TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release): A Visit to a Feral Cat Colony in South San Francisco

Posted on 10/17/2011
By:  Deanna Graham
Nine Lives Board Member

It was a warm morning in South San Francisco, and Cookie, a volunteer at The Homeless Cat Network, was directing my daughter Becky and I to the feral colony she helps manage with six other volunteers.  Their colony is located in South San Francisco and has 23 feline residents.

When we pulled up and parked on a dirt road, we followed Cookie to the colony.  I saw a lot of over-grown grass, weeds, tree's, piles of wood, and several eyes watching us carefully.  Cookie called out to the greeter, a handsome white and grey cat named Thurston.  Cookie told us Thurston was the colony's alpha male.  Recently, another male named Tail showed up and tried to take over the role as alpha.  Tail is one of two cats that have not been trapped and neutered yet.  Wendy, their super trapper tries each week, but Tail is a very smart cat.  She has been trying for months and will continue.  The other twenty one cats are spayed/neutered, and live and get along so well in the colony.  Cookie told us that Thurston is now back in charge again and has regained the alpha male slot.  Tail is still a member too.

There are seven feeders that feed seven days a week.  Volunteers know each of the 23 cats and each one has a special name, Bootsie has white paws, Curly has a tail that curls, Buttons is as cute as a button and Tail has a big bushy tail.  She also photographs them and knows instantly when a new member joins the colony.  When that happens, she and the other six feeders communicate, via email, to discuss the new cat who has joined the colony.  Wendy is called to begin the trapping process.  I asked Cookie, "How do new cats join the colony?" and she told me, "People dump them, some cats wander by and smell cats and food, while others just happen upon the colony and decide to stay."  She told me a calico female came to the colony two weeks ago.  She noticed how thin and scared she was.  The colony let her eat with them, drink water and rest.  She was gone the next day when a volunteer came to feed.  I asked if some cats come and are not welcomed by the colony and she said, "Definitely."  A few males have shown up and if the colony doesn't want them there they chase them away.  That doesn't happen often.  It's a very friendly group of felines, but if a stranger comes in and causes trouble, they're gone.

Depending on the newest addition to the colony, Wendy will bring either an adult trap or a kitten trap.  She will put the trap in an area to attract the cat with a bit of food inside.  At this point, they do not put food out for the other cats, hoping the newest member will be hungrier than the others and venture inside the trap to eat.  She will go back to her car and wait.  Sometimes members of the colony are hungry and hurry in to eat and get trapped, that cat is released.  If the new cat does not go near the trap for hours,Wendy calls it a day and puts the trap in her car and finishes feeding all the cats in the colony.  Cookie told us this process could take several days or months, but the one thing they never do is leave the trap unattended.  A trapped cat, left inside the trap for hours or days, is unacceptable to TNR volunteers.  Once the cat is trapped, it is very frightened, so a cover is placed over the crate and the volunteer quietly reassures the cat with soothing words that they will be okay.

Cookie and Becky start washing out water and food dishes and pick up and straighten bedding.  I can see the cats beginning to gather, but a good distance away, waiting patiently for the plates to fill up with food.  Thurston and Buttons seem to trust us not to run over and try to pet them, so they stick around watching carefully what Cookie and Becky are doing.  Cookie fills up several bowls with dry cat food and tops it off with a can of wet food.  Becky fills the water bowls and I can see more and more little faces gathering in the background.

After the food and water bowls are put down and the cats are carefully coming up to eat, I asked Cookie if she can pet any of the cats.  Cookie explained that if one of the cats are really friendly and can easily be picked up and cuddled, it becomes too dangerous for them to remain in the colony, they need to be taken from the colony and fostered, if possible.  She tells us there are people out there who would do unimaginable things to cats, so their very survival depends on how fast they can run from danger.  Sadly, Cookie and Rose, the overseer of the colony, have seen some very sad times when the colony cats have died and they have found them.  They always show the cats as much respect when they've passed as they do when they were alive.

Cookie also shared the times they found mama cat with her kittens hiding under a pile of wood or in overgrown bushes.  Volunteers make sure mom gets her own bowl of food and water so she can nurse her little ones.  Once the kittens are old enough, around 8 - 10 weeks, and eating on their own, they will trap them first, sometimes they can just pick them up and put them in a carrier.  Mom is trapped last.  They're taken to Dr. Monica Rudiger to be spay/neutered.  After surgery, they are picked up and taken to a home to recuperate.  The females are kept for three days, but males may be released earlier, as they are sometimes so upset and frightened.  They are returned back to their colony and will head for shelter to rest.  The kittens are never returned to the colony.  They are put in foster care where they will be cared for and adopted into their forever homes.

The picture of the three kittens in the trap were spay/neutered by Dr. Rudiger and then fostered.  Happily, they've all found their forever homes.  After three days, mom is returned to the colony.

As we drove away, I realized how much I had learned about feral cats and how these incredible volunteers care for them.  The SSF colony was a very positive place where the cats can live together in harmony for the rest of their lives.  I asked her, "What's the secret of maintaining a feral cat colony?" and she told me, "Team work and communication."

Thank you, Cookie, for sharing all the hard work you guys do each day.

A few of the cats enjoy their dinner, the others will join them once Cookie, Becky and I are gone.  Bon Appetit, guys!

Cookie is a volunteer with the Homeless Cat Network, and each time a trapped cat or kitten is brought into the Nine Lives Feline Well-Clinic, Homeless Cat Network pays Dr. Monica Rudiger's expenses for spay/neuter, vaccinations and chipping, plus HCN reimburses the feral cat volunteers for dry food.  Both Nine Lives Foundation and the Homeless Cat Network depend on donations to allow them to do this life saving work.  Please feel free to visit their websites, donations are always appreciated.


Cookie said...

Hi Deanna and Becky, Thank you so much for coming to visit our SSF colony. It was a pleasure to share our cats and what we do to help them. We all just love our cats and look forward to our feedings. They bring us joy and make us feel good, knowing no more kittens. We have a great group of loving caring volunteers there. We thank Nine Lives and HCN for making these things happen. Purrs,Cookie

tk said...

Cookie is a jewel, isn't she? As are all of HCN's volunteers, who are out there every day, even in the worst conditions (particularly in the worst conditions), and often at their own expense, to assure the welfare of the cats they care for. Thank you for visiting!

- Tracey Kobayashi
HCN 2011 Board Member

Anonymous said...

I am so touched by this story. I can't understand why people would hurt innocent cats in the feral colony. They deserve peace after being abandoned by cruel owner.