As 'Kitten Season' Dawns, SF Renews Efforts To Quell Feral Cats

When Tiffany Pruitt needed to trap a feral cat in her Outer Richmond backyard, she didn’t grab the Meow Mix, Friskies, or Fancy Feast.

“For a tough cat,” she said, “the trick is to use a KFC drumstick in the trap.”

For over a decade, Pruitt's elderly neighbor had taken care of Angel, a 14-year-old tortoiseshell cat, and her five siblings. But after her neighbor passed away last fall, Pruitt and her roommate found themselves trying to trap Angel, who needed to be seen by a veterinarian.

Angel, is in many ways, the poster feline for the San Francisco Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' (SPCA) trap-neuter-release program (TNR). 

As a kitten, she and her litter-mates were trapped, sterilized and released back into their urban environment—Pruitt’s backyard. Unable to reproduce, the colony slowly decreased in size as the cats died, leaving Angel as the last cat standing.

When she passes away, so will her colony.

A cat makes itself cozy in a cardboard box. | Photo: Rob Schroeder/SPCA

SF’s Feral Cats

Experts say there are approximately 120 established cat colonies in San Francisco, ranging widely in size. 

Under the SF SPCA's Community Cats program, a team of staffers and a dedicated army of volunteers do everything they can to keep that number in check. In 2016 alone, the team trapped and sterilized roughly 1,500 feral cats in San Francisco.

“These cats are called a lot of different names,” said Audra Farrell, the Community Cats program supervisor at the SF SPCA (a Hoodline advertiser). “Stray cats. Feral cats. But we call them community cats.”

Regardless of the chosen moniker, the designation means that the cats can’t be placed in a shelter, as they’re too skittish and undomesticated to be adoptable.

“It’s natural for people to think that the cat living outside is like the cat living in their house,” Farrell said. “But these cats are wild animals. They don’t want to come inside, and they don’t want to jump on your face in the morning to wake you up.”

The SPCA marks cats that they've sterilized by clipping their left ears. | Photo: Rob Schroeder/SPCA

Feral cats tend to congregate in industrial areas and around warehouses, especially those that offer food sources.

“Several McDonald's have their own colonies of cats,” Farrell said.

But life for San Francisco's feral cats isn’t all dumpster-diving for Big Macs. Between predators and cars, kittens have just a 50 percent chance of surviving to adulthood, and the overall life expectancy for feral cats is between five and seven years.

“It’s rough going out there,” Farrell said.

The SPCA traps feral cats around SF. | Photo: Rod Kilpatrick/SPCA

Is The Feral Cat Population Declining?

Since its inception in the early ‘90s, the Community Cats program has faced criticism. A 2011 SF Weekly article examined how the re-releasing of feral cats has been detrimental to the city's native bird population. 

But the program's champions say it gets results. 30 years ago, Golden Gate Park had a serious feral cat problem, so in the mid-1990s, the SPCA set out to sterilize every cat.

“Today, at least 10 cat colonies are completely defunct,” Farrell said. “Because of our TNR efforts, there are maybe five feral cats left in the entire park.”

Between 2011 and 2014, SF Animal Care and Control reported a 14 percent decrease in its intake of cats to shelters, a trend that Farrell says is continuing, thanks to TNR efforts. 

“TNR is definitely a marathon strategy and not a sprint,” said Farrell. “If our numbers go up in our TNR program, then cat intake in city shelters goes down."

Feral cats are often skittish around humans. | Photo: Rob Schroeder/SPCA

Across the city, colonies can prove easier to count than individual cats.

“It’s hard to know specific numbers over time, and it’s a tricky thing to track,” Farrell said. “There’s no baseline, but we know that if colonies are completely sterilized, we see a reduction over time.”

The problems arise when new cats are introduced to an established colony, which is why the SPCA doesn’t disclose where existing colonies are located in the city.

“It doesn’t have to be 500 cats to cause a problem,” Farrell said. “It just takes two to start—and cats don’t care if they’re related.”

Farrell said the SPCA continues to hear about new colonies, particularly in the southeast corner of the city, where there are large isolated industrial areas.

“As soon as we hear about them,” Farrell said, “our team is on it.”

If kittens are trapped early, they can be adopted out as pets. | Photo: Rob Schroeder/SPCA

Brace Yourself For Kitten Season

As temperatures warm and the days become longer, outdoor cats begin to mate, making March synonymous with the start of what the SPCA refers to as “kitten season.”

“Once spring rolls around,” Farrell said, “people will start calling us to tell us that a cat has shown up in their yard and has given birth.”

While its name may sound cute, kitten season is nothing to gush over. One female cat can have two to three litters a year and around 100 kittens over the course of her life.

A major component of the SPCA’s Community Cats program is its "Mama From the Streets" initiative, which aims to capture feral mothers together with their kittens.

The mothers get to continue to nurse their kittens in a safe location, and once their kittens are old enough, the mother cats are spayed and returned to their colonies.

Volunteers and staff then work to domesticate the kittens, who are eventually sterilized and adopted out. 

“If people find kittens, we encourage them to call us, and we’ll help to trap them and bring them in," Farrell said. 

“We want to keep reducing the size of these colonies in San Francisco, and we’ll usually literally drop what we’re doing to come and help.”

You can call the SF SPCA at (415) 522-3539. It also offers traps for rent.

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As kitten season dawns sf renews efforts to quell feral cats