There are an estimated 60 million feral cats in the U.S.
In an alley off 10th Street NE, old grapevines, garbage cans, and chain link fences are all the same yellow hue under the harsh glow of street lamps. It's 4 a.m., and Amanda Novotny is up... and she's not alone. Her company is population of feral cats, who nearby residents complain, keeps them up at night.
So Novotny, who's with the organization Alley Cat Allies, is unloading her station wagon and getting ready to trap some of the felines.
The traps are long and rectangular in shape, explains Novotny. There's a door at one end that cats go through.
"When the cats enter the trap, they step on a trip plate, which closes behind them," she says.
There are at least 13 feral cats, including five kittens that live in this alley, and according to residents, the cats are annoying.
"These cats are too wild," says neighbor Pat Gilliam. "They keep mating, and when they mate, it's a bunch of ruckus, and then the babies come. They attack my dog and me. They circled around her, and all of them kept scratching her."
Novotny and another neighbor, Kathy Sinzinger, walk up to a back porch full of cats, and set out the traps. Once they've captured the cats, the felines will be taken to the vet.
"The male cats are neutered, female cats are spayed," says Novotny. "They're given their rabies vaccination, and they're also ear tipped. The [left] ear tip is the universal sign that lets people know that cat's already undergone spay neuter surgery... We'll pick them up tomorrow morning, and release them tomorrow afternoon."
Novotny says after the procedure, called Trap Neuter Release or TNR, the cats won't be as aggressive, and won't be able to reproduce. However, some residents don't want the cats released back into the streets. But the alternative is for the cats to be put down. Feral adult cats taken to a shelter will get euthanized because they're unadoptable.
The procedure has critics, though.
"There is no reason to believe it works," says Robert Johns, with the American Bird Conservancy. "The University of Nebraska... could not find a single legitimate case where TNR actually eliminated a cat colony."
And Johns points out that cats are predators.
"When you save a cat by putting it in a colony, what in fact you're doing, is killing a handful of wildlife every year," he says.
He claims feral cats kill 500 million birds and other small creatures every year. However, TNR advocates point to numerous anecdotal cases where the practice has worked, including at sites in D.C. and Fairfax County. In those areas, the strategy has reduced the number of feral kittens brought into its shelters by almost 60 percent.
Back on 10th street, with almost all of the adult cats in traps, Novotny has just pulled two kittens out of a drainpipe. These kittens are young enough to be socialized. Unlike most of the cats born on the streets of D.C., they are now looking for a home.
[Music: "Morning Song" by Zero 7 from When it Falls]
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