It was supposed to be a 30th birthday celebration. It became the catalyst of a feline crusade.
Plenty of people over the years had sat on the same deck of the same restaurant at the same Tonawanda Island marina as Danielle Coogan.
Many of them, presumably, saw what she saw that night last month.
None of them, apparently, had the stay-at-home mom’s activist heart and humane eyes.
The same images that a legion of people had shrugged off became branded in Coogan’s mind: Stray cats, dozens of them, discarded and abandoned, roaming the shoreline and darting through the brush.
“I was astounded, all of these feral cats – some mothers with kittens trailing behind them,” Coogan told me. “Everywhere you looked, a cat. I couldn’t believe no one had done anything about it.”
Believe it. Locals say the 84-acre island – largely a collection of warehouses and factories, separated from the mainland by a two-lane bridge – has for years been a cat dumping ground.
Left intact, cats will multiply exponentially. The kittens, as it were, have come home to roost. Estimates of the island’s feline population – uncertain, given the timidity of feral cats – range from dozens to hundreds.
A cat epidemic, created by people.
“It’s like North Tonawanda’s dirty little secret,” said Coogan, who is fostering a kitten she found on the island. “These are cats, they’re not trash. They’re not just disposable.”
Many people knew about the problem. Coogan – who has long fostered cats for the Ten Lives shelter – did something about it. It is the difference between apathy and activism; between thinking that someone should do something and being the one who does it. It’s a familiar story that never gets old: One person – sparked by a sensibility and driven by conviction – makes a difference.
“I was feeling really upset and desperate,” she told me, sitting Thursday on the back porch of her tidy home. “I posted on Facebook, ‘I have to do something.’ ”
Coogan set up an Operation: Island Cats account with GoFundMe.com, a crowd fundraising site. She hooked up with the local Humane Society on a TNR – Trap, Neuter, Release – program for the island’s feral cats. Adoptable cats would be fostered or placed in shelters. In less than two weeks, she has raised nearly $10,000 from about 250 donors. Ten cats have so far been rescued.
The island’s cat “takeover” story was picked up by national media. She’s working with a UB law professor and the Niagara County SPCA to change an archaic town law that stops people from helping stray cats.
As a stay-at-home mom with three under-12 kids, who starts nursing school next month, Coogan isn’t marinating in free time. But the dark-haired woman with the laser-like gaze had time for this.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Coogan, “But there’s been such an outpouring of support from people.”
People who treat Garfield like garbage are the bane of the cat world. These are not wild animals. The island’s cats may survive on rodents and restaurant scraps over the summer. But food disappears when the snow hits, dooming many a sensitive creature to a hard, slow death.
“It’s become kind of an epidemic over the years,” said Amy Lewis of the Niagara County SPCA. “We can’t let it spiral out of control.”
The larger story involves not just the cruelty of dumping cats, but the idiocy of not having the family pet “fixed” – particularly in an age of low-cost spay/neuter clinics. As long as there are more cats than homes for them, countless potential pets will die at the point of a needle in an overfilled shelter, or fall to sickness, starvation or cruelty on the street.
One woman is determined to do something about it. From a stay-at-home mom to a feline-rescuing superhero. All Danielle Coogan needs is a cape.