AS WINTER'S CHILL blankets the Delaware riverfront, Teresa Reed and Tracey McKenna are losing time in a race that could mean life or death for dozens of abandoned cats in a colony at Pier 70 in South Philadelphia.
Since a promised donation of new materials to build shelters for the cats on the pier fell through in recent weeks, the women - two among a group of people who care for the 30-some cats there - are scrambling to track down enough makeshift kitty shelters to protect the felines from the elements.
"People down here are not looking for cash. We're looking for a $5 bin that could save a cat's life, or donated dry food," said Reed, 51, a longtime resident of South Philadelphia's Whitman Park neighborhood who's been caring for stray cats since the 1980s. "We're not sure about the fate of the cats."
Stray and feral cats are a major issue in the city: In 2013, according to the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there were roughly 19,000 homeless cats among about 30,000 homeless animals. Nearly half of all animals euthanized here were felines, according to PSPCA spokeswoman Sarah Eremus Caruso.
Caruso said the PSPCA is a no-kill shelter and works to find homes for adoptable cats brought to the city's Animal Care and Control Team shelter or others that do euthanize.
The PSPCA offers a $25 package for spaying or neutering feral cats to be released and a $35 package, plus discounts on additional vet care, for strays found on the street who are being adopted. Its main shelter is on Erie Avenue just east of Whitaker in North Philadelphia.
During this week's cold snap, Reed and McKenna, 54, also a South Philadelphia native, visited the colony at Pier 70 only to find a foreboding sign of what could lie ahead if they don't find enough cat shelters before winter sets in: As the women put food out for the cats on a sunny but frigid, wind-battered Wednesday afternoon, they found the frail, lifeless body of a small brown tabby lying near the fence that separates the cat colony from a shopping-center parking lot.
"They starve while shivering so much," McKenna said, her face pained as she helped Reed wrap the little animal in a baby-blue blanket and place it in Reed's SUV so she could take the cat to be cremated.
"That was an ear-tipped cat," Reed said, referring to a small portion taken off a feral cat's ear to denote that it's a "TNR" - trap, neuter, release - animal that has been caught, neutered or spayed and then released back into its colony. "This is where I want to say a lot of 'F' words."
The woman said trap, neuter, release works: They've had so many of the cats at Pier 70 spayed and neutered that last spring, no new kittens were born there.
Still, finding dead cats at the colony isn't unusual: Last winter, the women found two dead inside one of the makeshift shelters.
The wild, feral cats aren't the ones most at risk of dying at the colony. Instead, the cats abandoned there by owners who decide they no longer want them as pets are most imperiled.
In addition to materials like plastic barrels and styrofoam containers - or anything not made of wood that can be made into a cat shelter - people willing to foster domestic cats abandoned at Pier 70 are badly needed, the women said.
"Even a box covered in heavy-duty plastic could mean the difference of life and death for a cat," McKenna said.
She rejected the idea that placing shelters at the colony encourages cat dumping. People are going to abandon their unwanted cats anyway, she said. That's partially why wildlife cameras were installed by the pier: to catch abandoners in the act. Under state law, anyone found dumping a domestic cat can be criminally charged with animal cruelty.
Reed, a cat lover since her dad, a city cop, brought home a stray when she was a teenager, names some of the Pier 70 cats and keeps track of which ones come and go, who usually gets the food and who may be in need of a foster home due to an injury or abandonment.
When one disappears from the pier, Reed notices: Speckles - a female feral cat who lived at the pier for years - disappeared, and Reed searched desperately for the older cat, believing she may be nearing the end of her days.
"I said to the rest of the feeders, 'If you can catch her, I'll bring her to my house, let her die with dignity,' " Reed said.
But they never found Speckles, whom Reed affectionately refers to as "the whore of Pier 70."
"I think she populated Pier 70," Reed joked with a smirk as she stood in a sweatshirt at the pier, looking around for a new arrival - a black-and-white cat she'd spotted sitting by the fence on a night of freezing rain last week.
Reed said she suspects that cat may have been abandoned, just like a litter of more than a dozen Persian kittens dumped at the pier last year. They trapped, fostered and found safe homes for the Persians that survived.
The women said most weeks, one to three new cats - usually domesticated ones with little to no shot at survival in the harsh conditions along the river - are dumped at the Pier 70 colony, which is wedged between the river and the parking lot that serves Walmart, Home Depot, Superfresh and several other stores.
Dr. Brittany Watson, director of shelter medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said that the colony likely first developed due to rodents, a food source, living along the river.
It's been that way for years, McKenna said, even before most of the current stores were built. Reed first got involved with the colony there when she worked on a demolition that was making way for the stores.
"They bring the cats here because they think it's safe, because it has a reputation," said McKenna. "But it's not safe."
Penn's Watson echoed that: She said cats that have lived mostly inside could be traumatized by being dumped - and feral cats that populate colonies aren't necessarily welcoming to new blood.
"They are unfamiliar with the area or the social dynamics of the cats in the area. This can be a very traumatic transition even if they are able to live outside," she said. "This can result in cat-to-cat conflict, difficulties finding resources and inability to find shelter."
Watson said a veterinarian should be the first go-to for people who can't keep pet cats - not abandonment.
"[A vet] might be able to resolve a particular medical or behavioral issue that is causing problems," she said. If the cat absolutely has to go, "Trying to find a neighbor or friend to take the animal is another good way to make sure the cat is safe."
Back at Pier 70, as the wind whipped their hair, McKenna and Reed's worry for their feline companions was palpable amid the season's first plunge into freezing temperatures.
"This is a full-blown crisis. The winter preparations should have been made two months ago," McKenna added. "The tragedy of it is that someone said they'd help and bailed."