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Unafraid to Get Involved

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Vanessa Smetkowski

Vanessa Smetkowski

By Sandra Cyr

For years, complaints had been made to the Alderman’s Office about the house in Chicago’s 1st Ward. At least 16 cats, as well as a dog and two birds, were living in deplorable conditions. The home was well-known to city service providers. They received multiple complaints regarding the animals, the smell, the constant flow of people in and out, and suspected drug use on the property. However, without an actual crime in progress, there was nothing anyone could do to shut it down.

catsinmyyrad-logoKnown in her area as the cat lady, or as she prefers to call herself, the anti-cat lady, Vanessa Smetkowski, who lives just a few blocks from the house, was alerted to the situation in late 2012. Smetkowski has been working since 2007 to address the feral cat population within one square mile of her home in the 1st Ward. She chronicles her work in her blog, Cats In My Yard. While the work she has done to reduce the cat population in her area has been incredible, what is even more amazing is seeing the impact one person can have on an entire community.

Vanessa began working with the residents in the hoarder house to trap the cats, have them spayed or neutered, and in some cases rehomed. Looking back, she realizes how dangerous this could have been for her. Eventually, the residents became volatile, and Smetkowski had to walk away. She did continue to call on the house to check up on the remaining cats, and finally, in response to a call regarding concern for the home’s elderly landlord, city officials came and the squatters were evicted and the house was boarded up in August of 2014. “Every service came,” says Smetkowski. “Over and over again I was told that day, ‘it should never have come to this.’ I have been calling on this house for two years.”

“It has been my experience that there are a lot more of them than being reported, because people hide. People are like, ‘do whatever you want,’ but at the same time, people don’t realize what is going on in other people’s houses. And then they are shocked. You see that on the news all the time. People are like, ‘How does it get to that point?’ Well it gets to that point because no one is asking questions. As a society, we are scared to get involved. The reason why I do is because there is no solution. There is no organization that is going to come and do it.”

In Vanessa’s case, involvement began in 2004 when she noticed a mother cat and kittens in her neighborhood. Not really knowing what to do with them, she found information online from Alley Cat Allies about Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR), an effective way to deal with feral cat colonies. She rented a humane trap from PAWS Chicago, was able to trap the family and – because they were friendly – was able to have them vetted and placed in a shelter. It was an injured cat, following this experience, that really planted the seed for Cats In My Yard to form. Over the three months it took to eventually trap the injured cat, Vanessa ended up trapping 12 other cats. Having never noticed cats in her area before, she began to wonder where they were all coming from, and the more she looked, the more cats she found.

Feral cat Dash

Feral cat Dash

In 2007, Cook County, Illinois, passed an ordinance making TNR legal, allowing for Cats In My Yard to really take shape. Smetkowski began going door to door, identifying cats, colonies, and feeders. Since that time, over 177 cats have been trapped in the one square mile. It has been almost two years since a kitten has been spotted, and the population of outdoor cats has been reduced (through natural causes, adoption or humane euthanasia when needed) by 65%. What drew Vanessa to TNR was the immediate impact it has. Not only are the feral populations in decline, there are other benefits as well. Almost instantly upon returning altered cats to their colonies, their appearance improves. They are fatter, healthier. They do not roam as much, and with fighting and spraying reduced, the neighborhoods are better off.

All of the cats who are TNRed are microchipped, so that if they are picked up by Animal Control, they can be traced back to Vanessa. And while she has gradually gotten a little more help in her community, all of the costs associated with TNR, as well as all of the subsequent vet visits that may occur are all paid for out of her own pocket. With the overwhelming success she has had in her identified area, she would like to begin slowly expanding beyond the square mile, but it will take additional resources and support.

One of the biggest benefits that came of the hoarder situation was that it began a dialog with the Alderman’s Office. Smetkowski was able to demonstrate the impact her work has had on the community. The Alderman now helps to promote the work Cats In My Yard is doing by involving them in public events and linking to their resources on the Alderman’s Office website.

“It isn’t just about the cats, it is about the people,” says Vanessa. “I have helped a lot of elderly people that are just happy to talk to someone. They are just sitting there all day.” Often times, Vanessa comes across colony caretakers who are overwhelmed by the number of cats they feed. She will conduct the TNR, and if she is allowed, will clean up the homeowners’ yards, provide housing for the cats and outdoor litter boxes. Going door to door has also helped to grow a stronger sense of community in her area. “What I have found is that a lot of people really do care, but just don’t know what to do. People invite me – I will meet them and it is shocking, they will invite me into their house. And they are showing me around. The successes have been, they are immediately on board.” More and more, the community is beginning to understand the TNR Smetkowski is doing and the positive impacts she is creating in the neighborhood.


Cats In My Yard promotes TNR: Trap-Neuter-Return, the most effective, humane way to control the feral and stray cat overpopulation. Outdoor cats are trapped in humane traps, brought into Chicago’s low-cost clinics for spay/neuter surgeries, and then the ear-tipped cats are returned back to where they are living in colonies that are fed and cared for. Read the Cats In My Yard 2014 TNR Case Study here

Sandy Cyr is the Managing Editor for the Philanthropy Journal, and a fan of all things related to the nonprofit sector.

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