It’s twilight in Antioch, California, a town about 40 miles east of San Francisco, and I’m riding shotgun with Ray Zeeb. He’s calling out the window of his white SUV to a cluster of cats running alongside his car.
“Look at ’em running, see ’em on the street right there? They’re ready to eat; they’re hungry,” he says. The animals are following him to a parking lot off one of Antioch’s main roads. As Zeeb gets out of his car, my camera picks up dozens of eyes in the bushes around us. Cats are everywhere, darting around, rolling in the dirt, tussling with each other.
Zeeb is a rugged 72-year-old man with white hair and a white mustache. He’s kind of a tough guy, but he has a soft spot for cats.
“Come on, Isabella! Hi, Louisa! She’s about 11 years old; she was born in that palm tree, five kittens,” he says while mixing two cans of Fancy Feast cat food into a bowl already filled to the brim with kibble.
The cats are drawn to the food, but they keep a safe distance. These cats are feral. They either were abandoned or were born wild and never had much human contact.
Zeeb’s been feeding Antioch’s stray and feral cats almost every night for the past 12 years.
“Sometimes, we’ve fed as many as 170,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve fed 170 tonight, but we went through a darn lot of food there. You know?”
While Zeeb’s passion for cats might seem peculiar, he’s hardly alone. He is a foot soldier in a national movement of more than 250,000 activists that care for stray and feral cats. I’ve been following him around with a camera off and on over the past 18 months as part of a project on the feral cat movement. I’ve come to realize that while there are dozens of domestic animals that have gone feral in this country, none of them inspire the kind of fervor that cats do. Their numbers alone are impressive. Cats are America’s most popular pet, with more cats in our homes today than dogs – nearly 80 million, according to a recent survey.
And for every pet cat curling up in our laps, there’s another stray or feral cat roaming our landscape. No one knows exactly how many there are. Estimates range widely, from 30 million to more than 100 million.
These outdoor cats also hunt a lot, according to a paper by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute published in 2013. According to the research, cats kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year.
Wildlife advocates, such as Grant Sizemore of the American Bird Conservancy, are alarmed.
“This is an emerging conservation crisis,” he says. “There were zero domestic cats in North America in 1492, which means that we now have well over 100 million invasive predators roaming the landscape, killing wildlife. This is something where people need to be paying attention.”
Conservationists like Sizemore want the cats removed, and because many of them are not going to be adoptable, it means the vast majority would be killed. That’s already happening in most animal shelters around the country. More than 1 million cats are euthanized in shelters every year.
That has made some animal welfare groups so mad that they’ve organized. Several months into my reporting, I attended a national conference for feral cat advocates just outside Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit that has received more than $7 million in annual support, whose mission is to advocate for the rights of these ferals. Becky Robinson, the group’s founder and president, helped pioneer a population control method called trap-neuter-return, or TNR. Instead of killing them, it’s about sterilizing cats and letting them live out their lives outdoors. She argues that rounding up these cats and killing them is not only inhumane, but also ineffective. She says it is expensive to euthanize cats, and there just aren’t enough shelters to take in all the strays.
“Trap-neuter-return for feral cats works,” Robinson says. “What we mean when we say ‘it works’ is that it stops the breeding of a cat, so there’s no more litters of kittens.”
The method assumes that eventually, the cats will die of old age and that slowly, the population will decline.
Robinson gave a passionate speech about the virtues of trap-neuter-return to a ballroom filled with representatives from more than 300 cat groups from around the country. Conference attendees wore feral cat-themed T-shirts and buttons, perused booths where vendors displayed the latest in cat-trapping technology and sat in on workshops about best practices for managing cat colonies. At night, former Animal Planet host John Fulton brought down the house with his “kitty ditties,” a collection of songs about cats.
I was surprised by how much money the feral cat cause seemed to be attracting, so I wanted to find out who was funding the cat groups. My colleague Matt Smith helped, going through IRS filings and finding that just a handful of foundations account for much of the support. Prominent among them is PetSmart Charities, started by the founders of the pet products retail giant. It has given tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of feral cat groups over the years.
At PetSmart headquarters in Phoenix, I met with Bryan Kortis, who administers TNR grants for the charity. Kortis doesn’t just give lots of money to cat groups; he also teaches workshops on how cat advocates can lobby local governments to embrace TNR. He seemed bullish about the future.
“I see the future of trap-neuter-return as growing more and more pervasive, as becoming more and more normal and as being the dominant animal control approach to free-roaming cats,” he told me.
