Cat catch fever
On the prowl with the dedicated animal rescue volunteers trying to curb the valley’s feral-cat problem through traps, surgery — and loving care
Two large, white vans prowl the streets of the Carefree Mobile Home Park in North Las Vegas. They’re stocked with dozens of small cages, newspapers, blankets and big bags of cat food. The community’s manager says, “I figure there are probably more than 300 stray cats in here.” If she’s right, that means Carefree has more feral cats than it does mobile homes. There are 230 trailers, each fitted with skirting to cover the area below its chassis, but the cats break through those and take shelter underneath. The colonies make dirt yards into massive litter boxes. The cats run around in alleys between homes and sleep on rooftops. It’s a problem not only for the community’s appearance, but for the health of the cats.
“A lot of these kittens,” the manager says, “their eyes are just solid pus. I mean sick. A couple of the adults are so thin they can barely walk.”
A self-described animal lover, it was her idea to call C5, the Community Cat Coalition of Clark County, to get the population under control. C5 is the largest trap-neuter-return (TNR) group in Southern Nevada. Since 2010, the volunteer organization has visited hundreds of neighborhoods throughout the valley in a labor-intensive, often thankless effort to stop the breeding cycle of thousands of feral cats. By arranging for strays to be vaccinated and sterilized, C5 improves their lives while also reducing the number of cats euthanized in Clark County’s biggest shelter, the Animal Foundation.
One of the vans stops outside a home marked as a colony hotspot. The driver, a computer engineer named Joe Hamrock, steps out to prepare a few traps. Each cage is set with a bed of newspaper and a small bowl of food inside. When a cat crawls into the side of the cage where the meal awaits, a door closes behind it.
A fat orange tabby, a small black kitten and a springy wirehair with black, orange and white patches are among the first ones caught. On top of each cage, Hamrock writes the nearest address so that after visiting a vet, C5 can release each cat exactly where it was trapped. Sometimes, though, a volunteer will foster and eventually find a home for a kitten if it’s young enough to adapt to domestic life.
I expect them to meow in complaint in the back of the van. But ferals learn as kittens to not make unnecessary noise, lest they alert the predatory ear of a coyote, dog, hawk or, God forbid, human. The only sound you’ll hear them make is a threatening hiss.
As we drive to the next site, Hamrock shares observations gleaned from 16 years volunteering in the TNR community. “The problem is getting a little better,” he says, “but it will never go away completely. There will never be a day where everybody can just wake up and not have anything to do. There are always going to be strays around and kittens homeless.”
Meow house: The cats' cages are cleaned before they're loaded in to a van for spaying and neutering. Photography by Bill Hughes
Hamrock spends about 15 hours a week trapping cats. Like the mobile home park manager, he identifies as an animal lover. Yet trapping doesn’t offer many opportunities to bond with the ferals. (On the contrary, they are more likely to scratch than purr.) So what is the appeal?
“I just figured there’s a problem out there and I want to help fix it,” Hamrock says. “If you see a stray dog, somebody will pick it up. If you see an injured rabbit running across the street, somebody will get it. But if you see stray cats, people mostly just ignore them, or some people will try to hurt them. And if you leave them alone, two cats turns into, like, 40 next year, and it’s a population explosion.”
After four days trapping at the mobile home park and three other sites, C5 has 199 cats in its care. The organization’s founders, Keith and Debbie Williams, play host at their North Las Vegas home. The cages are “staged” on foldout tables in the garage. During this phase, volunteers who specialize in cleaning replace each animal’s newspaper bedding and refill its food and water bowls twice a day.
Occasionally, a feral will nervously pace back and forth in its cage. It will shred newspaper bedding, hiss and lunge at the cage walls.
One of 20 or so strays living on the Williams’ block, Lucky is a sociable gray cat who likes to laze around during C5’s staging phase. Often when a trapped feral is angry or scared, Lucky sits on its cage or paws at its walls, which somehow calms the animal down.
Cody, Bella, Buttons, Taylor, Rambo, Chester and Tigger — to name just a few of the other cats in the local colony — tend to be absent during this phase. Lucky is therefore the group’s unofficial mascot. His presence in the Williams’ garage also hearkens back to C5’s origin story.
Not long after Keith and Debbie moved to the rural estate property in North Las Vegas, a family of black cats appeared on their land. “Charismatic megafauna,” Keith says. “Those are the animals that people will see and immediately want to feed.” He and his wife became caretakers for the colony, a role that exposed them to the population’s unsustainable growth. They started finding dead kittens on their land, so they looked into TNR.
Ferals have a 90 percent mortality rate as kittens. If unvaccinated, they are prone to respiratory infection, especially in dusty Southern Nevada. Cars, humans, and the competition for food are obvious threats as well.
Debbie and Keith began doing trap-neuter-return projects in their colony and in those of other caretakers in 2007. The practice was developed in Great Britain in the 1950s and has since been replicated throughout Europe and North America. Two of the largest organizations, Alley Cat Allies in Washington, D.C., and Neighborhood Cats in New York, had all the information on their robust websites that Debbie and Keith needed.
They joined an underground TNR movement and successfully lobbied the county to revise its pet ordinance to legitimize their work. Then, in 2009, Keith and Debbie hosted a meeting with seven other colony caretakers to launch the Community Cat Coalition of Clark County. Now C5 has 60 members and averages 30 projects a month. It functions on $100,000 a year, all of which goes toward operational costs since no one in the organization is paid.
