Had they been coyotes, we would have slowly retreated to the safety of our cars. Had they been cockroaches, we would have fled, screaming like banshees and brushing our crawling skin as if infected. But they were neither. They were just your basic house cat: dozens upon dozens of them, meandering about the acres of concrete and old machinery.
Although it only took one phone call to initiate this evening’s project, the situation didn’t occur overnight. This was the result of a few stray cats allowed to propagate over the decades to create a multitude of generations: a thriving feral cat colony imbedded from years of being taken care of by the business whose property they were inhabiting.
It probably started out innocently enough. A stray cat shows up on the property one day, and she’s invited to stay. For keeping the rats at bay, she’s rewarded with some water and shelter. Her success earns her a little cat food to sustain her since she’s eradicated the rat population. But then another cat moves in. The two team up, and a litter is born. Then maybe another stray cat hears food and shelter are available in the hood and they move in too. Some people in the neighborhood move away, and rather than keep their cat for life, don’t take her with them. She finds solace and shelter with this nearby colony. It happens over and over again. The feline neighborhood starts to thrive, procreate, and litter after litter is born season after season… the group growing exponentially.
With the business closing after forty years, there is no one left to feed the cats. There will be little water. The welfare system that has sustained them all these years is disappearing. But oddly, that wasn’t why we were called in.
Jen, a Bark Avenue Foundation volunteer and supporter, happened to be driving with her husband along the street in the warehouse district and spotted a dead kitten in the road. She got out and saw another kitten with a broken foot flee. She followed the injured kitten who escaped through a locked gate, and there Jen caught a glimpse of the colony. She called Christy to see if BAF could do anything—getting the cats spayed or neutered perhaps or help finding the kitten with the broken foot?
This doesn’t fall specifically within one BAF’s programs, but spaying and neutering is certainly in our mission. Christy and Jen visited the business owner who gave them permission to come onto the property and see what could be done. Christy recruited Amanda from Kitten Rescue and Carolyn, freelance cat volunteer, to coordinate the trapping portion of this TNR project (trap/neuter/return) and arrange for some surgeries. There was no funding for a project like this, but there was the man power (or woman power in this case.) Any associated costs would have to be covered through our own fundraising efforts.
When I arrived at dusk, Christy was hauling the traps out of the cars, Carolyn was folding newspaper to put in the traps, and Jen and her husband were doling out the bait: a mix of moist cat food and straight up sardines. Amanda was in the back of the property, scouting where the best places to put the traps might be.
The traps were rectangular wire cages with a pressure plate near the back end that when stepped on, would release the precariously balanced pole that held the trap door open, shutting it instantly. The first round of traps were ready to be placed, so we all took one, along with a towel to drape over each one, and entered the cat colony.
They were so used to benevolent humans that they were not bothered by our presence. One black cat hung out near a hose, sprawled out in comfort. A white cat sauntered across the pavement, her belly low with kittens. We walked among them, placed the traps, covered them, and walked back to the front.
The business had been asked not to put out food for 24 hours prior to our arrival. Being a little hungry, our bait would be more tempting. Before we could even grab the second round of traps, we heard the sound of one trap shut. It had worked.
The first trap didn’t have just one, but two cats. A mother with her kitten possibly, she was the first to see an opportunity for her child to eat and took it. While we checked them out and draped the towel fully over the trap to try to ease their fears, we heard another trap close across the yard.
Just one this time, but three cats within half an hour of arrival seemed like success to me. As someone who had never done this before, I had been prepared for an all night stake-out.
The final traps were placed—fourteen in total since two cats occupied one and one had to remain empty to separate the momma and kitten after the surgery. And then the waiting began in earnest.
We hung out in the front parking lot, listening for the tell-tale sound of a trap closing, or until enough time had passed that we suspected another may be caught further back on the property out of earshot. Amanda informed me it usually takes a couple hours, but seldom all night. You don’t leave the traps unattended until morning; that would be dangerous. While we used sardines as a tempting meal inside the trap, a cat inside a trap is a tempting meal for other animals.
I was shocked to realize that word hadn’t gotten around about the baits and traps. I figured the cats would have warned each other after the first few cats had been caught. Instead they kept a decent distance, but did not run when we walked through.
Jen moved a trap out front where she had seen the cat that had started it all: the injured-footed kitten. While we had already trapped a few cats, this is the one she wanted most. This was her Moby Dick.
