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Wild Cats, Caught and Released

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Chicago is home to lots of untamed alley cats—tens of thousands of them, some people say half a million.

They're known as feral cats—lost or abandoned pets who have become scared of humans, or cats that were born on Chicago streets and never got used to people at all.

There's a grassroots push in Chicago to bring down the number of these cats by stopping them from breeding.

Chicago Public Radio's Catrin Einhorn has more.

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In the Southwest Side neighborhood of Pilsen, Spanish signs on lampposts ask: "Are you sick of seeing kittens in the street? You can help them!" A handsome tabby stares out from the page, as if imploring readers to attend the neighborhood meeting listed below.

It's the work of Alley Cat Allies, a Maryland-based group that's now targeting Chicago. On the morning of the meeting, two women carry animal traps into the Dvorak Park fieldhouse.

FELGATE: Hi. You want to learn about cats?
MAN:About what?
FELGATE: About how to help cats outside?

Pilara Felgate, an assertive 27 year old, is Alley Cat Allies Midwest coordinator. She's joined by 33-year old Jenny Schlueter, who works for the Tree House Animal Foundation.

SCHLUETER: We hope that people come here too that don't necessarily like the cats. Because I think people think, oh this is a meeting of crazy cat ladies who love cats, and this is a meeting for everybody, for everybody in the community to know what they can do.

When asked, Felgate says she has only two cats, but scolds me for wanting to know.

FELGATE: You're not supposed to ask that!
EINHORN: Is that a bad question?
FELGATE: Well for cat people, maybe, cause everyone's a little, usually doing some kind of rescue, sometimes some fostering, you never know, some people might not answer that question.
SCHLUETER: But there is no legal limit in Cook County, so I'm not afraid to tell you.

That's Jenny Schlueter.

SCHLUETER: I have six cats of my own at home, and then I take care of a colony in my backyard of about 18 cats.

Colonies are groups of cats that live in the same area. They breed prolifically, and they're especially prevalent in poorer neighborhoods on the city's South and West Sides. The idea of this meeting is to teach people how to trap them, take them in for free or low-cost neutering, care for them for a day or two while they recover, and then return them to the alley from whence they came.

SCHLUETER: Humans want to humanize everything, so they want to take the cat inside and give it a comfy bed and think that the cat is going to appreciate that. And when the cat doesn't they, a lot of times people don't understand.

These feral cats are too wild to be put up for adoption. When dropped off at Chicago's Animal Care and Control, they're usually euthanized -- although people with Alley Cat Allies object to that word. They say it's a euphemism, and prefer the term "killed."

The director of Chicago Animal Care and Control supports trapping, neutering, and releasing feral cats, although she says her agency itself can't practice it.

There are opponents: some conservation groups worried about birds and, ostensibly, some neighbors who just wish the cats were removed for good. But Felgate says sterilizing them ends a lot of their annoying behavior.

FELGATE: They stop yowling, they stop mating, stop spraying.

Unfortunately for Felgate, only a handful of people show up for her meeting, and almost all of them are already versed in trapping cats. But she explains the traps to a man who says his mother lives nearby and takes in feral kittens.

FELGATE: This is a True Catch 36, and it's a rather large trap, it's good for if you have a really big tom cat or something.

The rest of the group, feral cat connoisseurs, trade advice on things like how to deal with irate neighbors. Later that night, two of them go out trapping. They asked that we use only their first names--Yvette and Francisco--because the legality of neutering and releasing cats in Chicago is a bit unclear. Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley is working on an ordinance that would make sure it's ok. Yvette and Francisco say they've trapped and neutered 40-some cats since buying a home in Little Village just a year ago. Now they're feeding a colony of 8 or so.

YVETTE: For some people I think it's an inherent need to take care of these creatures that you feel probably can't take care of themselves, and so. I know that the cats can survive on their own, but to continue breeding and then kittens dying off for whatever reason, that just breaks my heart.

When Yvette and Francisco find cats that are friendly, they foster them while looking for permanent homes. Francisco gets to name them.

FRANCISCO: All of these cats are named after famous soccer players. So of course Diego, who's one of my favorites is named after Diego Armando Maradona, the famous Argentine ace. Nery's named after Nery Alberto Pumpido.

Francisco and Yvette trap at sun down. On this night, some neighbors seem to be finishing off leftovers from July 4th.

Ambi: Firecracker

But as soon as the fireworks quiet down, the cats come out. Yvette places two traps side by side, puts in some canned food, and drapes a blanket over the top. A skinny but elegant orange tabby with a white chest noses around the trap for a moment and then moves on.

FRANCISCO: Ok they got another cat coming over here, white one. Do you see?
YVETTE: Yeah, I see, I see! Keep coming this way.

This cat looks, shall we say, street smart. He eats the food in the entrance of the trap, but doesn't go in far enough to spring it shut. Instead he jumps onto an overflowing garbage container, takes out some maggoty chicken and starts munching away. A few minutes later a black and white cat comes trotting down the alley. At this point, Yvette and Francisco have been out more than hour.

YVETTE: There go go go!
FRANCISCO: Come on baby.
YVETTE: Yes! Yes. Keep going baby.
FRANCISCO: Yes, he's in.
YVETTE: Yes! Victory! It's in!

The cat is terrified.

Ambi: Rattling

That rattling is him body slamming himself against the walls of the trap.

YVETTE: Ok, let's see, make sure this isn't one that we've already done.

She can tell by looking at his left ear--if he's neutered, the tip will be clipped off.

YVETTE: No, his ears are fine, so that means we're going to fix him up.

The next morning Yvette took him in to get neutered. He spent one more night with the couple, recovering from the surgery. Then Francisco took him back to the alley and opened the cage. He jumped onto a cinderblock wall and then ran off.

I'm Catrin Einhorn, Chicago Public Radio.

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