C5 has brought more than 24,000 feral cats to see veterinarians since 2010. “Our vision from the beginning was to be a well-organized, industrial-scale trap-neuter-return organization,” says Keith. Having spent his career as a data analyst for the Defense Department, he brings a passion for stats and spreadsheets to the work, and according to his numbers, Clark County is home to about 200,000 feral cats with a 20 percent yearly turnover.
Las Vegas euthanized about 18,500 healthy feral cats in 2009. Since then, the number has declined to an average of fewer than 7,000 per year — a 60 percent drop in the time since C5 launched.
They transport the 199 strays to Heaven Can Wait Animal Society in just two trips with the large white vans. It’s Saturday night, on the eve of a regularly scheduled spay-and-neutering marathon, in which a dozen or more veterinarians and vet techs will convene with about 50 animal lovers to sterilize a small village’s worth of cats. The event takes place once a month, and the participants all donate their time, even the vets. In addition to C5, the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society, Heaven Can Wait and several independent trappers bring in strays. By surgery time, 283 cats line the walls in cages on steel racks.
Photography by Bill Hughes.
“Controlled chaos” is how Keith describes what happens next. Through the side of its cage, each cat receives an anesthetic shot. Once out cold, the animal is given a tag corresponding to its cage and scanned for a microchip to confirm that it is indeed a stray. (Occasionally, a housecat will end up in a trap, which makes for an angry owner when the pet is returned.) Males and females go to separate areas where they’re prepped for surgery. All the veterinarians operate at once on a half-dozen tables. Males are neutered in less than one minute, while females can require up to 15 minutes to be spayed. Vaccine shots are given. Then, to be sure trappers know not to bring the cat back in, the tip of its ear is nipped.
This will likely be the only time human hands touch these animals, so they are also groomed; volunteers brush their coats, clean the crust out of their eyes and wash their ears. If necessary, the cats are treated for fleas.
Monitoring the animals post-surgery is one of the most important jobs. After the cats are returned to their cages, volunteers keep an eye on sutures to make sure any bleeding stops. A massage might be necessary, too, in order to wake some of them up.
People often label it a “chop shop” when they hear the project described in these clinical terms. A gritty backstreet garage where stolen vehicles are stripped for parts in the middle of the night is hardly an apt metaphor, though. While it operates with industrial efficiency, there is no lapse in sensitivity for the cats. Each participant is volunteering because they love animals, after all. Even on Super Bowl Sunday, these people show up to help feral cats live healthy, natural lives.
“Everyone treats those cats like they’re handling precious glass,” says Harold Vosko, founder of the Heaven Can Wait Animal Society. “So many people think, ‘Oh my god, they do so many. It’s a butcher shop.’ And actually it’s the exact opposite.”
“The vets have high-quality standards,” Debbie Williams says, “and even the volunteers treat each cat with respect and dignity when they take it through the process. Nobody is coming in just to fool around. They’re coming in to be serious and take care of these cats.”
In the end, there is only one goal, Vosko says: “All the animals live.”
The cats require a couple days’ recovery time back at the Williams house before they can return to the urban wild. So for two more days, twice a day, volunteers go through 199 cages, one by one, replacing the newspaper bedding, refilling water and food bowls, and sweet-talking antsy ferals that can’t wait to warn their friends about these traps.
I mean that literally: Debbie has seen recently spayed or neutered cats block trap entrances by swatting away ferals that try to crawl inside. For that reason, C5 tries to bring in full colonies in one effort. Of the 199 in their care now, 104 are from Carefree Mobile Home Park. And while it’s impossible to know what percentage that is of the overall population, since free-roaming cats only live an average of three to five years, it’s safe to assume the population will decline significantly in half a decade or less.
Many of Carefree’s residents want the cat population to drop now. Some — including the manager — wish C5 didn’t intend to bring the cats back. But when faced with the reality that the only other option would be to euthanize the animals, they appreciate the “release” part of TNR.
The project ends with the cats scampering out of cages. They take shelter in alleys and under homes while large white vans crawl away from the scene.
TNR is not without its critics, including people who complain that feral cats should be exterminated because they might scratch children or pass on rabies — even though the treatment includes a rabies vaccine and, by nature, ferals avoid human beings. Bird watchers dislike TNR because cats hunt their favored animal. They, too, prefer euthanasia, despite the fact that TNR also contains the feral population size.
Heaven Can Wait’s founder, Vosko, credits C5 with achieving what he sees as the practice’s great impact: dramatically lowering the cat euthanasia rate in Clark County. “They’re the ones who bring in the most cats,” he says. In 2015, while it was seeking a new contract, the Animal Foundation largely took credit for decreasing the number of cats euthanized in its shelter. Yet, according to Vosko and others in the TNR community, more than 95 percent of cat sterilizations are done by volunteer groups.
The Animal Foundation does minimal TNR work. It boasts instead of a shelter, neuter and return practice (releasing feral cats that are brought to the shelter back where they came from after sterilization), which indeed reduces kill numbers but has little impact on reproductive dynamics in the community, since it does not involve actively trapping cats. The shelter hopes to ramp up a pilot TNR program in the coming months (currently only one part-time employee does the work). A representative also acknowledged that “saving cats in Southern Nevada is a community effort.”
Vosko agrees. “People like Keith and the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society and all these great people who volunteer their time are the ones that have made the biggest difference,” says Vosko. “In order to solve the pet overpopulation problem, you’ve got to spay and neuter animals that otherwise would never get treated. These people do that all year. They’re up all night fostering kittens. It’s just amazing. That is really the best thing I’ve gotten out of Heaven Can Wait after doing this for 16 years.”