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They call her the “cat whisperer.”
When Cheryl Brown, a server at Yorktown Pub, shows up for work, the cats come down from the hill and greet her. There is one that tries to jump in the car with her when she leaves work. They know her and trust her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Brown has a special relationship with a pack of semi-feral cats that patrol the landscape around the restaurant. She oversees the cat food that they have come to know and expect. She checked on them when Sandy ravaged the East Coast and the York River spilled across Water Street.
You can find the cats on a cement stairwell that runs alongside the pub, chowing down on cat food from Brown and her co-workers, scraps from the restaurant and any rodent unlucky enough to find itself anywhere near the pub. The stairwell acts as a sort of living room and common space for the cats, who make the grounds surrounding the restaurant their home.
“The cats get attention all the time,” Brown said. “I’m an animal lover in general. It’s nice to come outside when things get stressful.”
There are over a dozen “pub cats,” and they’ve become such a fixture at the restaurant that tourists who visit Yorktown look for them in the summer months and comment on how they’ve grown, Brown said. The cats are also popular with locals and regulars. They can often be seen from a row of windows along one side of the restaurant, where it’s not uncommon to look up from a meal to see one of the cats gazing through the window. You might find one curled up underneath the warm engine of a recently parked car, but they’re great at slipping out before the car moves again.
The cats have a collection of personalities as diverse as their human counterparts inside the pub. Some of them are loners, keeping their distance, marking out vantage points in the narrow brick of the Pub’s parapet. Others saunter down the scuffed cement stairwell that doubles as their dinner table, eager to sniff and bask in the attention of the extended hand of a pub worker.
The landscape they call home appears brutal and worn out at first glance, but that couldn’t be further from the truth—the cats have staked out the land, and it is as much of a home as anywhere ever could be. When you’re outside, where the cars park, you’re a guest in their home—you might not realize it or even see them, but they’re likely watching you from their position, ensconced in grass or hiding on or around one of the buildings in the area.
Brown and her co-workers name the cats—swing by the pub and you’ll have a chance of meeting Eva, Homegirl, Dirty Wayne (known colloquially as DW), Bootsie, Little Phil, Crazy Mom and more. She started the Yorktown Kitty Fund recently to help generate money to pay for cat food, as she had been paying for it out of her own pocket. Anyone who is interested in donating to that cause can speak with Brown at the Yorktown Pub.
In the past, when the cats have had new litters, Brown’s co-workers would take home new kittens. She said five or six employees have brought cats home. Left to their own devices, the cats would continue to pump out litters of kittens, so an initiative began around two months ago to help curb the population of feral cats in Yorktown by humanely capturing them and then getting them neutered or spayed. That effort, with the help of Ginny Lascara, owner of Yorktown’s Black Dog Gallery, has been a resounding success.
“We realized the numbers were getting out of hand,” Lascara said. “They say it’s good to spay or neuter the cats and put them back into the area where they know their food source. Having a stable cat colony keeps other cats from coming into the area.”
Lascara was able to find a home for some of the younger kittens, but she said that once a cat has been in the wild for six months or longer, they can’t ever be fully socialized as pets. By neutering or spaying the cats, they can gain control over the sometimes explosive population growth that can define feral cat colonies. The process involves catching the cats in a humanely rigged cage that does not cause them any physical discomfort. Once caught, they’re transported to a shelter where they are spayed or neutered for a $50 to $60 fee, which Lascara said is reasonable compared to what a vet would charge. The fee also includes a rabies shot and a quick check up.
The fee they pay to the shelter has come from donations from local residents and businesses, Brown said. All the females have already been spayed, but two male cats have managed to elude capture, as they’ve figured out what’s going on with the cage, Lascara said.
There’s no need for new cats when Brown and her co-workers have a good thing going with the current pack. In addition to the enjoyment provided to customers and to the restaurant staff who need a quick break, Brown said there isn’t a rodent anywhere near the restaurant.
There has also never been any kind of incident with the cats being aggressive toward anyone, said Tiffany Mason, another server at Yorktown Pub.
“We’re all cat people,” Mason said. “When you get stressed you want to come out and get a breather, and the cats are there and they just want love.”
Photos by Gregory Connolly