Hyde Park: A Cat’s Kingdom

A 2021 report in the Guardian revealed that there are around 250,000 urban stray cats in the UK and each of them have a different story to tell. This is where I come in, I spent time following some of the famous street cats in my area to share their story through pictures. 

Hyde Park is an eclectic suburb of Leeds that is notorious for rowdy student parties, however Hyde Park is truly a community, there are residents, families, students and young professionals that call this town their home. In this project I’m exploring the real rulers of Hyde Park: cats. 

In the heart of Hyde Park there is a colony of street cats that have taken over a derelict property management house. Whilst the property is home to any number of stray cats there are three that run the roost: the residents…

Louis and Claudia are siblings “about 8 or 9 years ago [Louis and Claudia] were in a bin yard up that street and someone was feeding them, they had a little sibling at that point as well, I kept feeding them as kittens but as they got older they migrated up here to join this colony”.

Spooky is a lone wolf of sorts and has been at this property the longest “Spooky is quite elderly, he’s got little bits of his tail missing but he won’t mind having a pet”. 

The property sits on Hyde Park Corner, a Leeds student hotspot. It is relatively impossible to walk through this area and not spot a cat, some residents blame students, assuming that they are getting cats while they are living here then they move back home and leave the cat to fend for itself.

Although cats are uniquely independent creatures, there are many reasons why they end up on the street. First it’s important to understand the differences between stray cats, feral cats and wild cats.

Wild cats or European Wildcats are a species of cat native to Scotland, Turkey and the Caucasus. They are not domesticated and survive independently in the wild, In Scotland they roam free in designated highlands and benefit from full protection by law.

Feral cats and stray cats are relatively the same thing, feral is defined as domesticated animals that have reverted to living as wild animals. The difference between stray and feral is how socialised the cat is, a stray cat will often be comfortable and relaxed around humans while a feral cat is well, feral!

With cat rescue charities already overwhelmed, it’s no surprise that care for these cats starts with kind-hearted members of the community. I met with Maria Pickering, a Hyde Park resident, who introduced me to this colony of cats.

“I actually grew up around dogs and was never really fond of cats, it wasn’t until I moved to Leeds, there’s so many cats around here and I just sort of became more friendly with them” 

Maria and another lady share the feeding, the lady takes mornings and Maria takes evenings; “sometimes you’ll turn up and another feral has made their way down, you know they’ve smelled the food and it hangs around for a few weeks then it goes back out into the world again”

“There’s been a colony of cats in this backyard for years. They are feral although they have gotten used to me now. Pitza cano the restaurant used to be at this spot and the staff used to give them lots of lots of food.” 

It’s well known that once you have fed a cat they are very difficult to get away from. I met Maria in a popular Facebook group called ‘Cats of Hyde Park and Headingley’ in which there are many angry posts from cat owners whose cats haven’t returned as normal because they are being mistaken for a stray and have been fed and kept inside. 

Innocently enough, residents and students unfamiliar with the area run into a cat putting on their best sad eyes and meows and taking them in; one group member posted ‘This is a plea to please please please NOT let him into your house and NOT to feed him, PLEASE’.

“The one with the stripe on his nose, I call him Louis , the little one I call her Claudia , this black one I call her spooky”

Cats are very intelligent animals, in comparison to dogs they are independent thinkers and problem solvers whereas dogs minds are malleable and easy to train plus focus on social interaction. This could be why stray cats are more prevalent than stray dogs, recent surveys in the UK estimate that there are around 50,000 stray dogs and 250,000 stray cats. That’s 5x the figure but both animals are equally cherished domesticated pets. Are cats better at surviving in the wild than dogs?

Maybe it’s the cat’s ability to form communities like this one that keep them safe in the wild and in the Hyde Park house dictated by cats, the patriarchy prevails; “The dynamics are not too bad, there’s not much aggression but there is a little bit of a hierarchy, the males are more dominant and Claudia is shy in her own way”. Maria tells me how the two males take over feeding times often leaving Claudia hungry but Maria brings extra to feed her separately. 

