SoNo Rooftop Cats: A Feral Cat Rescue Project on the Rise
You’ve heard about rooftop gardens. But have you heard of rooftop cats? Sally Luciano and Toni Kororos are ready to introduce you to the concept. They’ve built five outdoor cat shelters, all kept clean with fresh hay, and one is on the rooftop of an abandoned factory building.
For more than seven years, this exceptionally diligent duo has been immersed in a carefully maintained trap-neuter-return feral cat project in the SoNo section of Norwalk, Connecticut. They’ve been trapping, spaying, neutering and providing veterinary care and food for a colony of six feral cats. And they’ve managed to successfully introduce five former colony cats into their own home.
Now, the SoNo Rooftop Cats could use our help. Sally and Toni have shared their story with us to broaden the community that cares about them, and help them continue their caregiving work. You might have already guessed it: The abandoned building housing their rooftop shelter is set to be demolished soon. Sally and Toni will be forced to relocate cats.
Meet the Caregivers
Sally has been rescuing dogs, cats and other animals since she was in her twenties. Toni -- described by Sally as a "cat whisperer" because of her special bond with the cats -- is also a life-long rescuer. The story of SoNo Cats begins with a kitten who would be named Paint.
Sally was gazing through the window of her loft apartment on a windy, late-September day. She spotted a caramel-hued kitten on the roof of an abandoned factory. The young animal fearlessly chased a piece of paper from rooftop to rooftop. Sally noticed a splash of paint on the kitten's face -- perhaps from a freshly painted railroad bridge nearby. Sally called Toni over to the window so they could both watch this remarkable cat jumping around the rooftops. Then, they decided to act.
Food and water in hand, Sally went outside to attract the kitten. But Paint, dancing from rooftop to rooftop, had other plans in mind. So Sally and Toni left food and water out every day, checked the local newspapers and asked around, trying to find out if anyone had lost a cat. Eventually they found that Paint was part of a feral colony of five cats living in the abandoned buildings next to the railroad tracks and an adjacent parking lot.
Sally and Toni resolved to educate themselves as much as they could about feral cats and spaying and neutering so they could help the colony they'd discovered outside—and strike at the root of the problem. They knew they'd need help getting started, so they tried enlisting friends to join them in their mission. They connected with Sheila, a volunteer with the local Norwalk animal rescue group PAWS. Shelia was instrumental in designing traps to catch the colony so that Sally and Toni were able to have all of the cats sterilized over the next few months.
The next step was building the shelters for the cats. After finding a website that offered designs for feral cat shelters, Sally and Toni built four wooden shelters that feature heavy, removable roofs made of shingles. They filled the newly built shelters with hay and placed them in wooded areas hidden from the public and traffic. A friend donated the largest shelter: a fiberglass igloo that was originally designed for dogs, and is big enough to house the entire colony. This igloo was placed on top of the smaller roof of the abandoned building so Sally and Toni could better position it during harsh weather.
In their third year of caring for the colony, Toni was feeding the cats and discovered four black kittens peeking out from inside one of the shelters. The mother of these kittens was from another feral colony on the other side of the railroad tracks, and she'd come to the safe haven of the shelters to give birth. She succeeded, but died shortly after -- hit by a train.
Sally and Toni called their loyal friend Sheila to trap and sterilize the four young cats. They now had nine cats in the colony to care for.
Over time, Sally and Toni noticed that a few of the cats had become somewhat trusting of them, allowing them to pet them at times, and even on a few occasions jumping into their car. One morning, one of the little black cats approached Sally, and she saw that he was missing his tail and bleeding. Sally called Toni and Shelia for help in saving the injured cat. Toni called to him, and easily caught him. The cat's spinal cord was not injured, and the veterinarian was able to save him. The $2,000 vet bill was covered by donations, matched by the group PAWS. This cat -- named Stubbie the Motorboat Man, owing to his tailless physique, and because he purrs so loudly -- now lives indoors. Sally says, "You would never know that he was a feral cat. He wants to be held like a baby all the time."
A few years later, Sally and Toni became aware of two unneutered intruders, who had started harassing and fighting with the colony they cared for. Paint went missing for weeks, until one day Sally heard a cry from one of the abandoned factory buildings. Paint had become emaciated and weak, as a result of the bullying and attacks.
Toni was able to simply pick up the very weak Paint and place her in a carrier. Now Paint is a permanent part of the family, and Stubbie is content to have a former colony mate living inside with them.
Recently, another seriously injured cat was brought to the home of another PAWS volunteer and getting veterinary help with an infection. Sally and Toni are prepared to adopt her after a full recuperation. Each cat who comes into their home is first given clearance by a veterinarian and has the necessary vaccines. It takes months, and much patience, for them to acclimate the ferals to indoor life. But it’s worth it for each cat who comes in and has a safe place for life.
They have used a very large dog kennel with a soft sleeping blanket at one end and litter pan at the other. Sally explains how her indoor cats would cruise by the crate and check out the new cats very cautiously: “To help reduce the new cats' stress level, we played soft music and called their name softly often.” By the third month of this process, they would open the door. So far, each time, the process has gone well, and everyone now gets along nicely at home.
Sally and Toni answered some questions about the work they do, and how you can help them to continue doing it:
Q:What are some of the most challenging things you and Toni have dealt with, and what are some of the most rewarding?
A: Trying to find volunteers to assist us for trap, neuter and return is challenging. The environment is very dangerous with a busy parking lot; an abandoned factory soon to be imploded, and railroad tracks. Now, we need to relocate the cats. There are six cats outside in the colony now. We currently have four, but soon to be five, inside.
Keeping these cats alive and safe all of these years is very rewarding, and so was meeting Shelia and Ilono of PAWS. Without their help this never would have evolved. They both restored our faith in kind-hearted people.
Q: What advice do you have for people who have feral cats in their community, but don't know what steps to take or what to do about it?
A: Seek out every rescue organization and volunteer agency in your community. Often times they don't return calls, but you have to keep calling. Network and talk to your vet.
Make a plan and follow through. These cats need safe shelter, and to be spayed and neutered, to stop the colonies from growing. Feed them at the same time in the same location, as it makes trapping easier. Try to find homes or placement when they are young. Educate anyone who doesn't understand the importance of spaying and neutering. Find a veterinarian who agrees and who will work with you.
Q: What is the most important thing you'd like people to learn from your project and efforts?
A: Not to walk away from a stray and abandoned animal. They are struggling and suffering. Someone needs to stop and care.
An ideal answer for feral cats who need to be moved from their current location would be if a land-owner with experience rescuing cats and in possession of a cat fence would offer assistance in providing a refuge.
Readers can get in touch and support the SoNo Rooftop Cats project by contacting Sally Luciano at:
Email address: email@example.com
125 Washington Street #304 L South Norwalk CT. 06854
Friends of Animals operates a nationwide, low-cost spay neuter program. Check our website to find a participating vet near you. Some of our participating vets can accommodate services for feral cats. Check with the vets listed in your area to make arrangements.