Jen placed the trap and then tried to forget about it, silently willing the kitten to come to it—wherever she was. Jen returned to the back of the property to check traps. A few moments later, I spied her in the darkness, carrying a trap.
“This was crazy,” she said when she got back up to the front. “The trap was open but this little white kitten was in there. She was just sitting in the back, so I bent down and closed the trap door.”
The kitten didn’t weigh enough to trigger the pressure plate. Probably only four weeks old, she was too young to be spayed, but she clearly needed veterinary care. With her eyes half shut with mucus most likely from a respiratory infection, we couldn’t just release her back onto the property. It was agreed that she wouldn’t be spayed, but would get medical attention and stay under Carolyn’s care until she was well, spayed, and of age to be adopted out.
Back out front, we spied a cat right in front of the trap Jen had set to lure the injured-footed feline. We watched in anticipated silence, hoping the cat would take just a few more steps inside. Amanda, as silent on her feet as any feline, walked along the street so she was directly in front of the trap but blocking the cat from darting out into the street. She took a couple steps toward the cat, the cat backed up, and wham! The door shut. Then the thrashing began.
Not the kitten with the injured foot, this full grown cat was a fighter. Thrashing about, flinging himself into every part of the trap and trying to claw anything he could touch, Christy calmly put the blanket over the trap and allowed the cat to settle down and accept his fate.
Only two hours into the adventure, there was only one trap left. We were going to call it a night, leaving food out for the ones who didn’t get the bait but hadn’t been fed yet for the day. The mechanic who worked there would be arriving at 3am to put out food, so they wouldn’t be hungry for long. But a little appetizer for putting up with us seemed the right thing to do.
As we walked to the back of the property, Christy yelled, “Skunk!” and pointed into the darkness. I saw nothing but believed her. “We better make sure we have a cat, not a skunk before we pick up the trap.” The skunk moved on and we continued placing open cans of food around.
The final trap had been left uncovered, and what appeared to be a pregnant black cat lay just beside the opening, as if acting as a bouncer for a hip bar. Amanda, using her silent cat-like grace, walked toward the cat in an arc to not startle her. These cats were used to being around people, but never handled by people. The cat stood, but rather than dive into the trap, confidently sauntered past it. Amanda picked up the folded towel that was on the trap and stealthily continued walking toward cat. When close enough, she threw the towel, it landed on the cat, but the cat was quick enough to scurry out and hurry away. Jen took a circuitous route to get in front of the cat to stop her from fleeing further back onto the property, and the cat double-backed. Steel beams lay piled in three stacks along the wall, and the cat took cover there, trying to elude us by maneuvering under and between them.
Christy and I were watching from afar; another human body in the mix wasn’t going to help. Then Christy let out her warning again: “Skunk!”
From behind the last beam I saw the distinct black and white tail, fur sticking straight out on all sides, ready to spray.
“I’m not just worried about us; I’m worried about the cat,” Christy said.
She needn’t be. With Amanda and Jen following along the beams, trying to corner her without intimidation, the cat dipped low and went under the beams to her safety: right next to the skunk.
“That is the smartest cat in this entire yard,” I surmised.
I imagine the skunk had struck a deal with the cat colony. Allow him to eat some of the copious amounts of free food and in exchange he’d provide protection from predators.
Amanda patiently waited it out. The skunk ambled away behind the beams after a few moments and Amanda followed behind the cat. Christy and I left to check on the cats already in the traps up front, so we missed the finale. A few minutes later, Jen and Amanda rejoined us, black maybe pregnant cat in trap.
“We got her!” Jen said triumphantly, smile on her face. It wasn’t her Moby Dick, but this win would have to suffice for the night.
Carolyn took the white kitten too young to be spayed back to her home to settle in for a few weeks of R&R, vet care, and for some growing up. She also took three cats who would spend the night at her place and go to FixNation the next morning for free spay and neuter.
Christy had the other eleven cats in the enclosed back of her truck. They would have a sleepover at Christy’s and then go to one of BAF’s low cost veterinarian partners in the morning for surgery.
Seven people, two hours, some traps and some bait, and fifteen cats would cease contributing to the feral cat population and be healthier for it. It seemed so simple.
But it’s not. This is only the first chapter of the story—or rather, the first letter: the T of TNR. Come back next week to continue following these cats and see how we #AlterTheFuture by making up for the negligence of the past.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.