WOONSOCKET – Imagine a creature that reaches reproductive maturity at six months old, gives birth to six or seven offspring at a time and loves having unprotected sex as often as possible.
No, it’s not some mythic species invented by Hollywood, but the common cat gone wild. By some estimates, one feral four-legger and her offspring can spawn a colony of 5,000 cats in just three years.
No wonder Pam Howard is such a busy lady.
Armed with a $10,000 grant from the Petco chain, the PawsWatch volunteer is on a humanitarian mission to stanch the population explosion among feral cats in the city.
“I can’t even say there’s one spot in Woonsocket that’s worse than another,” she says. “It just depends on who calls us about a problem and what we find when we get there.”
PawsWatch is a non-profit based in Newport with seven regional chapters, including the newest, which Howard runs out of her garage in Cumberland. The PawsWatch approach to curbing the feral cat population is to trap the animals so they can be spayed or neutered. After a few days of recovery, they’re freed in the spot where they were trapped.
The trap-and-release protocol is a less costly and more humane alternative to old-fashioned trapping and euthanization, Howard and other animal advocates say. The idea is to allow the feral cat population to self-regulate through attrition. A well cared-for domestic cat might live for 20 years, but feral cats lead hard lives that invariably come to an end after just a few.
A part-time bartender at Twin River, Howard says her cat-catching work for PawsWatch takes up her spare time.
Since January, she says, she’s trapped about 70 feral cats in the city. She’s been to one location near Woonsocket Auto Salvage several times during the last three years, trapping dozens of cats.
“I did traps in just one spot near the high school and captured 11 cats in one day during the month of March,” she says. “Through the course of the month I did over 30 cats.”
What’s a feral cat? Basically, it’s a cat that’s either born in the wild or was allowed to revert to a wild state after being abandoned by its owner. Sometimes, a feral cat that was once domesticated can be rehabilitated into a household pet, but a cat that’s born in the wild is almost impossible to tame, according to Howard.
Natural predators, feral cats can survive on mice, birds or household refuse. And though they’re notoriously shy creatures, they’ll sometimes cozy up just close enough to a familiar human to accept a handout.
Property owners often see feral cats foraging in their backyards and feed them, unwittingly promoting the formation of a colony. PawsWatch doesn’t frown on that that kind of behavior, but encourages property owners to contact groups like PawsWatch to trap and neuter the animals.
Typically, Howard says she doesn’t have to go looking for feral cats. Sometimes feral cats can trigger nuisance complaints, but most often she hears about them from people who are already providing some level of care for a colony of feral cats – and seeking help.
Most of the time, feral cats can be returned to the wild, but they suffer from high rates of feline leukemia and AIDS. That means they must be euthanized because the diseases are as deadly as they are contagious.
Like the human variety, feline AIDS can only be transmitted through sexual contact, but feline leukemia is so contagious it can be passed from one animal to another through casual contact or eating food touched by an ailing cat.
Howard uses Safeguard brand traps that are made for cats because they’re long enough for the door to spring shut without snagging a feline tail. She baits the trap with ordinary cat food, sets it and leaves for a few hours because ferals usually scatter when they see strangers. She places a towel over the trap, which makes it easier to tell if the door has been sprung without getting out of her car.
“Sometimes I put in a sardine or two if the cat food isn’t enough to get them in,” says Helen Mercier of Blackstone, another PawsWatch volunteer who often accompanies Howard on her feline safaris.
Trap sessions are closely coordinated with prearranged veterinary appointments for spay or neuter surgery, which generally costs about $75 per procedure. Grants like those from PETCO are critical to the PawsWatch mission, but Howard says that her work would be impossible without a network of shelters and animal control advocates, including the Woonsocket Cat Sanctuary, the Woonsocket Animal Shelter and Cat Adoption Team Services (CATS), based in East Providence.
There are two female feral cats currently housed at the city animal shelter because they were pregnant when they were trapped, preventing them from going into spay surgery. They’ve since given birth to a collective clan of eight kittens that are also at the shelter. The plan is to adopt out the kittens to good homes as soon as they’re weaned, spay the parents and return them to their trap zones.
It was Rita Falaguerra of CATS who secured a Petco grant of $30,000 and decided to dedicate a third of it trapping and neutering feral cats in Woonsocket, says Howard. The program, which is supplanted through private donations and in-kind services, began in January.
“Sometimes, people are willing to pitch in a little money to help solve the problem they’re having with feral cats,” says Animal Control Officer Doris Kay.
A self-described animal lover, Howard owns a dog, a horse she boards in North Smithfield, and two cats, including one she trapped in Woonsocket.
Her involvement with PawsWatch began after she called the agency for help in controlling a feral cat colony behind her house in Cumberland.
“PawsWatch had helped me,” she said. “They asked me to help them. That was three years ago and I’ve never stopped.”
She not only agreed to pitch in as a volunteer in the trap-and-release program, but she launched the seventh of PawsWatch’s regional chapters, which is designed to serve Cumberland, Lincoln and Woonsocket. She feels like she’s making a positive difference because the quality of life for feral cats decreases in direct proportion to their population.
Like any other wild animal, feral cats are part of an ecosystem filled with checks and balances that Mother Nature has designed to control overpopulation.
“At some point the population levels off but it ends up being an ugly finish that comes down to disease and starvation,” she says.