Ferals – May 2020

In December 2016 when I became aware of feral cats on my school’s campus, I started trapping them to have them spayed or neutered through our local SPCA’s TNR program. (TNR stands for Trap-Neuter-Return.) Since then I’ve been feeding them every day, and I also monitor the feeding station via a trail cam that runs 24/7.

Some kitties who used to be “regulars” at the feeding station only stop by occasionally now. Others visit every couple of weeks, and one kitty is waiting for me every single morning. <3

“Cali-1,” a beautiful little calico girl, is my daily visitor. Over the last few months she’s finally come to trust me enough to rub around my legs each morning and let me touch her (sometimes).

The daily walk to the feeding station

As usual, I saw Cali-1 on Monday, May 11th, but I didn’t see her the next morning. This was a little concerning…. It was even more concerning when I didn’t see her the next morning, either.

Since everyone knows I’m the “crazy cat lady” at school, I sent an email with her picture to my co-workers who live on campus, asking them to keep an eye out for her. Aside from the very real risk of predators (I’ve seen bears, foxes, and a coyote on the trail cam, and there are hawks nesting on campus that are now busy feeding their babies), I was actually more worried that she’d gotten locked inside of a building or shed somewhere. No doubt you’ve heard the expression, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Sadly, this has played out in the worst possible ways a couple of times over the last few years….

On Thursday, May 14th, one of our maintenance guys, Robby, texted me to let me know he’d just seen a cat in a basement boiler room. This room is kept locked unless he’s in there. He followed up a few minutes later saying he’d seen the cat again, and that it had run back into “the tunnels” behind the boiler room.

While I’d heard of the tunnels that run under some of the roads at the school, I’d never been in them before. Knowing that the kitty–most likely Cali–was going futher away from the only exit was incredibly worrisome, so Wayne and I grabbed some flashlights and other supplies and went over to see if we could find her. I didn’t think she would be brave enough to come to me if I called to her, but I needed to do something!

Aside from the fairly open boiler room, there are a number of small, subterranean rooms in this area (dubbed the “catacombs”), and beyond the rooms are tunnels. Various pipes go through holes in the walls in the tunnels, and there’s space around some of the pipes just large enough for a scared cat to squeeze through. The cat Robby had seen earlier could be anywhere….

When we went down one tunnel, there was a room (of sorts) behind a 3/4 wall on the left.

When Wayne looked over the wall, he saw Cali-1, frozen in place! He called for me to come look, but by the time I got there, she had vanished….

It was pitch black, but I put some tuna on a plate at the far end of the tunnel, then we went back outside to come up with a plan.

Robby needed to leave, and I knew I’d have the lock the door when I left, so I was determined to wait there as long as necessary. I really, really hoped that Cali would find the food, come through the tunnel, and then run out through the open door.

I called local veterinarian offices to ask if they had humane traps available (no), but the SPCA in town did have traps available for people to borrow. I set up a chair outside of the building (with a view of the door), and quietly waited there while Wayne drove into town to pick up the trap. He also went by the house to bring over one of our camping lanterns and some of our solar garden lights.

When he got back, we ventured into the tunnels again. The plate of tuna was untouched. We left one of our flashlights near the back part of the tunnel, and set the solar lights and lantern towards the other end. Putting out more plates of tuna, I hoped to lure Cali into the main part of the basement. Then, in a room just off the boiler room, I used more tuna to set the trap. And we continued to wait….

We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and by early evening we were both really hungry. I still didn’t want to leave, so Wayne called a local Mexican restaurant to order dinner and went to pick it up. It was a strange place and strange circumstances for a “picnic,” but it was so very good!

I kept hoping that Cali-1 would just run out of the open door–or that I’d hear the trap being tripped–but finally around 7:30 that evening we locked the door and came home….

The next morning at 7:30 am, Robby texted me to let me know that Cali-1 was in the trap! He’d come in early to check on her, and since he had to leave again, he’d put the trap outside of the boiler room.

With incredible relief, we quickly got ready and drove over to the school. Looking a little worse for wear, Cali-1 was waiting for us.

May 15, 2020
May 15, 2020

Instead of releasing her right away, I sat down beside the trap to assess her condition. She had some scrapes and swelling on her face (from hitting against the trap) but otherwise she seemed to be okay.

I had such mixed emotions at this point. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of someday bringing this kitty home and trying to socialize her, but my house isn’t currently well cat-proofed, and certainly not cat-proofed for a feral…..

Also, knowing that she’d been locked in a building for days–and then locked in a trap for hours–I was concerned that confining her in a cage–initially–in my house would be yet another traumatic situation for her. And so with tears in my eyes, I carried the trap around to the feeding area to let her go….

When I opened the trap, she immediately went to the feeding station and started to eat. And then she drank and drank a lot of water. It was SUCH a relief to know that she was safely out of the building, as this story could have had a much sadder ending….

But now that Cali-1 was safe–and since I had a trap on hand–I decided to try to trap “Max,” a large, beautiful male feral.

Max, short for “Maximum-Sized Cat”

Max had first shown up during the winter of 2019, and I’d planned to trap him over this year’s Spring Break. However, since our break started in mid-March–right as quarantine measures were just starting due to Covid-19–I knew I’d have to postpone.