Over the past 25 years, more than 400 cities and counties have embraced TNR, according to Alley Cat Allies, and more continue to sign on. But I still didn’t know the answer to my most basic question: Does it really work?
I turned to academic studies. Quite a few scientists have studied TNR programs over the years, but their findings are mixed – some programs succeed, while others do not.
Because the TNR movement has been successful at changing animal control ordinances at the city and county levels, I thought it was important to try to figure out whether the method was showing results at that localized scale. That quest took me to Patrick Foley, a population biologist who teaches at California State University in Sacramento.
Foley is the only academic who has analyzed two of the largest, longest-running TNR programs in the country – in San Diego County and Alachua County, Florida – to see if they’ve successfully reduced their county’s stray and feral cat populations.
“Cat populations were not significantly going down. That’s probably the single take-home lesson here,” Foley tells me in his living room as we go through his papers. “Our calculations show that you’d need to have about 75 percent of the female cats be sterilized in order to make this work. That’s maybe about 10 times as many, roughly, roughly, as present efforts are making.”
While it might be possible to control small numbers of cats using trap-neuter-return, there isn’t any independent research that proves it reduces large populations. The cats reproduce too quickly.
Meanwhile, there’s ample scientific proof that cats are hunters, even when they are well fed. I learned that a University of Georgia research team was tracking how much feral cats hunt and whether spaying, neutering and feeding them every day curbs that desire. They were using a novel method: putting cameras on cats. I traveled to Georgia to report on their research.
The videos provide an unmistakably cat’s-eye view of the world, complete with whiskers drooping down into the frame. They show the cats pouncing on insects, reptiles and amphibians, small mammals and, occasionally, birds.
The scientists agreed to let me use some of that amazing footage in my piece.
I had gathered a lot of information, and quite a lot of video, but I still was trying to figure out how best to tell the story. Then I heard that about an hour from our office in Emeryville, California, the city of Antioch was going to announce a proposal to ban the feeding of stray and feral cats, in response to complaints that the cat population had gotten out of control.
I immediately contacted city officials, a local TNR group called the Homeless Animals Response Program, and members of the local Audubon Society. That’s how I met Ray Zeeb, Susan Smith, Karen Kops and Paul Schorr, who all would go on to be important voices in the story.
The conflict in Antioch centered on the feeding of these cats, a key aspect of trap-neuter-return. Unless you feed cats consistently, you can’t entice them to go into a trap. And for cat advocates such as Zeeb and Smith, feeding stray and feral cats is more than a tool – it’s a moral obligation. But in Antioch, as elsewhere, the food attracts other predators: raccoons, skunks and possums, even foxes. And this dense concentration of animals jockeying for food has the potential to trigger aggressive behavior and spread disease.
News of the proposed feeding ban in the small town of Antioch spread all the way to Alley Cat Allies’ headquarters near Washington.
“We were glad to send letters to the City Council,” says Robinson, the group’s president, “and educate them why this knee-jerk reaction of proposing a feeding ban wasn’t going to work.”
Alley Cat Allies also alerted its network of activists to show up at Antioch’s next City Council meeting to fight the ordinance. On the night of the feeding ban vote in April 2014, the chamber was packed with cat lovers who were not shy about berating council members. Even schoolchildren stepped up to the microphone to protest the ordinance.
After a heated debate that lasted well past midnight, the City Council voted for the ban, and it looked like the story would end there. But Zeeb and Smith were defiant. They continued to feed cats under the cover of darkness and dared the city to cite them.
“We’ll feed them like ninjas,” Smith vowed.
This went on for a year and a half before the city finally gave in. The city created an exception for the Homeless Animals Response Program, allowing the group to feed cats in limited spots in downtown Antioch as part of an official trap-neuter-return program.
This time around, there were no crowds at the City Council meeting and no heated debate. The cat advocates and council members looked exhausted and were ready to settle the matter quickly and move on. Antioch’s bird advocates didn’t show up.
Zeeb and Smith are happy with the outcome, but now it’s up to them to prove that they can keep the feral cat population under control using trap-neuter-return. Just before the city made its final decision, I spoke with Smith, and even she seemed worried about what seemed to be a kitten population explosion.
“I’ve done a lot of TNR, and it seems like everywhere I go, I’m finding a litter of kittens,” she says, sighing. “It feels very discouraging, very overwhelming, considering all the hours and all the personal time I’ve spent out here doing this. You think you would notice a difference or a decline in the population. Some of my family members don’t understand what motivates me to do this, but you can’t walk away from it, once you’re in it; it’s hard to even consider walking away from it.”
This story was edited by Amanda Pike and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.
Adithya Sambamurthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.