Taming the wild
Every night under the cover of darkness, Sharon Jones leaves her home and drives to a Cottonwood Heights electrical substation, where the feeding begins.
It's not as nefarious as it sounds.
Jones has been feeding the "Hillrise Hobos," a colony of feral cats, since 2004.
Cottonwood Heights resident Jon Higginbotham, who lives in the nearby Hillrise Apartments on Fort Union Boulevard, has helped Jones for several years, and both have come to know and love the colony's members.
But a recent roundup of cats in the area has taken away many colony members, leaving Jones and Higginbotham wondering what they can, and should, do to save the rest.
The raid on the colony came after a neighbor complained about the sound of cats fighting at night, said John Lovato, ordinance enforcement officer for Cottonwood Heights. He said a few colony members were trapped, and unfortunately had to be put down because they were far too wild to be considered for adoption.
The cats have also lost their favorite habitat, an abandoned work trailer full of junk, Higginbotham said.
Female cats in the colony would move into the trailer to give birth and raise their kittens, but the trailer's removal by the apartment complex management forced many cats to move to neighboring empty lots, Higginbotham said.
Jones and Higginbotham have continued to leave food out, but have not spotted several colony members in recent weeks.
Jones has trapped a few cats and tried to tame them in her home. Some have responded, but others have not. Higginbotham has also managed to tame a few of last year's kittens. They have contacted several animal sanctuaries, but all are full.
The general consensus to the feral cat problem seems to be a trap, neuter and return program run by several animal agencies. Colony caregivers can bring in feral cats and have them fixed at reduced rates. They are then returned to the colony when they have recovered, and though they must still survive in the open, they cannot reproduce and further increase the problem.
"The issue of feral colonies would go away if people spayed or neutered their own cats," Lovato said.
The Humane Society of Utah will fix ferals for $17.50, said Gene Baierschmidt, the society's director. He encourages caretakers to trap ferals and bring them in. Caretakers can then take them home to recover, or return them to the colony.
Cats are survivors, Baierschmidt said, and should do just fine.
Caretakers can also help control colonies by removing kittens soon after they are born. They must be handled by humans immediately or they will remain wild forever, Baierschmidt said.
Jones and Higginbotham are against this trap, neuter and return program, because they believe cats are not allowed to fully recover from surgery before being released.
The cost of spaying has also been prohibitive. While reduced rates for feral cats are considerably less than normal spays or neuters, factoring in the number of cats in a colony means price can skyrocket.
For now, Jones and Higginbotham continue to feed the remaining hobos around the apartment complex. Before the raid, Jones spent about $300 a month on cat food, and Higginbotham spent around $200 each month. They are concerned about the cats' nutrition, and buy name brand canned and dried food.
Higginbotham hopes to tame more kittens when the pregnant cats deliver this year. With the number of pregnant cats, the colony could soon return to its pre-raid numbers.
Lovato says Higginbotham and Jones are not alone. He has seen many caretakers struggle to keep up with their colonies, only to be overwhelmed by exploding populations. One recent call led animal control to a home inhabited by 65 cats.
"Bless their hearts," Lovato said of colony caretakers, "but nobody can do it all."
How colonies grow so fast
Feral cats can reproduce in large numbers. Nancy Peterson, Feral Cat Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States, provided these statistics.
Beginning at 4 months, a feral cat can have up to three litters each year of two to six kittens each. In an unmanaged colony, 75 percent of those kittens will die. So in a seven-year period, a feral cat and her offspring will have somewhere between 100 to 400 kittens.
It's unknown how many feral cats live in the United States. Peterson said the best estimate lies between 10 and 50 million.