How a local group rescues, treats and releases feral cats, so they can go to work in barns, shops or warehouses — anywhere with a rodent problem. Plus, why not everyone thinks saving feral cats is a humane idea.

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BARB HORTON’S PASSION for the past 15 years has been finding homes and jobs for abandoned cats. She’s introducing me to one, a handsome, gray-and-white tom that was dumped several weeks earlier along the Auburn-Black Diamond Road and is adjusting to a new home in a neighborhood with a rat problem.

We are standing on the street, talking about the cat named “Tor” by his new owners, when Horton glimpses a flash out the corner of her eye. I see nothing. The house two doors down has a “For Sale” sign out front, and as we follow her sighting, around the side of the empty house, she nudges her toe into a cat door that has been blocked by a stiff piece of plastic.

She quickly deciphers the clues. A cat left behind when the owners moved out. A cat fending for itself without food or water.

“It happens all the time,” she says, her voice suggesting a low opinion of animals of the two-legged variety.

A family that would desert its cat might also not have had it fixed, meaning the cat could quickly add to the national cat-overpopulation problem — an estimated 80 million cats, more than half of them feral or free-roaming.

With the help of Tor’s new owner, Rebecca Shults, Horton devises a plan.

This green-eyed beauty makes herself at home in Barb Horton’s holding area in her house. Horton says it’s essential to spay and neuter cats so they don’t add to the estimated 80 million national population. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
This green-eyed beauty makes herself at home in Barb Horton’s holding area in her house. Horton says it’s essential to spay and neuter cats so they don’t add to the estimated 80 million national population. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Shults will set out food in the former neighbors’ yard and see whether she can coax the abandoned cat out of hiding. She’ll also alert other neighbors and ask them to keep their cats indoors.

Horton will dispatch one of the volunteer trappers who works with her organization, Puget Sound Working Cats, to catch the cat, and have it spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Because it apparently had been living with a family, she’ll try to place it in a new home.

 

At the Feral Cat Sanctuary in Bothell, Debbie Stewart calls for help with a socialized cat that wants to cling to her back. The sanctuary is home to up to 100 cats at a time. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
At the Feral Cat Sanctuary in Bothell, Debbie Stewart calls for help with a socialized cat that wants to cling to her back. The sanctuary is home to up to 100 cats at a time. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

A DECADE AGO, an abandoned or stray cat picked up by Animal Control would almost certainly have been euthanized. That was even more true for the wild or feral cats who roam neighborhoods and vacant lots, get into cat fights and have as many as three litters of kittens a year. These cats aren’t cuddly or adoptable. They’re wary of humans and aggressive when threatened, and often stick to the shadows.

At the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project in Lynnwood, workers and volunteers prepare cats for surgery four days a week. It’s a production line to provide low-cost procedures and to help stem ever-increasing cat populations. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
At the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project in Lynnwood, workers and volunteers prepare cats for surgery four days a week. It’s a production line to provide low-cost procedures and to help stem ever-increasing cat populations. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Horton tries to place suitable feral cats in barns, shops or warehouses — anywhere with a rodent problem that will keep the cats active and, most important, alive. Horton says the philosophy behind her work is that all cats have value, not only the ones that curl up and purr in our laps. She argues that they should not be dumped, like garbage, or killed en masse, but allowed to live out their lives as cats.

Horton is part of a national network of people who champion the humane treatment of cats, work with shelters to reduce the numbers of animals killed, and encourage the return of spayed and neutered cats to the outdoors if they can’t be adopted or placed in a job. The strategy is known as Trap, Neuter and Release, or TNR.

But not everyone thinks saving feral cats is a humane idea.

The American Bird Conservancy opposes the release of feral cats back into the wild, saying they are ruthless predators that kill up to 4 billion birds a year in the United States alone, as well as reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.

These critics say the efforts to sterilize feral cats can’t keep up with the cats’ ability to reproduce, with the result that cats “continue to kill wildlife and spread disease,” says Grant Sizemore, director of invasive species for the ABC. He says feral cats can be carriers of rabies; toxoplasmosis (which can cause miscarriages and birth defects); and plague, which is spread through fleas.

The animal-rights organization PETA also opposes the TNR programs, saying that the cats released back into the wild face being injured or killed by dogs or coyotes, run over by cars, infected with disease or maimed by frigid weather.

PETA argues that it is more humane to kill these wild cats, that euthanasia provides a painless and dignified death and protects other wildlife from their predation.

