Will Zweigart, Flatbush Cats
You tuned into the community cats podcast ready. Let's go welcome to the community cats podcast. I'm your host Stacey Lebaron. I've been involved helping homeless cats for over twenty years as with the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society. The goal of this podcast is to expose you to amazing people who are improving the lives of cats. I hope these interviews will help you learn how you you can turn your passion for cats into action today. We're speaking with will swaggart will is the founder of flatbush cats a five oh one C. three non profit focused on reducing the outdoor cat population in Central Brooklyn through tr and rescue work he began doing trap neuter return in late two thousand and sixteen gene after moving to the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn and discovering cats everywhere. DNR led to fostering friendly's and before you know it he and his partner were over over their heads with mass trappings and Medical Emergencies will formed a nonprofit to better organize their efforts and begin bringing new volunteers into the fold today. Eh Flat Bush cats teaches tr classes and offer support and tools to newly certified volunteers including Trap Bank community foodbank facebook support group mentoring and rescue adoption support for friendlies they also recently launched their first mobile spay neuter clinic pilot program in partnership with the Toby Project to support low income residents and prevent more cats from being born on the street. Their goal is to help solve the outdoor cat population problem in New York by creating a sustainable model for how hyper local grassroots groups can serve on the frontlines in partnership with larger animal welfare organizations by day will is a brand strategist with an advertising advertising agency. He enjoys documenting his T. N. R. And rescue work through video photography and social media believes authentic. Storytelling is the key to rallying supporters reporters behind your 'cause. Well like to welcome you to the show. Thank you great to be here. You are just fantastic on instagram and the videos that you do. It's just I it's absolutely amazing and we're going to do a deep dive talking about the storytelling and the video work that you do and that you're you're just so excellent at but I you shared a little bit in your bio I about your interest and how you got involved with the kitties and Flatbush but tells a little bit before that have you always been a passionate cat person years of always been passionate cap person. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household with cats in developed sort of a lifelong appreciation for them from early early moment. I kind of use myself. There's an example of someone who might WanNa talk to from an audience perspective because just a few years ago despite being a lifelong cat lover spite having cats for most of my life. I knew zero absolutely nothing about what was going on in New York and teen are any of that stuff so I try to use that as a reference this point remember that you could really love animals you could want to support them by. There's a lot of folks who we aren't really even reached yet. That's amazing we get stuck in our sort of in our world worlds and we talk about tr and we talk about community cats and we talk about rescue foster care this and that Blah Blah and we figure everybody knows what we're talking about about but really most people don't have any idea and is that something you look at when you're talking about storytelling and trying to share messaging with with your organization one hundred percent to your point. I think the longer you're involved in the space. The more you realize that we are sort of under resource to meet the challenge in any given large city so despite having a lot of very caring people who make great sacrifices to do their part. The problem is very large. That's the challenge is huge so realize pretty quickly. We're going to need a lot more people on the front lines and this can't be seen as some quirky. Obviously you guys talked about all. The old tropes before another episodes but this can't be seen as some weird thing. This has to be seen as community service. This has to be seen as civic engagement. Smith and doing your part and so I think it's our challenge. I think it's everyone's challenge to talk to that much much larger audience who maybe loves cats but doesn't know about any of these issues yet so I think that's a shared opportunity and responsibility for all animal ever groups. When you started flatbush cats what's is five. Oh One C. Three. Did you decide to go it alone. From the very beginning or did you research other organizations and just feel like they weren't covering covering the same topics that you were interested in. It's a great question I mean so set. The scene for our listeners because flatbush is just a tiny part of Brooklyn. If if you were looking at a map of the borough is right in the center. We've got over two point five million residents just in Brooklyn. That's not even all of New York. It's one the most populous cities in the country behind. La in Chicago just Brooklyn and the ZIP code has over eighty thousand people per square mile. That's that's the highest density of any SIP code in Brooklyn. Its highest densities of cousin country so when we got started definitely there was no. There's no way to really provide full. Oh coverage or a city that large join C. L. as well in other areas you could you could just we're. GonNa Small Area to really have the most impact possible and so when we originally got started it was a classic scenario moved to a new spots he gets everywhere we did of course contacts larger groups. We googled and contacted taxis. SPCA contacted the few shelters that we could find. That's still a little bit of a broken system hoping to maybe play a role in connecting people who who want to help with the right resources right now. You're kind of feels like you're digging through the yellow pages and you get a plenty groups you email them. All all groups get all all the same help requests so that's another topic but I really WanNa. Maybe contribute to solving that but after some searching we realized that we needed to get involved and do this ourselves later on we did meet some other groups work in up peripheral area like Brooklyn cast who was really helpful for us when I got started but again the with the city that large and that dense you really have to have focused