When I first heard 13 years ago that people in Pittsburgh were going to trap stray cats, neuter them and then take them back to where they came from, I thought everyone involved must be crazy. But people from the Homeless Cat Management Team patiently educated me about why this would be a good thing for cats, for people who love cats and arguably for the people who hate cats.
Since that time the management team has spayed and neutered 13,500 feral cats -- otherwise known as strays or "wild" cats. Sadly, some are former pets that have been dumped. The surgeries prevented the births of many thousands of unwanted kittens .
The team is an all-volunteer effort, working in Allegheny and eight other counties. Nearly 30 veterinarians donate their surgical services or offer low-cost operations.
Now after 13 years, the team finally has a place to call its own. On July 22 it will celebrate its new clinic with an open house from noon to 3 p.m. at 207 Allegheny St. in Tarentum. The team will mark the occasion by spaying and neutering feral cats. In the past the team rented space from Animal Friends, Animal Rescue League and Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.
Clinics are held approximately every three weeks. It costs $1,200 to spay and neuter 75-100 cats. Each cat also gets a rabies vaccination, a penicillin shot, pain killers, and treatment for fleas, ticks and ear mites. While the cats are under anesthesia, they are "ear-tipped" -- a little notch is cut out of their ear so they won't be trapped or operated on again.
Appointments are required and space is limited. Call 412-321-4060 to register. Don't bring cats to the clinic unless you have received a phone call confirming your appointment.
Cats that enter this program are not left to fend for themselves. People called "colony keepers" feed the cats and look out for their welfare.
"The people who take care of these cats are an amazing cross-section of society," said Nancy Trun, vice president of the board of the Homeless Cat Management Team. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and is a faculty member at Duquesne University.
Volunteers include Michelle Miller of Shaler, who is an "ace tracker," according to Ms. Trun. Although she works full time as an accountant for a Pittsburgh law firm, Ms. Miller finds time to help feral cats, serve on the management team board and run a Facebook page, Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement.
The Facebook page, started in March, has 150 members and is steadily growing. People post, asking for help in trapping stray cats and kittens, and members step up to help.
In one of her recent forays, Ms. Miller trapped nine cats in the Hill District where a woman she calls "a rogue trapper" was trapping cats and killing them.
Ms. Miller took one of the cats home with her, placed two in established feral colonies, sent three to farms and placed three in foster homes.
In case you're wondering, Ms. Miller has just two cats in her home, and Ms. Trun has five rescued cats.
Not everyone is happy at the prospect of six, eight, 10 or more cats freely roaming through their neighborhood. Team members explain that the cats are cared for, get food and medical care and won't be producing more offspring. When trap-neuter-return works, there will be no more cats in the colony, after a period of time.
By the way, neutered cats are less likely to engage in the loud fighting and urine spraying that drive people crazy.
Despite the team's efforts every rescue and shelter is overflowing with cats and kittens, especially during "kitten season" from April through October, when cats do most of their breeding. Female cats can produce two or three litters each year.
The next free clinics, for ferals only, will be July 29, Sept. 23, Oct. 21 and Nov. 18.
The "fast track" clinics, where the fee is $30 per feral, will be Aug. 19, Sept. 9, Oct. 6, Nov. 4 and Dec. 8.
There are special deals for "rescue" cats that are the offspring of ferals -- $50 to spay females, $35 to neuter males, $8 for rabies vaccine and $8 for FrontlinePlus.
How do you get wild cats to these clinics? Very carefully.
The Homeless Cat volunteers have many tips. The process starts with humane traps baited with food that cats can't resist, such as stinky sardines. Cats must arrive at clinics in those traps for safety reasons.
Another local nonprofit, Animal Care & Welfare, has put up a $50,000 matching grant to keep this program going. To donate go to www.homelesscat.org or mail to HCMT, Box 100203, Pittsburgh 15233-0203.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3064.