Hunting for feral cats
Faithful cat lovers protect stray felines
By Julie Shaw | spark
There's no flying fur. No lunging of bare hands, grabbing a frightened feral cat. No fighting of claws and nails.
Trapping feral cats is tamer than some people imagine. Unless you're dumb, of course. Or vicious.
Feral cats abound in Delaware, like other states. Nonprofit groups like Forgotten Cats, Faithful Friends and Friends for Responsible Pet Care seek to keep them alive, but make sure they have their shots and don't continue populating, through a process called trap/neuter/release (or TNR).
To get a sense of what is involved in trapping cats, we went out with Felicia Cross, founder of Forgotten Cats. We learned that TNR involves lots of waiting. And we found the feral cats to be healthy-looking, not scraggly and afraid of us, not on the attack.
Felicia puts 9Lives wet cat food mixed with water on paper towels and places two each in three wire traps. There's an opening at one end, with food there, to lure in a cat. The other paper towel with food is placed at the far end. As the cat goes for it, he'll step on a pedal, which will close the trap door.
Right now, there's no sign of the mother cat or her three kittens, the ones a neighbor of this Wilmington Manor home called about. They're probably hiding under the shed from the 94-degree sun.
Felicia will return to check the traps. Or the neighbor or homeowner will call when the cats are trapped.
It's a humane trap, one that won't hurt a cat. At three feet, it's large enough for the cat to turn around. If he wets one spot, he can rest in another part of the cage that's dry.
Forgotten Cats has trapped and sterilized more than 3,000 cats in less than three years, says Felicia. The group is known in the local animal rescue community as perhaps the most active in trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats. It was incorporated as a nonprofit in February 2004.
After the cats are trapped, the homeowner or other caretaker is asked to put a sheet over the trap to lessen the frightened cats' anxiousness. Forgotten Cats will then pick up the cats to bring them to its Claymont warehouse, where they are neutered or spayed and given shots. They pay for a veterinarian.
Then the cats are released back into their colonies. It's common for individual caretakers to provide these cats food, water and shelter.
At least, now sterilized, they won't continue having kittens, which would make the feral cat population grow.
Checking for kittens
Felicia and I drive from Wilmington Manor to a restaurant on U.S. 13 in nearby New Castle. We park in the back, by woods.
Two winters ago, Forgotten Cats had trapped, neutered and released 34 cats here. Felicia is very hesitant about giving out exact locations of colonies.
If people know, they may dump unwanted cats here, aggravating the problem. Or some people may even hurt the cats, intentionally or not.
When we get out of the car, we see one short-haired brown tabby sitting on the grass at the edge of the woods.
"Looking at him, you wouldn't know he's feral," she says. "He could be tame. But he will still keep his distance."
She guesses the cat's a male because "they have huge heads."
We don't approach that cat so as not to frighten him away.
Closer to us, a long-haired brown tabby, who looks female to Felicia, appears. Felicia puts 9Lives cat food on a piece of black plastic she finds.
The cat approaches, then eagerly laps up the food.
The cat doesn't look starving. She looks well-groomed, with beautiful brown-and-black fur. Felicia throws the empty food can into the restaurant's Dumpster.
The male cat disappears into the woods. We walk in and see Styrofoam containers, which someone's been using to give the cats food and water. We see three rubber bins with hay inside.
Felicia checks for kittens. She doesn't see any. It's a good thing. It's a sign that sterilizing the 34 cats worked.
"The whole reason these cats exist is because of irresponsibility," she says. People dump cats because they no longer want to take care of them. Don't give kittens away for free, she adds. People may first like them because they're cute, but then get tired and dump them.
Can they all be saved?
The number of homeless cats - some feral, some tame - is staggering. It's impossible to get an actual count since many will hide if humans are around.
Rescue workers like Felicia believe they can get the feral cat population under control. They say cats don't need to be killed and blame the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for using euthanasia as one option in dealing with unwanted animals.
When asked about their euthanasia figures, the Delaware SPCA and the Kent County SPCA both stress that some animals are euthanized at the owner's request. Or these animals are sick or old.
At the Delaware SPCA's New Castle County shelter, 3,175 cats were humanely euthanized from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004, says John Caldwell, executive director. Of that figure, 813 were euthanized at the owner's request. And the remaining 2,362 included cats that were sick, injured or unadoptable, he says.
In that same time period, 805 cats were adopted from the shelter. (The Delaware SPCA also has a shelter in Georgetown.)
The SPCA also euthanizes healthy animals if they aren't adopted because of lack of space and resources. The Delaware SPCA will euthanize animals if no one adopts them in a week or two.
"We handle 1,000 animals a month," says John. "If a cat doesn't get out, and you have new animals coming in, unfortunately that cat had its opportunity. It's the sheer numbers that have an impact. I don't know why that's so hard for people to understand. There are only so many cages."
More than a full-time job
We continue our drive to the back of a business warehouse off of U.S. 13. Forgotten Cats trapped, neutered and released five cats here a month ago.
Felicia gave up a job overseeing pharmaceutical plant design projects so she could spend 60 to 70 hours a week volunteering for Forgotten Cats. She's also a stay-at-home mom.
We go on residential streets in New Castle and Wilmington Manor, where Felicia points out more homeless cat sites - ones just blocks away.
In the back yard of one house, we see one cat with its left ear clipped at its tip. This is a sign that the cat has already been TNRed.
Even though Felicia's already super busy with Forgotten Cats' spay/neuter clinic, trapping cats and following up, she says she'd like to do more.
"I wish we could get funds to clean up the city of Wilmington," she says. "I would go block by block."
To help a cat...
DO: If you want to feed it, do so inconspicuously, especially if you see the cat in a public place. One major complaint of business owners/managers is the mess left behind. They may not mind the cats themselves since they help with rodent problems.
DO: Contact a group like Forgotten Cats or Faithful Friends if you're not sure what to do with a homeless cat.
DO: Notice whether a cat's left ear has been clipped. This is a sign that an animal group has already trapped, neutered and released the cat.
DO: When a feral cat's in a trap, cover the trap with a sheet. This makes the cat less anxious. Make sure it has food and fresh water. Contact an animal organization to give the cat its shots and then to have it adopted or released.
DON'T: Make a lot of noise when a feral cat's in a trap. Even saying in a soft voice, "'Oh, don't get scared,' is actually frightening the heck out of it," says Felicia Cross.
DON'T: Reach out to any animal you're not familiar with.