ASTORIA — Animal lovers say they've been booted from the parking lot of a local bank that's home to a colony of feral cats — and the ban is keeping them from feeding and caring for the creatures, they say.
Charlotte Conley of Astoria Cat Rescue has been taking care of about 20 strays in the back of the Astoria Bank on 30th Avenue near 38th Street for the last four years, leaving them food, getting them neutered and finding homes for the ones deemed adoptable.
With the help of an animal welfare group, she says she got permission from the bank a few years ago to do TNR at the site — a process called Trap, Neuter and Return — which animal advocates say is an effective way to control feral cat populations.
But a little over a week ago, she says staff there told her she can no longer leave food or water at the site, and a pair of traps she'd left in the lot in an attempt to catch and neuter four new kittens were taken and haven't been returned.
"If we can't keep track of that colony, they'll just keep reproducing," Conley said. "They just don't realize what the numbers would be if we weren't doing this."
Staff at the bank branch referred questions to the company's main press office, and a spokeswoman for Astoria Bank declined to comment for this story.
But Conley believes the ban was spurred by complaints from neighbors bothered by the cats pooping in their yard, and who blame the cat food she leaves out for attracting bugs and rodents to the site.
She thinks the real culprit for the vermin, however, is a set of garbage dumpsters located in the parking lot — what she thinks drew the cats in the first place — and that stopping her from feeding them won't do anything to get rid of the cats.
"Even if there's no food there, they stay where they are born and they roam. They are scavengers, they get pizza crusts and whatever they can find to survive," she said.
The Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals, a nonprofit animal welfare group that helped Conley get permission from the bank years ago, says disputes between cat caretakers and neighboring homeowners or businesses are common in the city.
"We have an entire workshop devoted to dealing with these conflicts," said Kathleen O'Malley, who runs the group's NYC Feral Cat Initiative, which supports groups doing TNR and also does outreach about the process.
She says it's a common misconception that cat caretakers leaving food out is what creates feral colonies, when in reality the cats were there before, and will likely remain there after.
"Just because their human-supplemented food source is no longer available doesn't mean they're going to pick up and leave," O'Malley said, adding that cats are "intensely territorial animals."
"If TNR is not allowed then you'll see the population grow and that's certainly not what we want — we know it's not good for the cats and we know its not good for the community."
Her organization is reaching out to Astoria Bank to discuss the benefits of TNR in the hopes of brokering an understanding, she says.
Meanwhile, Conley and other local cat advocates are worried about the welfare of the colony.
"If you're an animal lover, how can you turn a blind eye to this?" she said, saying she cares for several other cat colonies in the neighborhood in addition to the one at Astoria Bank.
"It's just a mushrooming problem that is so depressing, because you can't keep up with it. You see suffering all over the place," she said. "They get into your heart."