The question remains, why do people like Maia show such kindness to animals that aren’t theirs. Caring for an animal is a big responsibility but the big payoff is being rewarded in companionship, yet stray cats aren’t exactly the most loving companions. Life on the streets is no picnic and when they inevitably get injured who will care for them?

Maria has actually taken a few of the colony cats to the vets, out of her own pocket “On occasion I’ve taken them to the vets, it is a bit problematic because they are quite shy and it’s expensive”. 

But although life out there is bleak, as independent thinkers some cats prefer to fight for their life in the streets “Claudia she had an abscess on her face one time so I trapped her and took her to the vets, I had her at my house while she recovered and I was thinking ooo shall I keep her but she really was miserable, she hated the house, she hated me so I brought her back”.

My first thought when visiting was ‘awe I want to take them home’ a thought which Maria is no stranger too “I have a cat called Maxie that I think originated from here and made his way down to my house where he was too cute to refuse, I also had one show up and somebody claimed her but couldn’t look after it so I took her on too”.

It’s incredibly touching that there are still people like Maria in the world, doing good with nothing in return. Owning pets is a sort of transactional relationship, they get regular food, a comfy warm bed to sleep in and you get a fluffy little friend to keep you company and cheer you up when times are hard. “Unfortunately, well there are cat charities but they’re all completely full to the brim, one did turn up here, a black one that was pregnant I took her in because it was a very cold time of year, she gave birth and I got in touch with a cat rescue who took the kittens, rehomed them, neutered the mother and put her back on the street. Although I’ve not seen her since”. People like Maria take care of these cats with no expectations of love or companionship, they just care. 

Coming into this project I expected to find dirty, skinny cats begging for food but I found the opposite, these cats are well groomed, clean and by all appearances happy.

This cat is not stray, he has a home, a nice warm comfy bed and regular feeding. Some owners make the decision to keep their cats indoors for many reasons such as protecting local wildlife or protecting the cat from disease and violence on the streets. However this one kept making sneaky escapes so the owners attached an air tag to him. After noticing that he was gaining weight they watched the air tag and found out he was visiting many different houses where he was being fed by naive strangers. Although with a bright blue collar and a £30 apple air tag attached to it it is obviously not a stray. 

This is a little mystery man, spotted wandering the streets of Hyde Park with no collar. A lack of collar usually indicates that a cat is either a stray or missing from its home. Some owners don’t feel the need to put a collar on their cats that stay indoors, however if they escape (which they definitely will) it can be tricky to identify, rendering them less likely to be found. Plus if it is their first time out of the use they may not be able to find their way back. I watched this one visit three different doors meowing and scratching to let him in.

In these images you can see the light of my life, Lola. After longing for a cat for most of my life but living with parents who hated them, quite literally the minute I moved into a private house for university I got one. Whilst Lola is technically a Hyde Park cat she watches it all from the comfort of her heated bed on the windowsill. Lola is an indoor cat and the definition of a princess, she will only drink water from an elevated playboy martini glass and refuses to eat ALDI’s cat food. Lola has been included in this project to highlight the contrast between the life of a street cat and the life of an indoor cat.  Owners often receive criticism for keeping cats inside as they are predators by nature and need to act on their instincts, personally I do not agree and I’ve seen Lola struggle to catch an already half-dead fly which gives me confidence in saying that she would not survive in the streets. Despite this, it’s painful to deny Lola the chance to see the natural world so I take her out every once in a while on a lead and sit on our doorstep together watching passers by. 

Cats, especially stray cats, are not the easiest subjects to photograph. Getting these shots involved a lot of food, treats and most of all patience. Although the stray cats were not as fussy as Lola, the Aldi cat food that has been sitting in the cupboard for months finally got used.  

As a cat lover it’s been fun to document the lives of these beautiful creatures, plus make lasting connections within my community.