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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Urban Cat Hunting: Out Trapping Feral Felines For the SPCA

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2009 at 12:59 PM

click to enlarge The trap is baited... - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • The trap is baited...
The sun was starting to dip beneath the horizon when the call came in. It was supposed to be a relatively easy job -- we were to finish cleaning up a colony out by Ocean Beach. Four kitties had already been bagged and, tonight, our mission was to snare the lone holdout -- a stubborn little tortoiseshell who, so far, had proven trap savvy.

On any given day, one to 10 volunteers are off trapping feral cats for San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The animals are spayed or neutered, socialized if at all possible (which, after eight months of age, is a lost cause) and put up for adoption -- or released back into the wild. "Mohun Biswas," a veteran volunteer with more than 200 documented feral cat-trappings to his name (which he painstakingly records on yellow legal papers which he can whip out of his back pocket on a moment's notice) loads up a pair of boom box-sized traps and tosses them into the van. It's time for what Biswas refers to as a night of "humane hunting."  

(Since your humble narrator dropped in on this expedition unannounced -- and did not jump through the hop-scotch pattern of public-relations demands such a ride-along would likely have necessitated -- the names of the competent and dedicated SPCA volunteers have been altered).

Biswas slips on his knit cap as the night turns cold. He's in good spirits, though. "Cats are crepuscular animals," he notes, dropping a GRE-prep word into the conversation with the greatest of ease. It was, he felt, a perfect day for cat-trapping.

The van rumbled to a stop in the outer reaches of San Francisco, and we were greeted by two adorable children who'd been feeding the feral colony (their mother wasn't so confident with the English). SPCA volunteers are happy to come to folks' backyards and parking structures to capture and spay feral cats -- but only if the people making the call will continue to feed the animals (like many city cat enthusiasts, Biswas disregards claims that feral cats decimate local bird and rodent populations. He doesn't think most cats are smart enough to snare birds, and notes that cats won't hunt mice unless trained to do so at a young age by their mothers. He adds that, until recently, the SPCA suffered from a severe mouse infestation while housing hundreds of healthy cats).

After quizzing the children on the cats' favorite feeding spots, Biswas unloads the long, rectangular traps. He cracks open a can of pungent, tuna 'n' sardines cat food -- "the fishier the better" -- and scoops the glop into a paper, fast food-style tray. With an expert hand, he deftly places the feast in the back of the cage, and dribbles a a few choice drops on the pillow case concealing a panel that, once depressed, will drop the trap's gate behind the hungry cat. He dribbles a few more dollops on the cement creating a trail leading to the trap's entrance, recalling a fish-centric Hansel and Gretel. When asked what came next, Biswas smiled. Now -- we would wait.

Hunting for cats turned out to resemble fishing expeditions -- or, we imagine, waiting in a blind for a passing deer. SPCA volunteers Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak regretted that they hadn't picked up a case of Bud for the long wait. After more than an hour in the van watching over the untouched traps, a small, unkempt black cat sauntered across the parking lot -- and proceeded to meticulously groom himself while sitting beneath a Ford Focus. His grooming ritual lasted another 20 minutes or so; next time I'm bringing two cases of Bud. 

The three bona fide cat lovers next to your humble narrator began cajoling the stubborn feline -- although they did so in their "Here, Kitty Kitty" voices, interestingly enough. Finally, the feral cat cautiously ambled across the open ground, sniffed the food Biswas left in outside the trap, and snapped up a sardine tail which he carried back to the safety of the Ford Focus. He stayed there another half hour or so.

More cajoling and experiments in mental telepathy didn't seem to budge the cat (three cases -- shoot, no, a pony keg. I promise). Finally, however, the feline scampered, once again, across the lot. He sniffed the trail of food. He followed the trail to the mouth of the cage. He ducked his shoulders. He ... ran like hell when a car pulled off the street and noisily parked in the lot. "Perfect timing," mumbled Biswas.

Another half hour went by. A second cat -- the tortoiseshell we'd been warned about -- materialized. Thoughts of bagging not one but two feral kitties danced through our heads. Perhaps this wouldn't be a feline re-enactment of Geraldo's caper with Al Capone's vaults after all. And, perhaps we'd catch that third cat as well. That cat loping toward the trap with the huge black-and-white stripes on his tail. That cat who looked extraordinarily like -- a skunk!

click to enlarge You win this time, kitties - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • You win this time, kitties
Biswas had landed raccoons in cat traps before, but this was a whole other matter. If a skunk let loose a foul blast while within the trap, there'd be no way in hell it could ever be put back into service once again. What's more, who would be the one to open the trap and release the ill-tempered beast? How do you explain that odor to the co-workers? ("No, seriously, we wanted to get a cat, but ...").

An emergency conference was quickly convened and it was proposed that yours truly hurl a large soda cup toward the rapidly approaching skunk to frighten it away from the trap. This well-conceived plan was executed poorly; the cup induced the skunk to run toward the other trap, and scared the bejeezus out of the two cats. Our tortoiseshell target was last seen running down the street at breakneck speed. The skunk, heavens be praised, did not enter the trap.

Biswas was already thinking ahead. These cats were too trap-averse. The thing to do, he felt, was to loan the kids a trap and chain it up so no one could steal it. Both its sides could be removed, making it essentially an open-air tunnel. Then, after leaving food in it for about two weeks straight, it could be activated as a trap once more. Or, if Biswas wants to trap a specific cat, he could simply prop a stick or bottle in the trap's front gate and whisk it away when his desired prey entered the target (this plan, while sounding a bit ACME catalog-like, has been proven to work).

Biswas, Golightly, and Varjak dumped the congealed sardine 'n' tuna cat feast into a corner for the victorious kitties and tossed the traps back in the van. Tonight it was Cats 2, SPCA 0. But there will be other nights and other cats. We'll see who gets the last meow. 


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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