resources in any given area to be able to make any kind of impact so so that you wanted to be able to really focus and work on a targeted area. Were you aware of that of the sort of targeted approach with regards to community cats or was that just your own personal decision. It took a lot of research. I mean I'm I try to be as solutions oriented person. I try to be inefficient person with our time. Obviously obviously when you're on the front lines doing tr rescue and you see this cycle firsthand at some point you step back and say there's gotta be a better way. There's got to be something we can do to it. Actually turned the water off as opposed scooping buckets out of the basement and so that research led me to a larger industry groups and associations actually found your article. Stacey believe it was for sheltering magazine really talked about the community cats pyramid. Do you want to give like a short overview of what that is sure sure yes animal sheltering magazine profiled the Community Cats Pyramid. You can find the blog post on the community. PODCAST DOT com website you just do community cats has pyramid and it'll come right up but basically it's a modeled after the food pyramid and it's the the triangle at at the base of the triangle is offering low cost or no cost spay neuter assistance for owned cats and then you go up and you have trap neuter return and then you go up and you have adoption and rescue and ideally early you get to the tippy tippy top. We're talking barn relocation or sanctuary or foster for life for something like that and that should be the smallest population of cats that we're assisting sustain if you want to really reduce your overpopulation situation in your community really need to have very easy access to either free or super super low cost spay neuter cats in the community for owned cats and that's really going to be one of your biggest game changers with tr being at that next level and I find many organizations that pyramid is upside down because there's doing so much more rescue and adoption and very little assistance in the owned Cap Communities Unity's so yeah. I'm glad you found an animal sheltering. I was wonderful that they they covered it and we also have it in Spanish too. It's out in a blog post out at a group in Spain yeah and I I would love to see more discussion about that especially again. As a maybe an outsider someone's new to the space. Maybe it's discussed in certain meetings or conferences ince's but that was a huge lightbulb for us because as much as we love this work. This is our spare time like were wrong tears. We have day jobs like this is nights and weekends operation. We need to know that our time is being spent efficiently and that was a huge eye opener that it's kind of kind of commonsense if you're just only doing rescue you're only pulling cats off the street. That's one hundred percent reactive while we're happy to help. Those cats were happy to tell the stories five to ten years from now I want to be able to look at my neighborhood which is huge and say that we've made a measurable impact and so the only way we can track that impact is either from the top down or the bottom autumn up and the bottom up method of saying we did X. Number of adoptions again wild very critical. That's like saying we scooped x number of buckets of water out and I really they WANNA say. Actually we canvas this entire area. We provided spay neuter awareness to people we had conversations. We made low cost spay neuter vaccination ax nation in bet care services available. Those are the kinds of impacts that we want to track and ultimately we also want to track the intake city shelters from our zip. Zip Code. Unfortunately we're having trouble men information down and also a lot of folks that our neighborhood don't even know about the city shelter they just put their cat outside but we're making progress towards getting our hands around the real metrics that matter and really focusing on them so that we can make sure we have a real impact over few years having groups being able able to share information and I know it can be sometimes challenging because the questions may be a little bit different but you know even if we can get a mini baseline line of some information that we're willing to share. I think is really helpful. We have in Massachusetts. There's a group called Boston. Homeless cats and we only get together once or twice a year but one of at those meetings revolves around data sharing for the groups in the Greater Boston area and I think it's incredibly helpful for everybody to be able to understand what's going on and what the challenges are and you know what people have seen for the previous year so you know I I really hope in any city or any area and regional area groups do take the time to put what a meeting together at least once or twice a year to maybe have some of those objective goals to be able to work together. Do you WANNA create amazing videos that get animals adopted then check out rescue tube where they've simplified the creation of adoption and fundraising videos volunteers and fosters simply upload raw video and rescue tube turns it into amazing stories set to music. They even posted on your social media for you. CHECK OUT RESCUE DOT tube to learn more well. You are just an incredible as she say I'm a systems guy and you're able to sort of look from the top down but you're also incredibly visually oriented and we'll have a link to a video that you put together. That's on your flatbush website being part of an advertising agency and with branding experience. Do you have any information you'd like to the share with our listeners about visual storytelling storytelling for different age groups you know some of your thoughts around what you've seen out there and what might help people make their visual work a little bit stronger yeah absolutely to make the most use of our time. I might jump around a little bit here here. I just want to provide as many tips as possible to folks you know sometimes. I'm listening to a Webinar conference a Mike get the good stuff like things that can use so our approach to visual began out of necessity. We were up to our neck in kittens who were getting bigger by the day in the middle of the summer in two thousand seventeen nineteen. We realized we don't have a network sounds like not too long ago but we didn't have any network at all. We don't have a physical space. No foot traffic no adoption events warn five zero one c three so it became