You may notice them around your neighborhood or perhaps hiding in the bushes behind a shopping center. They run when they see you, darting into safe spaces. Even an offer of food is unlikely to draw them out while you’re around.
They live among us, but feral cats differ significantly from pet cats that curl up in your lap. They’re all part of the same domesticated species, but feral cats are not socialized. And without intervention, their colonies can grow, creating problems for neighborhoods and the environment.
A new Tehachapi organization, Fixin’ Feral Felines, is attempting to address the problem with a TNR program (Trap Neuter Return). Gina Christopher and Hilary Hamil hope to reduce the population of feral cats over time and provide education to help residents understand ways they may help.
The two have no idea how many feral cats may live in and around the Greater Tehachapi area.
In one neighborhood near downtown, an individual previously worked to trap, neuter and release about 30 cats, and Fixin’ Feral Felines has since managed another dozen or so. A couple of blocks away, another family has worked diligently for several years to do the same and reports no new kittens in that colony.
But with an intact male around, female cats will typically have three litters a year, Hamil said. And it takes continued effort to try to control the population. In feral colonies, she said, young females go into heat at around eight to nine weeks, perpetuating the problem. And because of inbreeding and poor diet, resultant offspring can have health problems.
When possible, she said, mother cats and their kittens are captured around the time the kittens are 6 weeks old. The mother is spayed and released. Foster homes are found for the kittens (who will be fixed as soon as they are old enough). With care and attention, the kittens have a chance at life as socialized pets with loving humans.
Christopher said the organization traps feral cats on private property with permission from owners to place traps. Cats are returned to the same location after neutering. In addition to rabies and distemper shots, they’ll be given a small tattoo and the tip of their right ear will be nicked. If needed, they are also treated for ear mites and respiratory infections. The ear tip means they’ve been fixed, so if they happen to end up in a trap they will be released.
A major challenge for Tehachapi, Hamil noted, is limited capacity and distance from low-cost veterinary services. Volunteers must use special cat traps, and only so many will fit in transport vehicles. Cats are captured in the evening, transported to Bakersfield for the veterinary procedure the next morning and then must be picked up early the following morning and returned to Tehachapi for release. That means two round trips for every four to six cats.
Like Kern County Animal Services, Fixin’ Feral Felines works with the organization Critters Without Litters in Bakersfield. According to its website, that nonprofit organization provides high-volume, high-quality spa/neuter services.
On a recent evening in Tehachapi, volunteers gathered around a location where a feral mother cat with kittens was known to be staying. Neighbors and others, apparently trying to help, had thrown chicken nuggets and other human food toward the entrance to the cats’ hiding place.
“People want to help,” Hamil said as she gathered the food scraps. “But human food isn’t good for cats.”
Cat traps were put in place with cat food inside and volunteers backed away. It took a while, but eventually, the mother went for the bait. Once she was safely in the trap, volunteer Sean Jarvis was able to catch the kittens. From this location, Fixin Feral Felines recovered five kittens that were placed in foster care for rehabilitation and three kitten corpses.
Christopher has worked with and helped start animal rescue operations in Tehachapi for years. She said she is now focusing on TNR because she realized that fostering and adoptions are not going to stop the problem.
As Fixin’ Feral Felines decides to focus on a specific cat colony in a neighborhood, they also try to interact with the people who feed the ferals, local businesses and other concerned people to educate them about the process, Hamil said.
It is important, they stress, that the feral cats are not fed within 24 to 36 hours before attempted trapping, as they are hungrier and enticed by wet cat food, they are more likely to enter the traps, she noted.
The traps operate on a trigger plate mechanism. Once the cat enters a trap, the plate should be triggered, dropping a door over the end, trapping the cat inside. A cover is immediately placed over the trap, with a handle allowing the cage to be carried safely. Without the covering in place, the cat will panic and is likely to injure itself, Hamil added.
The volunteers’ intention in educating the human colony supporters is to humanely return the cats to readjust without overpopulation and disease, thereby assisting with rodent eradication, etc., Hamil said.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.