"They're not wildlife, and they're not pets, so they don't get the advantages of either group." So says Sally Mackler of the feral cats who roam the byways and backyards of our nation's neighborhoods. She is one of the founding members of a unique group called the Feral Cat Coalition (FCC), which has been operating in San Diego, California, since 1992. And "operating" is the word, for the FCC's mission is the mass sterilization and humane release of feral cats using completely donated funds and services.
The FCC began when a group of cat lovers, including Sally Mackler, was searching for strategies to address the feral cat problem in San Diego. They found Dr. Rochelle Brinton, a veterinarian who had been doing free sterilizations of ferals on her own, but was looking for a way to make a bigger dent in those populations. The group that formed from this serendipitous beginning was able to use Dr. Brinton's contacts in the veterinary community and combine that with the efforts of the many concerned cat lovers in volunteer circles. Their first clinic, in November 1992, which sterilized 22 feral cats, featured Dr. Brinton as sole veterinarian. More than two years later, each monthly clinic spays or neuters 60 to 150 cats, utilizing the services of four to six doctors and 20 to 30 lay volunteers per clinic. Over 4,000 feral cats have currently been sterilized.
The cats themselves come from all over San Diego County. The FCC's services are free, but there are some rules by which it abides. Cats treated must be unowned; for spay/neuter of pet animals, the FCC refers people to one of many local organizations that work to help pet owners with low-cost care. Cats captured and brought to an FCC clinic must be released into their original territory. This is partly to keep other ferals from claiming the vacated area and partly for humane reasons – releasing animals in unfamiliar territory dramatically reduces their chances of survival. Each feral cat must have a caretaker to look after its well-being once it is sterilized. In addition to being responsible for the cat during its post-surgery recuperation, the caretaker is there to ensure the cat has food and shelter after it is released. Finally, the FCC does not assist in the extermination of cats; if refers those requests elsewhere.
The clinics are held on Saturdays at veterinary hospitals in different areas of the county so everyone can have access to FCC services. Though chaotic in appearance, clinic procedure is much like that of a MASH unit, designed to operate on a large number of patients with maximum speed and efficiency. A volunteer at the first station checks the cats in and asks caretakers to sign a release form that allows the veterinarian to perform whatever procedures are deemed necessary (including euthanasia). The volunteer then places identifying tags on the cat's trap, and the caretaker is sent away with an admonition to come back promptly at pickup time.
Meantime, at a second station, each cat receives an anesthetic injection through the bars of its cage. Once asleep, an ID tag is placed on its neck, and the cat is prepped, inspected for any medical conditions requiring veterinary attention and moved into srugery. When the sterilization is complete, a volunteer whisks the cat on to the next station, where its ears are cleaned and it is given three shots: a general antibiotic, a rabies vaccination and ivermectin for parasite control. Finally, the right ear is "tipped" to identify the cat as an FCC graduate, and the cat is sent to the recovery area – anywhere there is room for an unconscious cat to lie and be warm. A sunny parking lot often does the trick, though cats needing special attention (such as extra fluids) are treated in the "ICU" – a Ford Explorer.
Hours later, the last few cats are carried from the operating room. At this point, it becomes apparent why caretakers are asked to be prompt about pickup; the volunteers have been working in overdrive all day, a monumental cleanup task lies ahead, and no one feels like waiting around into the night with an unclaimed cat.
But despite the hard labor, the Saturday they've given up, the hustle and bustle and the loud complaints from unwilling patients, what makes it all work is the cats themselves. For many scruffy recipients, it is the only time in their lives they will be handled by caring human hands. And whether or not the unwilling captives appreciate the efforts on their behalf, the volunteers are touched by the extraordinary sense of cooperation and goodwill experienced by everyone involved. The reason this group works so well is its common concern for the welfare of unowned cats. That concern is reflected on the face of each volunteer who cuddles a limp, anesthetized patient to her breast, and shines in the eyes of the caretaker who strokes her feral's soft fur for the first time, knowing that the wild creature will doubtless spurn her again as soon as it awakens.
[Page updated November 2009]