Western Penitentiary stray cats
A cat crosses a paved lot across from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and the abandoned Western Penitentiary. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Most Pittsburghers probably know the North Side’s hulking stone State Correctional Institution — Pittsburgh by its historic name Western State Penitentiary or simply “Western Pen.” Stories about its famous residents and made-for-Hollywood escapes make it one of the most colorful city landmarks. 

But not many people know that for the past 40 or so years, it’s also been home to one of Pittsburgh’s incalculable number of homeless cat colonies. “There’s probably a cat colony on every block and people don’t know it,” says Tara Czekaj.

Czekaj and two of her Brighton Heights neighbors are the volunteer caretakers for the Pittsburgh Prison Cats. They feed and care for the colony that lives inside the prison gates and the surrounding area, including neighboring industrial sites and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail along the Ohio River. 

They are third-generation caretakers who have fed, spayed and neutered, and vaccinated more than 400 feral and abandoned cats in a program dubbed TNVR, which stands for trap, neuter, vaccinate and return.

Ever since the prison closed in 2017 and Czekaj and her partners could no longer do their work on its grounds, a small spit of land that juts out into the river near the old prison has become home to a small cluster of shelters and feeding stations. Some are year-round, kit-built, wooden cat condos. Others are large plastic storage bins that have been insulated and have flaps cut into them. 

The abandoned Western Penitentiary is believed to have been home to an estimated 400 stray cats over the years. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“It’s flat and it’s fairly off the trail,” Czekaj says of the area that has been dubbed Prison Cats Cove. It provides some privacy and protection for the cats when they are eating or sheltering from the elements. “There’s a certain comfort for the cats to be away from humans.” 

Each day after work, Czekaj arrives toting canned and dry cat food. She and the other caretakers keep the space clean and ensure that the cat shelters are maintained. Sometimes they’re greeted by one or more of the timid cats.

History of the Pittsburgh Prison Cats

Czekaj, who works for a regional grocery chain, recited the Prison Cats folk history, which credits John “Porky” Sapovchak as the colony’s first caretaker — sort of. 

“I’ll use the term caretaker loosely for Porky. From what I know, he would bring down day-old bread and day-old doughnuts and feed the cats,” she says. “That seemingly is what caused the population to explode and it exploded to over 400.”

Sapovchak died in 1998 (there’s an inscribed stone monument to him upriver from the colony placed by the Woods Run Fishing Club). By that time, an Alcosan communications worker, Nancy Barylak, began caring for the cats. In addition to feeding them, she began TNVRing them. Barylak told Animal Friends in 2012 that she thinks she trapped more than 1,000 cats before retiring from Alcosan and from caring for the cat colony. 

Czekaj, along with Melissa Rubin and Lilian Akin, picked up where Barylak left off. 

Tara Czekaj from Pittsburgh Prison Cats fills a food dish outside of Western Penitentiary. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“Hey, there’s a cat down on the trail,” read a message on Czekaj’s Brighton Heights neighborhood message board in 2014. “I came down and looked at it and there wasn’t one cat. There were like dozens and dozens of cats.”

The trio began feeding and trapping cats. They work with local animal rescue groups and veterinarians to get the animals spayed and neutered. Kittens young enough to be socialized into homes are placed in foster care. 

“It’s really amazing that there are people that are so selfless to step up and to donate their resources and to volunteer their time to care for these animals,” says Cody Hoellerman, director of communications for Animal Friends.

‘There are cats everywhere’

Not all outdoor cats are the same. Feral cats are the most problematic and they can’t simply be adopted into homes as pets. 

“These are cats that are most likely, they were born outside,” Hoellerman says. “They’ve spent their entire life outside and in a lot of ways, they’re similar to any wild animal that is just used to living outside and isn’t really socialized with people.”

Starting in 2014, Carnegie Mellon University attempted to register and map the city’s cat colonies in a project dubbed “nala.” 

A stray cat peaks through weeds at a food dish placed near the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“They tried to register every cat colony and every feeder in the city of Pittsburgh,” says Czekaj. There are several informal groups around the region caring for cat colonies.

It was a daunting and Sisyphean task that ended without fanfare. The results were kept secret, reported the Tribune-Review in 2015: “Organizers [declined] to reveal their locations out of concern that people might harm the colonies or make the areas dumping grounds for unwanted cats.”

“There are cats everywhere,” says Czekaj.

TNVR is the most humane and effective approach to tackling the feral cat problem. Pittsburgh Prison Cats works with several organizations and businesses in its goal to depopulate the colony. 

To spay and neuter the cats, Czekaj works with the Fix’N Wag’N, a mobile veterinary practice. It costs between $80 and $150 per cat, depending on the sex.

Area vets provide medical services at discounted rates to treat sick and injured cats that Czekaj and her colleagues trap. Vets like Zelienople’s Crescent Ridge Veterinary Hospital also help transition kittens into foster care.

Tara Czekaj from Pittsburgh Prison Cats fills a food dish in a cat house outside of Western Penitentiary. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Protecting the colony

All of the food, the trapping and the veterinary services takes money. 

Pittsburgh Prison Cats uses a financial intermediary to enable donors to make tax-deductible contributions. They raise money by selling T-shirts and other items online. Pittsburgh Prison Cats spends about $5,000 annually. “It’s never enough,” says Czekaj. 

Czekaj created a Facebook page for the cats and she bought a “cat crossing” sign online to place next to the trail. A custom-printed sign mounted inside Prison Cats Cove educates visitors about the cats and invites them to donate money online.

Caring for feral cats also comes with emotional costs. Caretakers like Czekaj become attached to the felines whose lifespans of three to five years are significantly less than house cats. 

“Even though these aren’t cats that are living in their homes with them, they think of them as pets,” Hoellerman says. “They know them by name. They recognize their personalities.”

A small memorial dedicated to stray cats living around the abandoned Western State Penitentiary facility stands along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Many of the Prison Cats have names derived from characters in the 1994 prison movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” Czekaj currently feeds Hadley, a 5-year-old female named for a guard in the movie. “Her mother or grandmother’s name was Andy Dufresne, after the Shawshank character.”

Czekaj affectionately recalls another memorable cat dubbed The Warden. “When we trapped him, he was 27 pounds,” she says. “He looked like a bobcat.”

From its peak at 400 felines, notes Czekaj, the Pittsburgh Prison Cats colony is down to about seven cats. TNVR is the most successful and humane approach. It allows the colonies to dwindle organically by preventing reproduction. It also eliminates some of the more annoying behaviors among feral cats, like yowling and fighting.

Czekaj hopes for a time when her services are no longer needed: “One day I would love to not have to come down here every day. Not because I don’t love the cats, but because that’s the goal.”

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.