The Rewards of an Otherwise Thankless Job

Well intentioned people argue that it is our humane responsibility to kill ferals kindly, rather than let them face the rigors and perils of an uncertain future. When I observe a recently caught feral cat, cringing in terror in the corner of its cage, I see a being not altogether unlike myself. If I were that feral–facing immediate, albeit painless death, or a chance at life–replete with all the perilous uncertaintiies it holds–I would choose life. And so for these ferals, I can choose no less. – Cole McFarland, former managing director Labette Humane Society

I care for nine feral cats.  I never wanted to care for any feral cats, but here I am, feeding nine feral cats.  It all started over a year ago when I was driving home from work. I was almost home when I noticed a cat hiding behind a garbage can. Working at an all cats animal shelter, I knew I couldn’t just let this cat stay where he was. When I got out of the car to help him, he ran across the alley, where he met up with a second cat. The two of them fled down the alley, stopping once to cast a terrified glance over their shoulders, making sure I was not following them. As much as I wanted to, I knew it would do no good, since they were clearly feral cats.


enjoying dinner

As I tell people every day at work, Trap-Neuter-Return is the best method to care for the cats.  Trapping and removing the cats only ends in the death of the cats and creates a vacuum effect–more cats move in and replace the ones who were removed whenever there is shelter and a food source (both of which are usually present). Since feral cats are wild animals they do quite poorly inside and are next to impossible to adopt, should they land in an animal shelter, which is why there is an ever increasing push for TNR as a humane solution to the problem of cat overpopulation.  The fewer feral, un-adoptable cats admitted to shelters, the fewer animals euthanized. So, while it is sad to return the cats to their colony outside, it is the best option for them.

For those of you who don’t know how TNR, which stands for Trap-Neuter-Return, works let me explain.  It involves catching feral cats in humane traps to get them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, ear tipped (removing the very tip of the left ear cartilage, similar to piercing ears). The people who know these things estimate there are between 500,000 and 800,000 feral cats just in Cook County, and upwards of 60 million in the rest of the United States.  That number flabbergasts most people; they can’t imagine so many cats living in the streets of cities like Chicago. Truth is, feral cats are everywhere, but are so good at hiding most people don’t know they have feral cats living near by until one gives birth, or gets stuck in a bad situation.

The first time I trapped I was terrified. Absolutely terrified.  I was scared Momma cat would run away and never come back, that I would do something wrong, but I was amazed at how easy the actual trapping is. If the cats cooperate the whole thing goes quite smoothly.  I wasn’t prepared for just how much the cat fought once she was trapped though.  Lordy did that girl make some noise. She did her damndest to dig her way out of that trap, poor thing, she managed to tear all her nails to the quick in the few hours I had her before surgery.  It broke my heart, and I hardly even knew this cat.

The emotional bond has to be one of the hardest, and most rewarding, parts of TNR and caring for a colony. It’s gotten even harder now that I have two colonies! When I started I told myself I wasn’t going to get attached to the cats, I was just going to feed them, trap them and let them get back with their lives. I never dreamed they would keep returning


Tuxy with some shiny eyes

after I trapped them, but I suppose I underestimated what the prospects of an easy meal will do. I also underestimated the power of sad kitty eyes! The cats and I have bonded to each other, they come running, tails held high in the air, at the sound of the door, excited for the food I bring.  Sadly not all of the cats who come round for food always return, the lack of closure is heart breaking, but also life saving. As much as I think I want to know if my Tuxy is alive and well in a home somewhere, I can’t even begin to let myself imagine him in some of the other horrible possibilities.

I am reminded of Tuxy every time I care for one of my more recent catches. Clom (I know, it’s a horrible name), is the friendliest of his litter.  I am allowed to pet and he now arches his back and rubs on everything around when he sees me. He is one of five kittens and is the bravest, followed closely by mom.  It was the same story with them.  Once again I told myself I was just going to trap and let go, since someone was clearly feeding them.  But the cute little kittens, well I just couldn’t bring myself to believe they were feral.  Now, when I am trying to cut back on my committments, these darling little manipulators just make themselves cuter by the day. I frequently have parades of four to five cats following me a block between their garage and my house, tails straight up in the air, one behind the other, bouncing down the street in hopes of some extra food.

Could you say no to those faces?

Could you say no to those faces?

Caring for two colonies of feral cats is all consuming–physical, emotionally, mentally and fincially. But it is also so enriching. The time I spend with my feral babies reminds me of the simple things in life. It allows me to clear my head and enjoy the moment, there really is something amazingly special about caring for these wild but sweet little lives.

As anyone who has cared for feral cats knows, that’s what unconditional love is all about. –Michael Mountain, co-founder, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary


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