The little kittens are shaggy and look suspiciously out of their transport box. No wonder, since they were captured and torn from their familiar surroundings. But for good reason: the two tomcats Flitzi and Stöpsel, born in mid-May and early July, are street cats – emaciated, sick and full of parasites. Their misery can hardly be conveyed, that is the dilemma: Because in the Burgdorf animal shelter near Hanover, whose helpers are out all night long to catch street cats, they are looked after and quickly appear the way small cats always appear: simply cute.

But the strays living on the streets are struggling. They starve because they are barely able to hunt enough for themselves, they pass on diseases and often have accidents on their forays. When injured, they hide, their wounds fester and eventually become full of fly maggots, as Diandra Boczek, the head of the animal shelter, says. There are at least two million street cats nationwide, almost all of them are sick and malnourished, and most of them do not grow old, estimates Lea Schmitz, spokeswoman for the German Animal Welfare Association.

Anger at indifferent cat owners

“Now you’re just angry,” says Boczek. At first she was shocked because of the high numbers. “Then there was just anger.” Anger at thoughtless or indifferent cat owners who let their animals go outside without being neutered. Because the street cats are usually the descendants of these so-called outdoor cats. And “no one feels responsible” for their well-being. She receives calls every day from people who are missing their cats – often they are neither neutered nor registered and do not have a microchip with contact details under the skin. That makes her stunned.

Because the army of street cats is constantly growing. In Lower Saxony, for example, the state animal protection association assumes that there are at least 200,000 cats without human care – and the trend is rising. The many street cats are also a problem in Bavaria, especially in the countryside. According to the Bavarian Animal Welfare Association, there could be around 300,000 in Germany’s largest country. President Ilona Wojahn said she doesn’t have exact numbers; the animals are shy and avoid people. “They live in secret, often in industrial wastelands, in abandoned buildings, in cemeteries, allotments and so on.”

Stray cats – in Katja Hofrichter’s experience, many people only know about them from abroad. Many people are unaware that cats also live on the streets in miserable conditions. She has been working as a volunteer at Cat Aid in the Nuremberg region for three years, looking for foster homes for sick animals, accompanying them to the vet and even taking in weak cats. “It’s actually endless,” says Hofrichter. As soon as she has nursed one cat, the next one comes. It’s a similar situation in the Nuremberg animal shelter, where around 120 cats are waiting for a new home.

Acquired a pet during the pandemic

According to the President of the German Animal Welfare Association, Thomas Schröder, animal shelters and animal protection associations are reaching their limits when it comes to castration and care for animals. “This year we all drowned,” says the chairwoman of Katzenhilfe Hannover, Frauke Ruhmann. One reason: the corona pandemic and the second lockdown, when many people bought pets, including cats. Many of these animals soon ended up on the streets, often not castrated. One reason for this: Many cat owners shy away from the increased veterinary costs.

The situation has been known for a long time, but no one feels responsible, criticizes Boczek. “They were politically and administratively let down.” The result: cases like in Burgdorf, where the animal shelter has to catch around 30 cats in poor condition at a hotspot, including Flitzi and Stöpsel. The helpers have caught ten cats so far, but not all of them have survived: “It’s a catastrophe.” The animal shelter was her dream job for many years, says the 30-year-old – “now my job haunts me in my dreams.”

And yet something has started to move: An initiative by the government factions of the SPD and the Greens in the Lower Saxony state parliament wants to standardize the confusion of municipal regulations with a nationwide cat protection ordinance. In the future, all cats that spend time outside will be identified, registered and neutered. But: “Now things are stalling again,” criticizes Ruhmann. In any case, there is a patchwork of regulations nationwide – 89 percent of cities and districts have no regulations, says Schmitz.

Cat protection regulations in six municipalities

According to Wojahn, in Bavaria there are only six municipalities that currently have effective cat protection regulations, which, among other things, require castration. That’s why the Bavarian Animal Welfare Association is calling for a nationwide regulation – also with a view to the state elections at the beginning of October.

But there is something else that is troubling the animal rights activists: Where street cats live together in small spaces, there is a risk of inbreeding – if this is repeated over several generations, then “we have little mice like Mikkel with no chance,” says Ruhmann. Mikkel is a small tomcat, nine to ten weeks old, malnourished, deaf, big eyes and snow-white fur – and he is in pain. In the veterinary clinic it turns out that his colon is not working and he is suffering from genetic defects – probably the result of inbreeding. “It was a matter of time, he couldn’t be helped,” says Ruhmann. Out of pity, the animal rights activists don’t let him wake up from the anesthesia.

But there are also success stories: Many young animals were adopted, says Boczek. And then there is a black and white cat, a former street cat who was adopted but then neglected. Finally she finds her way back to the animal shelter, loudly demands her food – “and won’t leave again”. A clever animal.