Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A former sanitation worker feeds dozens of cats near the borough’s industrial waterfront.
When he’s lacking inspiration, freelance photojournalist Elijah Hurwitz rolls around in his car. It’s got 230,000 miles on it.
In the summer of 2014, one of these drives led the photographer—who was living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood at the time—down to Sunset Park, where industrial buildings bump up against the waterfront.
He rumbled over uneven streets, mottled with potholes, and pulled over to the curb near the Department of Sanitation depot at 51st Street and 1st Avenue, where he saw two gruff guys playing Frisbee while kittens huddled nearby. Hurwitz learned that a retired sanitation worker, 62-year-old Joe Tortora, stopped by each day to feed two colonies of feral cats that had set up dens near the facility. Dinnertime was 5 p.m., a security guard told him. Hurwitz came back—and returned again and again for a photography project that spanned 18 months.
As he photographed the cats at dusk, boats would blow their horns on the water, and dump trucks dropped off steaming hauls. The scent could be gnarly. “A block away, you would know where you were,” Hurwitz recalls. And with dozens of cats chowing down nearby, he adds, “in some ways, it was like a giant litterbox.”
The dozens of cats aren’t scorned by the sanitation department, reported DNAinfo. Actually, a DSNY superintendent adopted a calico kitten from the brood, and appreciated how the cats kept vermin at bay.
The cats are a big out-of-pocket expense, though. Tortora estimates that the cats tear through 28 cans of food a day. Coupled with vet bills, thats’s a cost of $11,000 a year for him. Tortora has also partnered with the local organization Neighborhood Cats for a trap, neuter, return (TNR) initiative, which involves sterilizing the animals to keep roaming populations from skyrocketing.
Hurwitz’s photography project taps into this larger question surrounding urban wildlife: How should lawmakers intervene in the affairs of non-human residents? Feral cats have become a sticky and intractable issue for cities. In New York, they’re estimated to number in the tens of thousands. While feral cats can help curb rodent populations, they also prey on birds—according to some estimates, as many as 1.3 billion birds a year in the U.S. And since they’re not usually socialized to be around humans, feral cats are less likely to be adoptable if they’re brought to a shelter, one advocate explained to The New York Times. Governor Cuomo rejected a bill to fund TNR initiatives last fall, but a number of local organizations have pounced on the cause, teaching workshops in bottle-feeding and taming.
On its website, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene specifies that it “neither prohibits nor specifically endorses TNR as a practice,” and advises TNR groups to exercise caution when handling feral cats to limit the possibility of getting scratched, bitten, or exposed to feces. Local law requires animals to be spayed or neutered before leaving a shelter, and mobile clinics offer the service for as little as $5 for pet owners who receive public assistance.
Hurwitz is quick to point out that he doesn’t particularly like cats; in fact, he’s allergic to them. But he was intrigued by the way that Tortora skewered the stereotype of the kooky cat lady—and, more importantly, by his relationship with the cats. “Any time you can illustrate unnecessary acts of kindness,” Hurwitz says, “there’s a power in that.”