C ats sleep on scratching posts and atop a filing cabinet. They climb over crates and leap elegantly from desk to floor. They paw at toys on the ground and traipse over to take a curious sniff of my boots. It’s a tiny little place, but they look at home.
“You can call me crazy, and you can call me a cat lady, but you cannot combine the two,” says Cheryl DeFilippo, president of The Greater New Haven Cat Project, which helps out the area’s street cats. What she means is that while the project may be catnip for feline lovers, it’s also a systematic program that focuses on realistic actions and goals. “We realize that we can’t help every cat,” she says, though the temptation to try persists: “The hardest part of what we do is recognizing our limitations.”
It began in 1996 as a loose “trap-neuter-return” neighborhood initiative—catching outdoor cats, neutering and vaccinating them, then returning them where they’d already been living. It became a formal nonprofit in 1998 and began operating out of the current upper State Street location in October of 2000.
Last year, the GNHCP neutered over 500 stray felines across New Haven and surrounding towns, and it adopted out close to 100 animals—with another 21 available for adoption right now—taking care of them at the office or arranging foster homes in the meantime.
That’s a lot of cats for a small organization, but it doesn’t cut corners with the adoption process. One example: “We get a lot of calls at Christmas time. People think we’re Toys ’R’ Us. We’re like, ‘No, no Christmas shopping here,’” says DeFilippo, wary of the shortsightedness usually attending that impulse. “People don’t realize what a responsibility it is to have an animal. We don’t do surprise adoptions.”
There’s pragmatism and morality in that, but also simple love. “Each [cat] has a story,” DeFilippo says many times. She speaks to them as if they were her children, cooing and teasing and calling their names in baby voices. She notes the felines’ individual personalities and different relationships with each other. Some are troublemakers. DeFilippo and Rachel Schupp, a volunteer, chuckle as they recall some of their favorite characters.
Schupp, by the way, isn’t just a volunteer; she’s also an adopter, taking in Suzanne, a “beautiful, beautiful calico” who seemed to know it, and renaming her Bella. “She remains the queen, and that’s fine. She has a big crush on my other kitty. She likes other cats a lot, but as far as other humans go… She has her space and I have mine, not my choice!” Schupp says, laughing.
DeFilippo says she’ll never forget the moment she took a little guy named Sugar Ray to his new home. For “about half an hour,” Ray roamed and assessed the unfamiliar environment. Then he gave a subtle paws-up to his new digs: “he just laid down” next to her “and got a look like he was very comfortable, like he was very happy, and I could go,” she says, smiling.
The GNHCP doesn’t wipe their hands of cats after they’ve found a home. The organization likes to check in post-adoption to see how thing are going and to build relationships with adopters. Evidence of the latter—Christmas cards and photos of adopted cats sent in by their new companions—is posted on the wall beside a desk at project headquarters.
DeFilippo’s personal commitment to the project is embodied by Wesley Davenport, a cat she adopted early in her involvement with the project. She met him on a trap-neuter-return session when he was a very sick kitten. He had a prolapsed—inflamed and exposed—rectum, a particular risk for street cats that can be caused by untreated intestinal parasites. “I saw how some of the cats lived, and how serious some of their injuries could be. That got me focused.”
Dog people might wonder what all the fuss is about. “With a cat you have to earn that cat’s respect. I like that about cats. I like that they’re selective. I like that they’re quirky,” she says.
They also seem inclined to do whatever they please. Sitting at the desk, a furry black cat traipses back and forth across my laptop and arms, sniffing at my face and making it a little difficult to type. He nuzzles his face against my shoulders and arms.
“He’s a loverbug, isn’t he?” DeFilippo says.
The Greater New Haven Cat Project
965 State Street, New Haven (map)
(203) 782-CATS (2287) | email@example.com
Written and photographed by Claire Zhang.