a necessity to pay for nuclear options to pay for dental work to get adoption visits so I'll kind of skip over over the why this is important. I think everybody gets that. It's our first priority was. How do we make our weaknesses. Strength will are small size means. We get to spend a a lot of time with each cat. I think that's something that we try to to show that people here. Is that you know in a foster environment. You're able to really bring out the personality you're able to show oh the process like because we do a lot of St Rescue. We get to actually show that moment. That amazing is coming in from the cold or coming being in for medical care and we kind of keep the camera rolling from then on out. I think if you're really large shelter obviously there some scale challenges here. Maybe you don't you don't know the story very cat or point. You just have like a shelter environment to photograph the man but anything you can do to show the interaction between the cat and people is incredibly important one of the things that we always wonder when we're thinking about adopting a cat is are they gonna like me. Do they like people. Aren't they really friendly. I would never just say this cat is really sweet. I would say to the foster that photos great but can you send me a video of the cat getting some Chin scratches like can you send me a video of the cat in lounging in your lap. I want to show that relationship and Matt Dynamic and I think we do little kind of it's for our fosters we have to. I don't WANNA say train but we have to show each one of them. Individually why the documentation part is so important. I think most of you will find that the documenting side comes naturally for maybe a small percentage of your audience. You know some people who already take lots of photos of their cats may be more proactive but we try to show from the beginning. This is a key part of your responsibility as a foster. Is We need to document the progress. We need to keep people informed how the cats doing. I don't WanNa just show a photo at the very end and say this is teddy. He had a really rough time now now. He's great like try to do one post of a cat when they're all the way through everything they've been through. It's really hard to develop that emotional connection cat yet. You're using those visuals to to tell the story but you've got also a desire to use it to fundraise. I know you're very active instagram page. I understand a lot of people advocate advocated instagram because there's a lot of visuals but I feel like I get the sense that you've utilized it as a great fundraising source for support and I don't think we necessarily certainly think of Instagram as a avenue for fundraising and correct me if I'm wrong for twenty nine thousand nine hundred twenty twenty regardless of who you're you may think your target audience is first of all. Everyone loves stories. Everyone loves a powerful story. We have people of all ages giving feedback about how count at route one individual vigil story or another so that typically ends up being sort of the gateway to learning about organization. I mentioned the community cap here. Mid So ideally rescue is not the primary focus but it becomes the teaching moment it becomes the way that we can deliver information about everything else that we do. Every single cat teaches teaches us something so if I'm telling you about this cat Julius who is is really friendly now but he was really shy outside that becomes an opportunity for me to show how we use the the drop trap that becomes an opportunity for me to show why teen our skills really important to be a good rescuer that creates opportunity to talk about upper respiratory infections and and giving them time and space and socialization so you know it's way more than just adoption and it's way more than fundraising every time we're able to document one of these stories it gives us disadvant- tastic teaching moment and specific instagram one hundred percent. I could not overstate that digital and social strategy for my day job and I can just say instagram dominating everything right now. It's not even close. Things are always going to change platforms always. GonNa come and go course but that's that's where you need to be right now and kind of alongside that it is our fundraising strategy. We can do events. We could do newsletter things we could do. You know please. He's for help on a specific situation but we find it's way more beneficial to be proactive in storytelling all the time and then you never really need to get to the point where you're you're in an emergency and if they've seen the cat when it came in and they know the surgery's next week. It's nice to not have to ask. It's nice to tell people what's going on. Show them so they have a much more close connection. I think about the nonprofits that I support it through my own donations five ten years ago maybe would get a letter you know like. I'm not going to visit your website eight. No one's gonNA visit your website. Maybe I would get some updates somewhere but now people were following these rescue groups on instagram. They're getting daily updates and they're seeing the progress Chris. They're seeing where their money went. The other thing you're saying to as a small organization you are focusing where your own strengths are two and you're not allowing yourself to get distracted by different rabbit hole type scenarios like you say running events or doing that kind of stuff so I think the other thing too is knowing knowing what you have as a small organization from abandoned standpoint. You know obviously you're in an area. That's incredibly densely populated huge population huge number of cats and you know you touched on it earlier a desire to be able to communicate and network better looking forward will your new so I'm hoping you're going to be in this business for the next twenty to twenty five years so we have this whole overpopulation situation resolved and solved by them. You know what do you envision happening for community cats and for our organizations over the next five or ten years specifically to New York and I think that is representative of a lot of other area challenges and we have some structural improvements that we need to make I would urge all of you to watch the documentary the cat rescuers that you interviewed steven the other filmmakers prior that shows the deep isolation the deep sacrifice that individual rescuers are making right now and I think that's strictly unfair