Managing Boston's Stray Cats: Part 1

By Ibby Caputo

May 14, 2012

BOSTON — If you’ve ever been woken up by the sound of a screeching cat, then you probably have a stray in your neighborhood. Male cats who aren’t neutered often get into fights, and females who aren’t spayed can birth litter after litter of kittens who then struggle to survive. But some dedicated cat lovers are trying to change the fate of homeless cats.

Caroline Woodard is known in the animal rescue world as a “trapper.” She and fellow-trapper Jamie Wilkins are on a mission to help reduce the population of unwanted cats in Boston, in a humane way. They are part of a national movement called trap-neuter-release, or TNR. Volunteers catch the felines and bring them to a clinic, where the cats are spayed/neutered, vaccinated and then returned to the streets.
On a recent cat roundup, I watched as Woodard set out a can of salmon as bait and then hid with Wilkins behind a nearby car on Howe Street. The bait worked quickly: The cats seemed to be coming out of nowhere. A gray one had a collar, but Wilkins said that didn’t mean it has a home.
“Sometimes we find full-grown cats with collars that were put on them when they were kittens, and they’ve been abandoned since, and they’ve grown out of the collar,” said Wilkins. “It’s strangling them.”

cat trap
The volunteers rig up a special trap for strays. (Ibby Caputo/WGBH)

Wilkins and Woodard use a trap that you’d imagine in a Road Runner cartoon: a cage that’s propped up with a wooden stick connected to a 30-foot-long piece of string. When they pull the string, the stick is released and the cage crashes down, trapping a bewildered cat. The cage is covered with a white sheet to keep the cat calm.
To trap a cat
To trap a cat, you need skill, patience … and a strategy. So each cage was labeled with the exact location of where the cat was caught so volunteers know where to return the cat after surgery. “You never want to release a cat to where it's not from,” said Woodard. 

That’s because even a stray cat lives somewhere on the streets. Returning it to a strange place would be giving the cat a death sentence.
“They just basically are so disoriented when you release them anyway, and they know they are home by their smell, and when they’ve lost that, they can cross streets, and the cars drive fast,” Woodard explained.
Cat heroes
Woodard and Wilkins belong to an unofficial and somewhat underground community of cat heroes — individuals dedicated to easing the suffering of homeless cats. As trappers, they’re on the front line against feline overpopulation. Like detectives, these volunteers rely on tips from informants, who lead them to the cat colonies.
Informants like Milta. Milta is what’s known as a “feeder,” someone who feeds cat colonies so they don’t starve. She didn’t want her last name to be used because she said her boyfriend didn’t know the extent of her dedication to cats. (Though it would be hard not to notice: Milta said she had eight rescued cats living in her home.)

Every day she drives across Dorchester and puts out food for the strays. The trunk of her SUV looked like she made a trip to Costco — it was packed with cat food. If anyone knows where there are feral cats, it’s Milta.
“He’s a male, and he’ll get those girls pregnant over there,” Milta said about a black cat she recently encountered, urging the trappers to find him on Howard Street.
On the trail
With Milta leading the way, we entered a "Bourne Supremacy" movie: a four-car caravan cat chase with two trappers, one feeder and one reporter. I followed Milta to the parking lot of a liquor store, crept with Woodard between houses and waited with the cars running while Milta and Woodard caged some friendly strays on the sidewalk.
Then Milta led us to another backyard littered with tires, wooden planks and broken glass. She put down a plate of food and five, maybe six cats surrounded her immediately. They knew her: She is the hand that feeds them.
But Milta’s generosity is not always appreciated. Earlier in the morning, she was confronted by a woman walking her dog, who complained that the cat food attracted raccoons.
“She’s just not feeding the cat,” said the woman. “It’s like a little zoo right here.”
Wilkins said this sort of interaction is not unusual. "Sometimes we encounter people in the neighborhood who don’t want us feeding them,” she said. “We have to feed them to be able to trap them because we have to know when they are going to show up, and they just don’t want us doing any of that, because they think it's encouraging the population. But we’re really trying to stop them from reproducing and suffering.”
By late morning, four scared, silent cats sat in metal cages in Woodard’s car. Next she would take them to a friend's house, who would keep them overnight in the garage. And then early the next morning, they’d go to a clinic to be fixed. 

Coming Tuesday: WGBH News goes to the next stage of the cat roundup: the clinic.

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