DESERT HOT SPRINGS — On a late spring evening in Desert Hot Springs, Jackie Martin and her husband, Bruce, are waiting for feral cats.
Many people loathe feral cat colonies, or as Jackie calls them, “community cats,” but the Martins don’t see them as pests.
The couple runs the nonprofit organization Feral Alley Cats & Friends SPCA, Inc.
Each night for the past few weeks, they’ve parked on Second Street, where they’ve successfully trapped, spayed or neutered and returned nearly 40 wild cats. They leave food for the familiar felines and wait with hopes of finding new cats they can spay or neuter.
“The other night I was here, 38 showed up, plus a new guy. We’ve done 40 on this street so far,” Bruce Martin said as he kept a close eye on cats scampering across dark driveways and under bushes. He’s out seven nights a week, caring for cats, and the occasional stray dog he keeps a stash of food for.
Feral Alley Cats & Friends has been identifying non-domesticated cat colonies in the Coachella Valley for more than a year now. So far, they’ve been able to spay and neuter more than 100 feral cats, with the help of a grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the next few months, their count will be up to 235 altered cats.
The organization’s mission is to reduce overpopulated feral cat colonies through a Trap, Neuter, Return program, and to teach people how to care for the cats, not kill them.
“If you call Animal Control, chances are, they won’t intervene, or they’ll be picked up and immediately euthanized,” Jackie Martin said last week.
Most animal shelters consider feral cats unadoptable.
Melanie Crider, animal care and control manager at the Yucca Valley Animal Shelter, said the town’s animal shelter won’t accept feral cats brought in by the public.
Animal control officers will respond to homeowners’ complaints of nuisance cats by setting humane traps. Once trapped and transported to the shelter, Crider said feral cats have a slim chance at survival.
“They’re out of their territory and they’re stressed. We usually cover the carriers for the first few hours,” Crider said. She explained that cats that have adapted to living in the wild rarely survive in a home or make it to the adoption phase.
“They’ve had no socialization with humans at all,” Crider noted. “(Non-feral) cats are hard enough to adopt. With cats, people want something they can love and hold and keep in their house.”
In 2011, the local animal shelter took in 977 cats. Of those 977, 170 were returned to their owners or adopted to new homes.
Altering cats saves tax dollars
The ASPCA estimates tens of millions of feral cats live in the United States, albeit with much shorter lifespans than their domestic counterparts.
“Even in DHS, the estimate is 1,022 feral cats,” Jackie Martin said. “I know hundreds of them that I’ve seen and no one wants to trap them in the city.”
Feral Alley Cats & Friends’ Trap, Neuter, Return program is endorsed by ASPCA as the only humane and effective method to control feral cats. Several other nonprofit groups are using the same methods to reduce feral-cat populations throughout the country, reducing the number of euthanizations and saving local governments money.
“We can save tax dollars. I’m trying to get people to think about how much money can be saved. We need this in every city,” Martin said.
She’s met with her area’s police chief, city manager and members of the Desert Hot Springs City Council individually, but none has expressed interest in funding her program yet.
The Martins aim to educate people about how to coexist with cat communities.
“They have a right to live,” Jackie Martin said. She noted that feral cats can be highly territorial and will remain in an area regardless of whether they are fed by humans. Relocating an entire colony is nearly impossible and can be life-threatening to the cats.
She and her husband have seen cats destroyed by angry neighbors. Crider has too, noting an incident where a homeowner was feeding feral cats, to the chagrin of neighbors.
“It turned into something very horrific. One of the neighbors got so angry that he took a firearm to the cats,” Crider said.
She has observed very few feral cat colonies in Yucca Valley, but said often times people complain about the cats spreading disease to their domesticated pets.
Feral Alley Cats & Friends often partners with the Animal Action League, which operates a mobile spay and neuter clinic in Joshua Tree.
The Martins and organization volunteers hope to secure donations from the Hi-Desert, to be able to serve this area. Jackie Martin said with local donations, she plans to have AAL perform low-cost spaying and neutering.
Already, they’ve been able to use grant money to reimburse people who trap cats on their own, to have them altered before releasing them back to the wild.
Jackie Martin is ambitious about the program and its benefits, but acknowledges there are more cats than she and Bruce can keep up with.
“I’ve got my work cut out for me,” she said. “They have a right to live and it’s not their fault … we have to learn to live with them.”