for the people who care the most goes to be bearing most of the burden so we're really grateful for the resources that we have at a city level but on a per capita basis. New York is currently under-funded. We're not putting dollars. There's into the programs that we need to make and the the employees at the large organizations are doing their best. They're pouring their hearts out but were simply not funding this challenge late we need to so. I think advocacy for all the larger in small groups to be working together and have a tighter network. They're focused on the problem actually discussing the problem. I've not ever heard anyone anyone say. Let's talk about the problem in New York. How do we fix it open discussion without fear of failure without fear of judgement but I think that's looking up I think looking at the broader population population the biggest change that we have to make is we have to be catalysts for everyone to understand the role that they can play. I I mentioned earlier that most people in New York when I talked to them they do not know about the population problem. Okay that's opportunity number one right there everyone if the people who live amongst us and have the resources to donate and have the weekends to spend time trapping in fostering if they don't even know about the problem that's our number one opportunity and that's why we spend so much time again on channels like instagram and you is because selfishly. We know we can't do this ourselves. We reach that realization a long time ago so who's GONNA help us. We've got to bring New People and we're GONNA bring lots of New People and so we have to create this welcoming inclusive positive aspirational space where people don't feel guilty to help. They don't feel guilty to donate instead. We talk about the joy that fostering brings we talk about the deep sense of filming the changing these cats lives bring us and we use that as a tool through social media to get more people involved in its working before we wrap up today. I WanNa ask you a little the question about your partnership with the Toby Project. Would you like to share bit with our listeners about that. Yeah so for folks not around the area. The Toby Project is a long-standing outstanding nonprofit in New York focused almost exclusively on providing spay neuter services to the area and I'm. I am so thrilled that we get a chance I work with them. The coolest Dad I've ever heard they have spayed or neutered over forty five thousand cats and dogs in the region and that's the kind of impact that we get really excited about. We reached out to them. pursuant to our community cap here made conversation. I reached out to them and said we WANNA educate. Our residents community members about spay neuter but we live in an underserved area. It's not fair to go and tell people they need to get their cats fixed. If you're not giving them a solution for that that doesn't work so so we need to be able to bring those services to the area. We're doing a pilot with them. This year to test that Al Michael is again. I don't know how we're GONNA do this. I think it's fine to share your goal out alowed without knowing how you're going to do it yet. Our goal is is to regularly have free or low cost spay neuter services. No questions asked for all residents residents in Flatbush and then Greater Brooklyn and so that's why I mentioned it'll take a lot of partnership with a lot of larger organizations make that happen but I think we have to be very vocal about the need and we have to be very vocal about how that actually supports us is individual rescuers so that we're not just scooping said cats and kittens off the street ten years from now so we'll if there there are folks interested in finding out more about flatbush. How would they reach out to you folks. I always tell people to follow me on instagram because you know if you go to a website you you might never come back or it might feel like a brochure to you so following us on. INSTAGRAM is the best way to see what we do day in day out. We have some great videos on our youtube channel. There are a mixture of of kind of education how to and storytelling but our website is at flatbush cats dot org well. That's excellent and we'll make sure we have links to all of these places on in the show notes and get it out in our social media to is there anything else you. WanNa share with our listeners today. I want to say you know. Having great photos and videos doesn't mean that you need big production budget. It doesn't need to feel commercial in fact when you're talking about social media something that looks heavily produced our brains read that as an ads so actually doesn't work in favor to have things like text overlays or things that look like posters or things like TV ads not only do not need that it can trigger sense that you're watching an ad that can kind of get people moving on more quickly so try to document the stories that you can with your phone. I teach a workshop on photo. The video and the workshop is based on your phone because I don't want people to think that they need some kind of crazy four k camera on equipment and studio to document the stories. If you look got our instagram I would say maybe eighty percent of that video is for my thought or from a fosters phone so yes things like good lighting and composition. Do make a the difference and yes you should try to improve your game and you know stick with it but also if you really don't love documenting your work. You do need to find in hire. Someone who does because photo and video requires a lot of time and commitment and passion but as we talked about earlier. It's not just about getting more followers. It's not just about adoption adoption. This is going to be the center of your fundraising. Efforts in the future is going to be the center of the direct relationship that you have with your doners and it's also going to be the number one source for finding new volunteers and people who can help you so it is worth the time and energy wow that's great so valuable information there and will. I want to thank you so much for spending time with it's made this morning and thank you again for to be a guest on the show and I hope we'll have you on again the future thank you stacey. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for listening to community cats. That's podcast. I really appreciate it if you would go to. I tunes leave a review of the show it will help spread the word to help more community cats.