Roots & Shoots Project of the Month (POTM): Feral cats find hope when they stray onto the beaten path


It looks like these feral cats wandered into the right place when they chose to take up residence in the scaffolding of PS 223Q in Queens, New York. Students had observed the furry felines roaming around school buildings and became fearful that they might become homeless if the scaffolding were to come down, so they took action.

Humane societies and animal shelters usually encourage residents of places with harsh winters to be active about helping their local stray and feral cats because shelter in those conditions is hard to come by. In case you were wondering, there is a difference between feral and stray cats even though the words are often used interchangeably.

A stray cat has been socialized to people at some point in its life, but has lost its domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence. Over time, a stray cat can become feral with dwindling human contact (Alley Cat Allies).

Since cats rely on body heat, the smaller the space provided the better, so it can be very straight forward to aid in their safety — people can use anything from an old cardboard box to a plastic garbage bag to create a haven. While we cannot take these felines into our homes directly, this is a way to make a nice little home away from your home for them.

Ms. Denise Brown, a first grade teacher and volunteer service learning teacher (during her lunch period) at PS 223Q decided that instead of viewing this cat population as a nuisance, she could use it as a teaching moment, creating a hands-on environmental care unit for her Roots & Shoots group.  Two Roots & Shoots groups at PS 223Q combined their efforts for this project: 19 1st graders who call themselves “The Baby Janes” and 8 5th graders who call themselves “The Roots & Shoots Service Learning Girls.” They had a lesson on TNR, Trap-Neuter-Return, participated in school gardening, cleaned up parks, and were educated on how certain habitats in their community provide a safe space for living creatures, often the spaces that we would never view as a “home.”

TNR is the most non-invasive form of limiting the number of cats in a community and it involves humanely trapping a cat, spaying or neutering it, vaccinating against rabies, surgically removing a clip of one ear (a universal sign of being spayed/neutered), and returning it to where it was found.

Feral cats are very fearful of humans, but will still greatly benefit from TNR, so the Humane Society of the United States provides a search website to find the closest TNR organization near you. The students made a search resource of their own using the Roots & Shoots 4-Step Model based on community mapping. They created a map that pinpoints all of the animal shelters in the area, the places where cats may be in need and the places where their environmental impact may be felt.

And get this, the students created boxes in the classroom made out of reused Omaha steak containers and medical styrofoam coolers — what an innovative way to save people, animals and the environment! The boxes were lined with shower curtains and straw and will be put out for shelter at the end of February. Additionally, they crafted their own Roots & Shoots club t-shirts in the color purple for Animal Awareness.

Fecund Ferals II

The students took leadership at their elementary school by creating a way for the younger kids to get involved as well. The first graders are now part of the environment campaign, collecting soda caps to send to Terracycle, a company that offers free recycling for hard-to-recycle waste and rewards points in return. These points are redeemable for a cash payment to the nonprofit of your choice, such as a donation to the National Wildlife Federation to reserve critical acreage.

But their reach isn’t just school-wide, it is also community-wide. The project culminates around a day in which the feral cats will be picked up and transported by the local ASPCA to be spayed/neutered and returned, and this offer was also opened up to families and staff at PS 223Q. They created an informational flyer about their campaign to send home with students, so the families can choose to fill out the tear-off sheet and have their pet transported on this day as well. They received a mini-grant for this project which will go towards supplies needed for the transport, and after their use, the supplies will be donated to ASPCA. The young leaders could have so easily passed up this opportunity for growth and challenge by continuing their day to day lives as usual despite their observations. But instead they let this encounter slightly shape their lives, and they most certainly shaped the lives of the animals involved.

“We have the choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place–or not to bother” – Dr. Jane Goodall

About Author

Anna Stewart is currently an intern for the Jane Goodall Institute's Roots & Shoots. She recently graduated from UCLA with a B.S. in Biology. While at UCLA she focused on the dynamic between humans and animals, taking many classes exploring those complexities. She also spearheaded campus-wide activities as a part of the Student Alumni Association. With a passion for animals that started from a young age when she used to catch lizards in her spare time and invited a boa constrictor to her 10th birthday party, she knew her career would be committed to conservation.

  • BushMaster

    Is Jane Goodall aware that you are trying to destroy her primates and all rare marine mammals on earth with your community vermin’s Toxoplasma gondii parasite? Not to mention the thousands and thousands of other species that your community-vermin torture to death for their play-toys every day. BILLIONS of individual native animals per year. I hope she shuts down her own site because of your ignorance and stupidity. Then try to find a school that will have you after this.

    • HajjFredMinshall

      Is she aware that thanks to TNR charlatans and other “no-kill” bio-terrorists, one out of every three black children living in impoverished communities are infected with the cat-vectored parasitic roundworm Toxocara catii, which causes blindness and developmental disabilities? More important, is the school staff aware of the health risk that these disease-ridden “community” vermin pose to their students? And even more important, do they CARE?

      “Last year,” (Dr. Peter Hotez, Baylor School of Medicine) “became one of the first scientists to warn that a mosquito-borne epidemic devastating parts of Central America would eventually spread north to the United States. Type “Hotez” into Google, and the search engine automatically fills in ‘Zika’.

