By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Celebrities like Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, and Bono have reportedly been among the stars that have lived at the legendary San Remo apartment building on Central Park West — and until recently, so did a colony of feral cats.
"In many ways, this project was the birth of the current approach to feral cats in New York," said Urban Cat League president Mike Phillips, who helped create the little-known feral cat colony behind the landmarked apartment building, where a 19th-floor apartment recently sold for $14.5 million.
The colony was based at a courtyard behind the San Remo, and at its height several years ago, 75 cats used the food station and cold-weather shelter there, Phillips said.
Today, after "non-lethal" management — spaying and neutering cats so they don't reproduce — by volunteers from the nonprofit league, the population has dwindled to about 15. That prompted the group to dismantle San Remo's feral cat station a few weeks ago, Phillips said.
San Remo building management could not be reached for comment.
The feline experiment started in the late 1990s, when Philips was working with cat rescue and adoption non-profit KittyKind and someone approached him for help with a growing problem near the San Remo.
According to neighborhood lore, a psychiatrist with a garden apartment had taken to feeding two stray domesticated cats who had been abandoned by their owners. In time, the felines reproduced and before long, the posh block was overrun with dozens of feral cats.
Neighbors started to complain about the cats' "nuisance behaviors," such as fighting, noisy mating and marking their territory with stinky urine, he said.
"The smell of tom cat urine baking in the sun on the sidewalk kind of takes some of the thrill out of having a garden apartment on the Upper West Side," Phillips said.
To solve the problem, Phillips educated himself on feral cat management.
Because they're born and raised outdoors, feral cats have had little contact with people. They're wary and difficult to tame, according to the New York City Feral Cat Initiative.
While some people view the wild animals as a pest to be exterminated, Phillips convinced property owners on the block — including the San Remo — to support a humane alternative.
The cats were trapped, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, marked with "ear tips," then returned to their territory to live out their lives.
Volunteers built food stations and cold weather shelters so the cats would be drawn to one spot. That way, they would stop roaming the neighborhood and annoying residents. The cats were taken care of by volunteers, who make up the only staff for the Urban Cat League, which relies on donations for its operating budget.
Neighbors that "hated cats" were provided with motion activated sprinklers to keep the cats from wandering into their backyards, Phillips said.
Phillips and other volunteers met with the San Reno tenants association and wrote to every resident asking for help with the project.
Of the big names in the building, he remembers that Mary Tyler Moore's father-in-law lobbied hard in support of the cats.
Volunteers hoped that attrition would eventually decrease the block's cat population, and they were right, Phillips said.
Today all of the remaining cats are spayed or neutered 10-year-olds.
The neighborhood's remaining feral cats, stealthy creatures rarely spotted during the day, now get food, water and shelter from volunteer-managed stations at nearby buildings on the block bound by Central Park West, Amsterdam Avenue, West 74th and 75th streets.
When they die off, the colony will be gone for good, Phillips said.