Story by Sara Paul
Karen Meierdiercks has always loved animals. The New York City native found solace and serenity in her younger years, playfully enjoying time with horses, dogs, and especially cats. She now spends countless hours trying to responsibly tackle the feral feline colony problems in Orange County.
According to Karen, trouble begins when, “People fail to spay and neuter their cats, let them out, or dump them, and a colony starts. Then cats become feral and wary of humans, in order to protect themselves. Or people feed a few unfixed cats they find in their yards and the cats reproduce.”
Enter Karen, who is tirelessly working to remedy the sad and very serious situation. She says that ideally people with outside cats should get a trap, and purchase spaying or neutering vouchers before the animals reproduce. This protocol, called Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), aims to humanely diminish the number of cats in an outdoor colony.
“If you feed them, you must spay or neuter them. If you have two cats, they will multiply exponentially, and you will have more and more and more,” exclaims the concerned animal advocate and president of the Heart and Hand Society, Inc., a non-profit organization that works to responsibly and humanely control the growing cat population in the Tri-State area.
The Society works to prevent cruelty to animals by reducing the number of stray, abandoned and unwanted cats and dogs from coming into a system that cannot hold them, according to their mission statement.
Sterilization is much better than adoption at reducing the overpopulation of cats and dogs since they reproduce faster than there are homes for them. Its main focus is on sick and dying kittens, born in large numbers outside, according to Karen.
While the concerned community minded individual dealt with similar issues when she lived in NYC, she also saw the severity of the feline overpopulation when she moved to Warwick.
“It was a problem in the city, and here in the country, we definitely see the abandoned cats and kittens who make their home in barns or fields, which can be a health hazard for the animals as well as the community,” said Karen, who works closely with The Animal Rights Alliance (T.A.R.A.), an organization in Middletown that provides mobile vans to spay and neuter cats and dogs.
Other animal groups also have good intentions, but are at capacity, according to Karen. Many shelters such as the Warwick Valley Humane Society have a very large number of cats and kittens in their already crowded facilities.
“These places are just running out of space. The only solution is to have the animals fixed,” said Karen, who worked to sterilize or “fix” a colony in Chester and now one in Pine Island, with dozens of unfixed cats reproducing and kittens left stray, sick, starving, and eventually perishing in large numbers.
The game plan starts with Karen and her volunteers, who set up humane traps at the colony, purchase vouchers from the Towns of Warwick/Chester at the Warwick Humane Society for $25 per cat, take trapped cats to TARA to be fixed, and get ear tips to identify them. Next they recover the animals and return them to their colony.
Though Karen gladly informs people on how to do the trapping, make proper insulated shelters and feeding stations for managed colonies, and provides her organization’s contact information, and even instructions on how to receive a $25 voucher to spay or neuter felines, her well-intentioned efforts and instructions go mostly ignored, and the problems continue. She says the problem is simply that people are irresponsible.
“People come up with so many excuses to not sterilize their animals: no money, no time, too far to travel, don’t have a carrier or trap, etc. Animal shelters also do not go out and do TNR to reduce breeding. Until people and shelters address the root causes of overpopulation, allowing animals to multiply, shelters will continue to be overflowing with animals,” Karen fears.
“It’s just a terrible situation, nobody wants to help, and there are legal considerations and restrictions that go unnoticed” comments the frustrated local, who says she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for feline care over the years.
According to Village of Warwick, NY Animal Control, “No cat (except for cats living in managed colonies) shall be fed outdoors or in any area which provides unfettered indoor/outdoor access within the Village of Warwick, unless such feeding is within the immediate and constant presence of the owner… It is unlawful for any person to feed, water or otherwise attract or create conditions within the Village which allow cats, domesticated or feral, to accumulate on the property and other wise endanger the health, safety, and welfare of the other residents of the Village of Warwick.”
Karen believes the Town of Warwick should implement this regulation to cover the Town as well.
Regarding the issue, Village of Warwick Mayor Michael Newhard commented that, “The Village of Warwick is surrounded by working farms which historically have been home to feral cat colonies. The proximity to a denser Village population developed into issues of well-meaning folks feeding feral cats and creating a linked dependency. The local laws which include licensing cats and disallowing open outside feeding have been effective curbing the problems associated with feral cats. What are often considered generous acts, in the end, result in an environment where feral cat population can increase and create harmful and nuisance situations. The Village has worked with the Warwick Animal Shelter and individuals to carefully reduce and to dismantle colonies through a strategy of care and neutering.”
Karen’s thankless and tireless crusade started in 1978 when the Manhattan gal and her mom heard a kitten’s cry from their 10th floor apartment. A nearby church had become home to a cat and her babies, and one had fallen down a pipe in a parking garage. When the ASPCA was notified, it was Officer Michael Arms who responded, according to Karen. Arms is now president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California.
Through local ads, Karen and her mom began vigorously looking for homes for the kittens, and word of their extreme humane efforts quickly spread. Karen soon founded her organization, taking in more cats and kittens as the need arose, and received an honorary TNR certification from Neighborhood Cats in NYC.
She eventually purchased a home in Warwick in 1983 for her mom, and of course, the kitties. While Karen remained at her job as an architect in Long Island City, NY, people began dropping off felines at her mom’s home. As the years passed, Karen became more involved in collaborative groups such as the New Hope Program of the NYC Animal Care and Control, which she partnered with in 2004. Her organization also partners with Best Friends Animal Society.
With the rise of social media and the seemingly never ending need for intervention, Karen was pulled more and more into a world of cat overpopulation, disease, and death. She retired from her job in 2010 and devoted herself even more to helping with the feline problems.
After her mom passed away in 2013, Karen continued her community activism in Warwick, which stems from her sympathy for all animals, and also her civic duty to her neighbors.
“If you do have a cat, keeping it indoors is really best to avoid the over breeding as well as the cat’s safety,” notes Karen, who has cared for one eyed cats, diabetic cats, bottle fed kittens, and even a sick kitten who required a blood transfusion – an emergency procedure that cost her $2,000 out of pocket.
With her funds dwindling and energy levels dropping, Karen hopes to be able to step back from her volunteer efforts, that is, when there are adequate resources and persons to pass her torch onto.
“I’d like to retire. I’d like to go on a vacation and not worry about the cat situation, but that’s a long way off and there’s lots to do,” she said.
For more information on donating, volunteering, and learning about stray and feral cats, visit https://www.heartandhandsociety.org.