      ‘But that emerging viral threat is symbolic of a far bigger problem’, Hotez said, one that he’s been warning about for years: Growing income inequality is driving the spread of a whole class of undiagnosed diseases that are likely leading to developmental disorders in children…”. “…Like Zika, most cause few obvious symptoms and primarily afflict people who don’t regularly see a doctor. So they spread silently, though their effects can be devastating. For example, Hotez estimates Toxocariasis–a parasitic worm infection of the brain spread by stray cats and dogs – affects ONE OUT OF EVERY THREE black
      children living in poverty in America, in some cases causing developmental delays.

      ‘Is it possible toxocariasis is a major cause of the achievement gap?’ Hotez said. ‘The evidence suggests it could be. But there’s no celebrity leading the charge to eradicate such diseases’.”

      On the contrary, celebrities and “animal welfare activists” are supporting their spread. Speaking as a parent of black children and grandchildren, I suggest that if Dr. Goodall is knowingly or even negligently supporting the infection of black children with this disease by way of promoting the spread of free-roaming invasive felines, one can only imagine that Dr. L. B. Leaky, who was an outspoken advocate of human rights for ALL people, must be spinning in his grave.

  • janssnakes

    Sad that Jane Goodall is turning a blind eye to the wildlife that is being killed by feral and domestic cats. Snakes, lizards, birds and the list goes on becomes victims of cats. We are losing so much of our wildlife in the world but keeping cats indoors and not endorsing TNR colonies is a start in helping the small creatures.

    • Sophie Williams

      Anna Stewart may love cats, but certainly not those animals who are
      maimed and killed by free-roaming cats. And certainly not the school
      children who are likely to develop schizophrenia in their 20s because of
      exposure to toxoplasma gondii oocysts while in school. Surely not the
      school teachers who may be pregnant but could miscarry or give birth to a
      deformed, deaf, or blind fetus from exposure to one oocyst. Or the
      AIDS, organ transplant, or chemo patient who die from toxoplasmosis.
      This parasite can spread to and cause serious physical and/or mental
      harm to any warm-blooded animal, from monk seals, to sea otters, to
      chimpanzees, to you or to your closest relative. So don’t say that Anna
      Stewart loves animals. You can say that she loves cats but she either
      doesn’t care much about the other animals or needs to take some courses
      in parasitology, do a little browsing on the CDC website, and google
      “toxoplasmosis” and a variety of awful fates that most of us would
      prefer that we not be exposed to from cat poop. I love cats, too, so I keep mine inside for the safety of the cat and of other creatures including humans.

  • Duff Smith

    Good God I don’t believe this. I appreciated her opposition to the feral cats in Key Largo when she visited our effort here to save the Key Largo woodrat. But TNR is nothing but obstruction to euthanasia practices that are effective and necessary. It is unfortunate that some people will continue to add more cats to colonies, as if they have any right to exist in the first place. These children should not be going near these diseased animals.

  • Beth McMaster

    So sad an invasive domestic species has been chosen at the detriment of the wild species in the area. TNR makes PEOPLE feel good. It doesn’t stop cats from suffering. It doesn’t stop the unnecessary suffering of wildlife nor does it stop the threat to human health. All that and the nuisance created by the cats goes on.

  • Elsbeth Deluna

    Why can’t you bring them in our homes?!? Of the many lies Alley Cst Allies spreads this is THE most egregious. Feral cats should be contained. Their ability to live inside is simply a longer process. Many people have taken in feral cats successfully. Alley Cat Allies with their million dollar budget should stop paying their President such high wages and creat containment, safe happy cat enclosures where feral cats can be taken care of. Obviously these feral cats need care or there would be no need for this story. Let’s promote a more sane way of caring for them. It is cruel to Trap. Neuter. ReAbandon. Would you want to be put on the street just after major surgery to fiend for yourself? That’s what Alley Cat Allies does. Be a Best Friend to cats. Demand more humane treatment than just stupid shelters and food left on styrofoam plates that then become litter. What are these groups thinking??

    • HajjFredMinshall

      Stray and feral cats should be exterminated. PERMANENTLY and LETHALLY removed from our environment.

  • While I am terribly discouraged by Ms. Stewart’s support of this ill-advised project, I am encouraged by the responses to it in these comments. Through the good writing of Marra (Cat Wars) and Tucker (Lion in the Living Room), we may be getting through to the general public how unbelievably misguided the TNR approach is to the devastation wreaked not only by feral cats but by house pets allowed to range free as well. I only hope these responses get through to Ms. Goodall.

  • Jd Freeflight

    There are so many worthwhile projects that students can be involved in that would help conserve biodiversity. Promoting feral cats in the outside world isn’t one of them. Come on Roots and Shoots, you can do better than to contribute to ecosystem damage.

  • HajjFredMinshall

    “With a passion for animals that started from a young age when [Anna Stewart] used to catch lizards in her spare time and invited a boa constrictor to her 10th birthday party, she knew her career would be committed to conservation.”

    Nonsense. She’s devoted to “pets”, not conservation. Advocating TNR and other forms of “no-kill” places her in the ranks of those who are an egregious and deadly threat to conservation–such as the “animal rights” extremists who held up in court the culling of feral goats and rabbits on Round Island (Madagascar) until its habitats were so degraded by erosion that the Round Island burrowing boa was driven extinct. These nitwits boasted without shame they didn’t care if ALL Round Island’s endemic reptiles went extinct, as long as no goats or rabbits were harmed.

    If Ms. Stewart is a “conservationist”, Ted Bundy was a “feminist”.