A mystery in Astoria is growing stranger by the day. Caregivers for the neighborhood’s feral and outdoor cats report that at least 60 felines have gone missing between early December and now.
“Just for Astoria alone it looks like it’s between 66 and 70,” says Mary Witty. “Just in this neighborhood.”
Witty, who works at NYU, has lived in Astoria for 14 years. She’s cared for a colony of feral cats for about five years, seven of them, all of whom were part of a Trap Neuter Return program to keep the city’s outdoor cat population down. She set up food and shelters for them in her yard, and most of them slept there every night; several were related to one another.
Then, one morning in December, she realized they’d begun to vanish.
“They disappeared one by one,” Witty says. When the first two cats failed to come around for their meals, she wasn’t too alarmed, figuring they were visiting other neighbors or maybe locked in a garage. They walked the alleys of the nearby streets, tapping on garage doors, to no avail. But since several of the cats had gone missing for up to three weeks, she figured they would return.
“The second week, around Wednesday, I got very alarmed,” Witty says. “I realized I was seeing too few cats. They’re normally very faithful about their meals.” By Friday morning, only three showed up for breakfast. And Friday night, there was just one left, whom they’d dubbed Little Blackie.
Witty decided it was best to bring her inside for safety, which proved difficult.
“It took almost a week to trap her,” she says. “She was also very scared. She lost her mom, she lost her sister, her brother, her best friend. She really did seem traumatized.”
At that point, as Witty told several news outlets in January, she suspected a neighbor might be behind the cats’ disappearances. “There was one neighbor who had a history of hostility towards cats,” she says. “There were a sufficient amount of threats, and she’s admitted trapping animals in her garage.”
Witty set up a website, Astoria7, to publicize the story of the missing cats and ask for clues. And over the past few months, she’s realized the problem is far larger than she’d thought.
“We’ve gotten reports from areas all over Astoria,” she says. As best they can figure, there are roughly 66 to 70 missing. Not all of them were feral; at least one was a pet, an outdoor cat who also didn’t come home one day.
“It’s just baffling,” she says. “It’s baffling that this has happened. How do this many cats vanish without a trace?”
Witty admits that it’s possible there’s some overlap in the missing reports, leading to a higher count, but she doesn’t think so, given that the reports have come from all over the neighborhood, many from people with devoted colonies of their own.
“The people who reported to us who had small colonies, they reported the exact same pattern, the exact same thing,” she explains. “It happened over a two week period. They were gone one by one.”
She’s asked the police to investigate, but says she’s been told that’s virtually impossible: “There are no bodies, no evidence of foul play, no surveillance tapes turned up. Nothing to investigate.”
Many of the reports, too, came from before the January cold snap began. “Almost half of these cats went missing before the cold set in,” Witty says. “If they froze we would’ve found their bodies.”
In a new effort to uncover what’s going on, Witty and others have begun distributing these flyers around the neighborhood, asking residents to get in touch if they’ve seen anything unusual: someone trapping cats, maybe, or leaving food for them at odd hours:
They’re also wondering if the problem is city-wide. “We do have reports of cats missing just like ours, six or seven gone at a clip very quickly,” Witty says. “Those reports are coming at different areas of Brooklyn. We also started hearing horror stories from Staten island, pets being taken from yards, including dogs. People sound like they’re terrified. It’s so weird and so creepy and unfortunately the possibilities are just not good.”