Years ago I worked with a guy who started a food pantry from scratch.
This man, a retired software engineer, approached the biggest restaurants, bakeries and food distributors in the area, asking them to donate their leftover/unused food so his pantry could distribute it to the poor.
Many obliged, but they all had the same request: “Don’t tell anyone we’re participating,” they told him.
The request wasn’t prompted by humility. These businesses didn’t want the public to know how much food they waste, and they waste a lot of perfectly good food, a dirty little secret of the restaurant, hospitality and food industries.
The reason I bring this up is because there’s another demographic that depends on the food those businesses toss out: Stray cats.
With restaurants shuttered because of the Coronavirus, stray cats are going hungry and dying for lack of the scraps they scavenge from rubbish bins, dumpsters and sidewalks. It’s happening here in New York, across the United States, and in countries like Turkey, India, Greece and Morocco.
For animals who already live difficult lives, the pandemic made things worse.
“The strays have no means of feeding themselves as all offices, restaurants [and] roadside eateries are closed,” an animal rights activist in India told the environmental news site Mongabay, in a story headlined ‘Slim pickings for strays and pets during COVID-19 lockdown.’
Cats aren’t the only animals suffering. One particularly dramatic example was caught on video in a Thai city where thousands of long-tailed macaques live and depend on food given to them by tourists.
Hundreds of starving monkeys stopped traffic in a chaotic brawl over a single piece of food, shrieking, clawing and pushing each other aside to get at it.
As if things weren’t bad enough, stray cats are now competing with former house pets for the little food available.
In India, where bad actors have been spreading false information about COVID-19, animal rights activists are finding abandoned pets — including pedigreed cats and dogs — on the streets after their caretakers abandoned them.
“A lot of this is happening because of misinformation that went viral earlier about pets being carriers of the virus in China. It turned out to be fake, of course, but a lot of damage has been done now,” People For Animals’ Vikram Kochhar told Quartz.
Much of the damage has been done on social media, where conspiracy theories and rumors about contracting COVID-19 from animals are rampant. In China, where pet owners abandoned cats and dogs en masse during the first wave of Coronavirus, some social media users on Mandarin-language platforms called for the “extermination” of cats after a pair of studies conducted by Chinese research labs suggested cats are susceptible to catching the virus.
It isn’t easy to combat waves of viral misinformation, even as health authorities across the world stress cats cannot transmit the virus to humans.
In Greece, abandoned pets — many with their collars still on — are following strays to food sources, especially in larger cities like Athens.
“We are seeing an increase in the numbers of cats in areas where we feed, some appear to have been abandoned, while others have roamed far from their usual spots in search of food,” animal welfare advocate Serafina Avramidou told Barron’s.
In feline-loving Turkey, where taking care of street cats is considered a cooperative responsibility, the central government has told local officials to make sure strays are well fed and taken care of. By making it a government responsibility, their thinking goes, citizens who normally care for the cats will be much more likely to stay inside during the pandemic.
“There are lots of cats on the side streets where there are only closed businesses,” a Turkish Twitter user wrote. “I haven’t seen food anywhere for days. The cats are running after us [looking for food].”
In Istanbul, Muazzez Turan fed some 300 stray cats daily before the pandemic, but said she’s had to stay home: Not only has her country been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, but she has pre-existing medical problems that make her susceptible to complications should she contract the virus.
Still, she said, her mind “was always with the cats,” and she told Turkish news agency Anadolu that she was relieved to hear the strays hadn’t been forgotten.
“I will sleep peacefully for the first time today,” Turan said.
Here in New York, some animal lovers are picking up the slack for closed restaurants as well as at-risk people who normally feed strays.
Among them is Latonya Walker, who told the New York Post she normally spends $600 a month feeding several colonies of strays but expects her costs this month will be “way more since there’s less restaurant garbage they can eat from, and more hungry cats walking around.”
“The cats have no clue what’s going on because nothing has changed for them,” Walker said. “It’s not in my DNA to see a cat suffering and not do anything about it. I’m equipped to make a cat’s life better, so I’m going to.”