MACON, Ga. (AP) — Every time a volunteer clanked a cat trap trying to get it into the right position, Honey’s white-and-tan, fur-covered ears twitched.
Honey got that name not from her owners but from a couple who’d been feeding her and who, Wednesday night, arranged for the traps they hoped she’d stroll into so she could be fixed.
Such feral cats — some lost or dumped from homes and some the offspring of those cats — can be surprisingly numerous. Cheryl Coffman, a volunteer who hoped Wednesday to have caught and fixed her 200th feral cat in less than two years, said that for every cat noticed on a sidewalk, there might be 10 more hiding in the bushes.
Coffman was aided by another volunteer, Lisa Walcott-Moreley, who has been looking after her own feral cat colony at a gas station near downtown Macon. Walcott-Moreley has seen many cats come in during the four-and-a half years she’s been feeding them — and she’s never truly sure when they’re gone.
"I haven’t seen Pretty Baby in two years," she said as she ticked off names. "I did see Junior at another colony. Big Orange is still alive."
The lives of feral cats aren’t easy, said Coffman, who founded Feral Feline Fixers less than two years ago. Feral Feline Fixers is a program of The Rescue Ranch of McRae and works entirely off donations and volunteer labor.
If the cats aren’t spayed and neutered, Coffman said, the colonies can grow as big as 100 cats, where they’ll have an even worse life. Her efforts — formally known as trap-neuter-return, or TNR — are designed to keep colonies intact without leaving a void that trapping and killing the cats would create. Statistics suggest the average feral cat lives about four years — and that’s four rough, rough years, Coffman said.
"I just didn’t want to see the suffering. You can prevent so much suffering just by (fixing) one," she said.
The actual work of fixing a cat isn’t easy. On a recent night, Coffman and Walcott-Moreley spent two hours setting, baiting, re-baiting and re-re-baiting eight traps. The two women and the eight traps all come packed into Coffman’s Honda Fit, which is equipped with a "I Love My Cat" vanity front license plate.
The duo came Wednesday to the River North subdivision, near the Jones-Monroe county border. There they found a nice house with a wooded backyard and at least five cats lounging around. They decided to set the traps in the back of the house, where the cats are usually fed.
Coffman told the homeowners that they should keep anonymous and hide the exact location of their house, because people will dump cats at a place if they learn someone is taking care of cats there. The homeowners spoke to The Telegraph on the condition that their names and location wouldn’t be used.
The man of the house said the feral cat colony started with two stray cats wandering by. More came, and their commitment grew.
"We’ve had several we’ve nurse-maided from birth. Once you name them, it’s all over," he quipped. He and his wife had agreed to pay for spaying and neutering through Coffman’s program — and thus get bumped up a years-wlong waiting list for help — and buy a 20-pound bag of cat food almost every week.
There are emotional costs as well to looking after the colony.
"We’ve had to be careful. They like to go under the hood. You’ve never had your heart drop like when you start the car and a cat starts howling," he said.
And the names tend to come in batches, he said, to make them easier to remember: "The newest ones are Curly, Larry and Moe." A fourth cat vanished before it could be named Shemp or Curly Joe.
Coffman asked the homeowners not to feed the cats for a day, so they’d be more likely to seek the food in the traps. Coffman and Walcott-Moreley started off with tuna. After about an hour of trying, they’d succeeded in catching a single cat, Pearl, who was the only cat that couldn’t be fixed. Pearl had just had kittens, and no one knew where the kittens were, so she couldn’t be separated long enough to be neutered and returned.
Coffman and Walcott-Moreley switched to the colony’s preferred dry food, then switched to pungent sardines.
By 8 p.m., they’d trapped just their second cat of the night and loaded seven empty cages into Coffman’s diminutive Honda. Then they discovered the second cat was, in fact, also Pearl. They released her onto a side yard and she quickly disappeared into the dark night.
Coffman said she’d never had such a tough night, but she also said cats aren’t generally noted for their cooperation. A 65-year-old retired nurse with back problems, she vowed to bring the traps back another night and try again.
And try she has. She’s fixed as many as 23 cats in a single colony, and she said her records show she’s done the trap-neuter-return on 26 colonies so far. One small section of Macon, maybe a few blocks on a side, has had 50 or 60 cats since fixed by Coffman, who says she has more to go.
Funding is the major limitation. She asks that any donations be made payable to The Rescue Ranch, with a memo noting it’s for Feral Feline Fixers, and sent to her at 260 Greentree Parkway, Macon, GA 31220. Coffman donates her time and gasoline for trips and all sorts of supplies, but the actual fixing requires a veterinarian. Coffman wants to do more, and she hopes more informal caretakers will step up.
"If you feed it, you spay or neuter it," Coffman said. "I hate saying that, but it’s just realistic."
Sarah Tenon, the new director of Macon-Bibb County Animal Welfare, said Coffman’s technique of trap-neuter-return has shown benefits elsewhere. Tenon said she hopes to soon talk to Coffman about whether some of the cat colonies can be fixed and taken away from neighborhoods where they’re not wanted to places where they are. Maybe someone has 10 acres and a pond, she said.
"I think down the line we want to look at and find those communities that would welcome that TNR program, and I think that we can start building one colony at a time," Tenon said. "The good thing is, they won’t re-multiply."
Of the colonies that have caretakers — rather than annoyed neighbors angry that a cat scratched their cars and dug in their children’s sandboxes — there’s little doubt that the cats and the caretakers bond.
Walcott-Moreley said she stopped at a gas station one fateful time.
"I just noticed a hungry-looking cat when I was buying cigarettes and gasoline," she recalled. She put some canned chicken out on a piece of litter. Now the cats recognize her. "They see my car and start meowing furiously if I don’t get out of my car fast enough," she said.
Despite the tribulations, she remains a cat person through and through.
"It’s kind of the reason I’m here," Walcott-Moreley said, "the reason I’m me, is to put a smile in a cat’s day."
Information from: The Macon Telegraph.