When I moved to the Haight in 1989, our backyard was overrun with feral cats. Neighbors complained about the fighting and breeding, but no one did anything. I turned to a friend who worked as a volunteer trapper, who helped me catch the cats, take them to be spayed and neutered, and release them back in the yard where I cared for them.
One of the mothers had a 4-month old kitten and was already pregnant again. She wasn’t truly feral but likely abandoned, so she warmed to my touch and had her litter in my basement. Once weaned, the babies were fixed and rehomed (I kept one, Steven, my favorite cat of all time). I spayed mom and she became a happy housecat, but her older kitten was too wild and had to be fixed and released with the rest of the feral colony.
In 1993, the city-run shelter, Animal Care and Control (ACC), along with the privately funded San Francisco SPCA, partnered with volunteers on an aggressive Trap-Neuter-Return program (TNR). Like my small colony, mothers and kittens were brought in until the kittens were ready for adoption, and the mothers were spayed and returned to colonies tended by volunteers. Between 1993 and 2002, 12,000 feral cats were fixed and released. By last year, the number had dwindled to 2,900.
Despite years of success, the SPCA has suddenly changed course, telling volunteers and residents who find mothers and kittens to leave them in the wild longer because bringing the moms inside for a couple extra weeks is stressful. In an email, SPCA president Dr. Jennifer Scarlett said the decision was based on “feedback from staff, discussion with ACC, and consultations with other leading cat welfare organizations.” What’s missing from the decision is feedback from volunteers — the ones who sit outside at 2 a.m. with a trap and a can of tuna trying to lure a mother and her kittens to safety.
When I spoke to ACC executive director Virginia Donahue, she said the shelter didn’t have much to do with TNR (“the SPCA has always taken the lead on that”), and she backed off the alarming 45 percent mortality rate for feral kittens cited in a recent San Francisco Chronicle article (“the decision to not bring the mom and kittens in was not considered in that data. We looked at all young kittens …”), so I asked Donahue what data they were using. She pointed to research done by Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the U.C. Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. I reminded her that when Hurley was an animal control officer at the Santa Cruz shelter in the 1990s if she thought a cat was feral she took it in the back and killed it (something Hurley admitted in an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel). “She said she thought that was the right thing to do, and it’s not,” Donahue responded.
Questionable science aside, the SPCA’s own data doesn’t back up the new plan: According to 2014–17 statistics from their “Mamas on the Street” feral cat and nursery program, out of 85 moms and 301 kittens, five of the moms were friendly and were adopted (the rest were TNR), and the kittens went to foster or adopt. Notably, there is no mention of stress on the moms.
Volunteer trappers know the longer a family is left in the wild, the harder they are to trap. Mothers move kittens frequently, have to leave them alone to forage for food, and all are vulnerable to disease, predators, getting hit by cars, and, of course, the kittens growing old enough to breed themselves. I know firsthand that the level of stress a mother cat experiences in a foster home is nothing compared to what she deals with in the wild.
MY FERAL CATS
Two years ago, I fostered a “feral” mom and her kitten in a spare bedroom. Initially she hissed at me and hid the kitten all over the room, but soon she allowed me to hold him while she ate or groomed herself beside me. Mom went to a wonderful home and I adopted her kitten, Harley Quinn (now a cuddly goofball).
As for the 4-month-old kitten born wild in the Haight, the only time I was able to touch her was the night she crawled into bed with me after 16 years, now old and weak and seeking comfort. As I held her close, she purred, and I began to cry. “I wish we could have done this sooner,” I whispered, and she died in my arms.
Next month: From the frontlines: Feral cat volunteers speak out
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