic nerve that summer’s coming and it’s time to breed. Cat gestation is about 62 days, give or take. So, you start seeing in like March and April, all these litters, and litters, and litters of kittens being born, and they’re just all over the city. And everybody is calling the rescues, the LASPCA, ‘oh we’ve got kittens, we’ve got kittens!’”
Taking care of kittens is not an easy task, and they must be bottle fed every hour as newborns. This causes many people to give up their kittens for adoption, but according to Nita there are simply not enough homes for all the kittens born each season.
“Adoption’s great, we’re all for adoption. But that don’t solve the problem. What solves the problem of overpopulation is getting them fixed.”
This lack of homes and abundance of community cats in the city can also unfortunately lead to hoarding situations. According to the Metairie Small Animal Hospital,
“On average, a typical animal hoarding case involves 71 animals. In some cases, one person will hoard hundreds of animals who suffer from malnutrition and untreated medical conditions, including ones caused by a lack of basic hygiene. The most common animals involved in hoarding situations are cats… Over 40 percent of object hoarders will also hoard animals.”
While hoarding may seem uncommon, The Washington Post reports that
“…compulsive hoarding affects up to 6 percent of the population, or 19 million Americans, and it has been found to run in families.”
Even Nita has had experience with hoarders.
“You would not believe the houses I’ve been in. There was a nurse, an RN, lived down in the lower garden district. Major hoarder. S**t all over her house, cats everywhere, kittens died, it was terrible. And she was a nurse. And you know, from the front of the house you’d never know.”
Hoarding disorder can affect anyone, and it is imperative to report any concerning animal hoarding activity to the SPCA.
Unfortunately, animal neglect is not uncommon, and even the Tulane community is not entirely clean. Living in the uptown Tulane/Loyola area of New Orleans, Nita has noticed how some young pet owners show a lack of responsibility for their animals.
“Tulane students, they’ll get cats, and when they leave town they’ll leave them. It happens all the time. Tulane, Loyola students… We all know young people are not always responsible. And, you know, it’s not fair to take responsibility for a life, an animal. It’s not right.”
While cats may seem independent and able to care for themselves on the streets, house cats rely on humans to survive. If the responsibility of consistently caring for a cat becomes too much, make sure to find it a new home.
Cats are semi-domesticated animals, so their relationship with humans is a bit different than, say, dogs or horses. According to the Smithsonian Magazine,
“There’s some debate over whether cats fit the definition of domesticated as it is commonly used, says Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘We don’t think they are truly domesticated,’ says Warren, who prefers to refer to cats as ‘semi-domesticated.’”
Every cat is different, and depending on their experiences with humans, they will fit into different categories. As Alley Cat Allies reports,
“Pet and stray cats are socialized to people. Feral cats are not socialized to people. While they are socialized to their feline family members and bonded to each other, they do not have that same relationship with people.”
Feral cats are nearly wild animals, and aren’t the same as the house cats that are regularly fed and pet.
”Most veterinarians believe that feral cats cannot be tamed, although animal rescue agents often disagree. If a feral cat is to stand any chance of house training, it must be young. Older feral cats are completely wild. If you attempt domestication, it will be a long and arduous process with no guarantee of success.” (Parker)
The wild nature of cats is why Trap Dat Cat encourages hands-off trapping. Feral cats need to be fixed too in order to tackle overpopulation, so Nita lets the cats do the work for her.
“I usually tell people, don’t try to pick up a cat and put it in the trap because you’re gonna get bit or scratched. Just let the trap do its work. Just let the cat go in the trap.”
The Trap Dat Cat website is full of tips and tricks on how to trap cats, and if you do it correctly, trapping can be a fun activity. Nita and Theresa can’t trap all the cats on their own and have volunteer trappers all over the city. Anyone can learn how to trap, fill out a foster form, or even adopt on their website www.trapdatcat.org. Trapping may seem daunting, as many cats are fearful of humans and may not take kindly to being picked up or pet, but this fear is usually fleeting.
“Naturally, the first time you trap, it’s a little scary, but once you get used to it, it’s a lot of fun. You get to meet people from all over the city, you know you get to learn your way around. I mean, I’ve had some fabulous trapping experiences, and I’ve been to some crazy places. It’s fun.”
If you see a cat and are wondering if it is friendly, know that a friendly cat will approach you to be pet. Otherwise, it is usually most wise to keep a healthy distance from a strange cat.
“I wouldn’t approach a cat you don’t know if you don’t want to get bit… A friendly cat will come up to you. You know, if it’s a feral cat it’s going to be very leery.”
With a sense of adventure and a hands-off approach, trapping can be a great way to get out and meet new people, all while helping the cats.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people, I’ve met some crazy lunatics, you know, but just lots and lots of wonderful people. We help them get a few cats fixed, and over the years they donate, help us pay for all these spays and neuters, buy new traps.”
With the help of volunteers and donations, Trap Dat Cat is slowly reducing the community cat population in New Orleans. However, even with all of Nita and Theresa’s hard work, there are always more kittens.
“This analogy has been used lots of times, but it’s like you’re standing on a river. There’s all these babies that are floating down the river, and they’re drowning, and you’re jumping in, and you’re trying to save all these babies, but there’s more and more and more, and you just can’t save all the babies. It’s like you’ve got to go up the river and see where they’re coming from. You’ve gotta stop the source.”
“If people want to help animals, get them fixed.”