The Secret Lives of DC's Feral Cats

The herd of strays behind your building could find a better quality of life with your help

The daily life of a stray cat is exhausting and often dangerous. They spend hours hunting mice, or dumpster diving, or -- if they're lucky -- seeking scraps (or kibble) from reliable human neighbors. And for those who aren't spayed or neutered, life is even worse, said Niki Cochran of the Washington Humane Society (WHS).

Their lives are solely focused on survival, which includes a rate of competition that can turn deadly when it comes to males vying for females, or for females who don't have the capacity for a healthy pregnancy. Most kittens born to strays never even make it to adulthood, Cochran said.

But the humble alley cats stand a chance for life-changing social climbing in D.C. if they end up in a simple three-step program: trap, neuter, release (TNR).

TNR is a humane way to transform the lives of strays with proper vaccinations, reducing the number of kittens born in these communities and, in some cases, making pets out of ferals, Cochran said.

Residents Get in the Mix to Help 'Community Cats'

With the help of a fleet of volunteers and homeowners, the Cat Neighborhood Partnership Program (CatNiPP) works to "humanely reduce the population of community cats" with spaying and neutering and by socializing kittens, the program's website says.

D.C. resident Bill Condell became a community cat lover about a decade ago when he moved into a new home in Adams Morgan with his wife, Sue, and noticed strays were out in full force in the area. He discovered the Humane Society's TNR program and got traps for the neighborhood through a local coordinator.

"Once you catch the cats, there's really not a whole lot that you yourself need to do other than drop them off in the morning [at the spay and neuter clinic] and pick them up at closing time to bring them back home," Condell said. "As long as you can get transportation to get to the dropoff point, it's really not that difficult."

Calls from concerned community members are CatNiPP's primary resource for discovering areas in which they should distribute traps.

"We rely on active community engagement," Cochran said.

Getting Strays Proper Medical Care: How It's Done

Residents can get humane cat traps from WHS and set them up with a bit of food inside as bait. CatNiPP employees and volunteers also work in the communities to lure cats to traps with "trails of stinky tuna," Cochran said.

There's also a bit of recon work: Employees talk to those in the area to gather information on the cats' lives to determine the best times for trapping -- sometimes as late as 1 a.m. -- and whether any of them could become housepets, Cochran said.

For example, a cat that was left behind by a family moving out of the neighborhood most likely has not been a stray for long and is well-adjusted to indoor life, making it a good candidate for adoption, Cochran said.

"We look at all the factors when we're picking up the cats," she said.

Once trapped, the cat are brought to a cost-free spay and neuter clinic. They also get standard vaccinations such rabies shots, as well as an "ear-tip" procedure, in which a vet clips a small portion of a cat's ear to signal to community members that it has received its shots.

The cats spend about 18 to 20 hours in recovery after their procedures. Then most are returned to their neighborhoods to carry on with their usual lives, although some become candidates for adoption.

Improving the Lives of Strays

Condell said he and his wife have have trapped, neutered and released about eight cats, and have become particularly attached to a couple over the years.

"There is one [cat] in particular who practically lives in our backyard," he said. "She has been there for over five years and we take care of her as much as we can."

The goal is to improve the cats' quality of life and keep them healthy in communities that want them, she said. And since shelters typically have an influx of cats, the program also reduces the strain on finances and resources, Cochran said.

"These are cats that have identified caregivers," Cochran said of the cats that go through TNR. "People want them to be in the community."

A three-year grant from PetSmart Charities has helped CatNiPP reach its annual goal of trap-neuter-releasing about 2,500 cats every year, Cochran said. The program uses the grant to focus on three particular neighborhoods in Southeast D.C., all of which have seen about a 50-percent reduction in shelter intake for cats since they're having fewer litters, she said.

While the program has been hugely successful in those target areas, Condell said he hopes CatNiPP is working to reach out to others in the city, too. He started researching community cat programs because he noticed the large population of alley cats near his home -- but he fears others may not do the same.

"I imagine a huge percentage of my neighbors don't pay attention that there might be cats, and if they do, it never dawns on them that this is something they can do something about," Condell said.

Some Strays Will Find New Purposes

Cochran said CatNiPP will begin a community outreach campaign in the fall for an upcoming program called Working Cats.

"These are cats that 'work' for businesses, such as horse stables or breweries that need mousers," she said. "The types of cats that qualify for the program are either feral outdoor cats that are living in a dangerous neighborhood or indoor cats with behavior issues. Without this program, these cats would have very limited options as they do not qualify for adoption."

Businesses that choose to take in formerly feral cats are "truly saving a life," Cochran added. She also hopes CatNiPP can continue to transform the lives of alley cats living under the care of community members.

"My hope would be for every cat that's friendly and social to find an indoor home," she said.

To learn more about CatNiPP and TNR and find out how you can help your community's cats, visit the Washington Humane Society's website.

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