Unlike Cali-1, Max is just a semi-regular visitor to the feeding station. Some days he’s there in the morning, and some days I don’t see him at all, not even on the trail cam. But again–since I had a trap–I called the SPCA. When I learned that they had resumed their TNR program (despite the pandemic), trapping Max became the next mission…..

Before we put this plan in motion, I was delighted to see Cali-1 again each morning. At first, she (understandably) kept her distance from me. The swelling on her face gradually went down, but I could still see the cuts and dings on her pretty little face.

For a few days after freeing her from the “catacombs,” we brought her canned food or tuna, in addition to a bowl of dry food and fresh water. Wayne was concerned that she might have hurt her mouth or teeth while beating herself against the trap, and I figured the extra nutrition would be good for her.

On Monday, May 18th after Cali-1 had eaten her fill, I removed all food from the feeding station. I mixed up the remaining canned food and tuna, and set the trap for Max. And then I waited….

One hour, two hours, three hours–no Max. I texted Robby to let him know I was going to go home for a while, but asked him to please contact me if he saw a cat–ANY cat–in the trap. (I didn’t THINK that Cali-1 would be hungry enough to risk going into a trap again so soon, but who knows how cats think….)

I went back over to school after about an hour, and lo and behold, Max was in the trap!

I’ve trapped a lot of cats since I started this in December 2016, but Max was the first feral who totally flipped out on me when I picked up the trap to take it to my car. He snarled, and screamed, hissed and flung himself from one end of the trap to the other, and I was afraid I was going to drop him! But once I got him in the car and covered the trap with a blanket, he quieted down.

I stopped by the house to pick up Wayne, then we drove into town to deliver this big, scared kitty to the SPCA. Due to my school obligations, I asked if I could pay to “board” him for a couple of days. In addition to conflicts with my work schedule, I hoped this would give him a chance to heal in a safe environment after his surgery.

And so on Wednesday, May 20th, Wayne and I went back into town to pick up the Max-cat. Like Cali-1, he also had injuries to his handsome face from flinging himself against the bars of the trap….

When we got back to school, I asked Wayne to take some pictures as I released Max. Wisely, I kept the blanket over the trap when I got him out of the car.

One more time I lugged the heavy trap–and heavy cat (13 pounds)–to an area near the feeding station. Cali-1 was watching from a safe distance as I removed the blanket.

Well, there are no pictures of the actual release: As soon as I opened the trap door, Max shot out at warp speed, flew past the feeding station, and disappeared over the hill! For a brief second Cali-1 watched in stunned surprise, then SHE took off and disappeared over the hill, too! 🙂

The next day, Thursday, May 21st, I didn’t see Max, but Mama-Cat, my “original” feral, showed up! I’d trapped this kitty in December 2016 when I saw her feeding her 4 kittens by dragging food out of a dumpster. It’s always good to see her. 🙂

She was there the next morning, too:

Cali-1 and Mama-Cat walking with me to the feeding station.

When Mama-Cat shows up (usually every few weeks), she is the undisputed “alpha.” She is one vocal and opinionated girl!

The next day, Saturday, May 23rd, I didn’t see Mama-Cat or Max, but Cali-1 greeted me and she was finally, finally willing to come over to me again. <3

When we got home, I literally breathed a sign of relief when I saw Max on the trail cam memory card. He’d shown up late on the previous day. 🙂

On Sunday morning, May 24th, I saw Max–“in person”–while I was putting food in the feeding station. Most TNR programs “tip” a feral cat’s ear to make it easier to recognize that they’ve been spayed or neutered and vaccinated, and Max’s ear seemed to be healing up well. He still has some cuts on his face, but those will heal with time….

Cali-1 was lucky; if I hadn’t noticed that she was missing–and if Robby hadn’t spotted her when he went in the boiler room–we might not have found her. Max is lucky, too; after his hormones settle down, he will be less inclined to fight, and he will no longer be capable of adding to the feral cat population.

So counting Max, I’ve trapped a total of 12 cats and kittens over the last 3+ years. The kittens were all young enough to be socialized and adopted through the SPCA, and I’ve continued to see some of the adults that I trapped and returned to the campus.

Orange Girl: She used to be a “regular,” but now I rarely see her.
Orange Girl – February 1, 2020
Black Kitty: She’s frequently seen on the south side of the central campus.
Ah, if I could only brush this girl….
Cali-2: She’s seen occasionally on the west side of the central campus
White & Orange Male – TNR, early March 2017. Last seen late March 2017.
“Phantom Floof” – Untrapped. Last seen March 2019.
Possibly the black cat–found dead–in one of the buildings….

ALL cats who spend time outside face certain risks–and ferals are at even greater risk. I know that I can’t fully protect them. As an animal lover, that’s a hard truth to accept….

I can, however, provide food, water, and shelter, and with the local SPCA generously offering to spay/neuter and vaccinate ferals, at least these cats have some protection against diseases, and they are no longer producing kittens.

I am so thankful for Wayne’s ongoing help and support with all of my crazy animal and wildlife adventures (long stories, there…), and for Robby’s help in rescuing Cali-1. As I’ve said since I started caring for these cats, you do the best you can. It’s certainly easier when you have kind people in your life who are willing to help. <3

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