“We agree that animals’ lives are valuable. Instead of dying painlessly in a shelter, these cats are dying under houses, bushes and the side of the road. We’re not saving cats by dumping them on the streets,” says Teresa Chagrin, animal care and control specialist for PETA.

Dr. Gene Mueller, the manager of Regional Animal Services of King County, says the reality is that there are free-roaming cats everywhere. They can be caught, spayed or neutered and released, or not caught and left to reproduce and multiply. He says kittens have less than a 50 percent survival rate in the wild because of their vulnerability to disease.

Seconds after surgery, a cat is carried to recovery at the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project in Lynnwood. Each cat receives a number on its head corresponding to paperwork, and its individual carrier. Staff and volunteers spay and neuter cats four days a week at the clinic. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Seconds after surgery, a cat is carried to recovery at the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project in Lynnwood. Each cat receives a number on its head corresponding to paperwork, and its individual carrier. Staff and volunteers spay and neuter cats four days a week at the clinic. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

“We’re trying to do harm reduction,” says Mueller, a veterinarian who was hired in 2012 to reorganize the shelter operations. He has partnered with volunteer groups like Working Cats to help reduce the shelter’s kill rate. “The work of these volunteer animal advocates is as important as the work we do at the shelter,” he says. “They’re preventing cruelty and unwanted reproduction. They’re making a difference for birds.”

Statistics from across the state also suggest the TNR strategy is working. Euthanasia rates at shelters fell from about 60,000 in 2004 to about 12,000 in 2015, while animals being spayed or neutered rose from about 60,000 to almost 90,000, according to the Washington Federation of Animal Care and Control Agencies, which represents about 70 shelters and rescue organizations, including most of the large, publicly funded shelters.

“It’s not just us saying spay and neuter your pets. It really makes a huge impact on the euthanasia rate,” says Cora Wells, program administrator for the state federation. “Fewer animals are entering the shelters because there are fewer out in the community.”

 

A WEEK AFTER spotting the abandoned cat in Burien, I meet up with Kate and Kaare (pronounced Cory) Bysheim, volunteers with Puget Sound Working Cats, as they set the trap at the empty home.

Kate estimates she and her husband have trapped several hundred cats in five years and handed them over to Horton or other volunteers to have them spayed or neutered and evaluated for temperament and appropriate placement.

The couple has rescued cats from trailer parks, green belts in cities and seedy motels. Sometimes, landlords call because of cats multiplying on their property or cats dumped by tenants. Sometimes it’s neighbors who hear the cats fighting at night.

Kate says her motivation is simple. “I love every warm, fuzzy, breathing thing on the planet. I don’t love people nearly so much.”

One occupational hazard when she started was trying to take in every rescued cat.

“I was up to 13. My husband said, ‘I will help you do this (rescue work), but you can’t bring any more home.’ ”

In Burien the next morning, Kate confronts an angry cat in the trap, but it belongs to a neighbor and streaks for home the moment it’s released. The Bysheims consult with Horton and decide to wait until there’s been another sighting of a cat that definitely doesn’t have a home before they’ll set the trap again.

 

ONCE TRAPPED, THE cats are transported to a clinic to be sterilized so they don’t add to the cat-overpopulation problem. In a Lynnwood strip mall, the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project fixes up to 50 cats a day, four days a week.

The director, Jason Thompson, started working with cats about 15 years ago, at a shelter in Oregon that killed as many in a day as his clinic now sterilizes.

Inside the clinic, cat carriers stacked three and four high line all the available counters. Along one wall, sleepy cats recover from surgery. Along another, cats awaiting surgery get an injection to anesthetize them. Volunteers and staff gently shave the sedated cats’ stomachs, carry the cats to their surgeries and monitor their vital signs.

Staff veterinarians perform the operations.

“The boys act like their lives are destroyed,” says Thompson, noting that the neutering takes “about five seconds.” The girls, who have the more-invasive surgery, including little cat-sized anesthesia masks, “are fine,” he says.

Thompson says a stand-alone clinic that can perform a high volume of operations is the only way to make an impact on the huge population of reproducing feral cats. Last spring, the clinic, which opened in 1997, sterilized its 100,000th cat.

What distinguishes the Puget Sound region from other parts of the state and the country, Thompson says, is the high level of cooperation among shelters, rescue groups and clinics.

“Collaboration isn’t the norm,” he says. “Infighting — over resources, over volunteers, over the mission — is more common.”

Dr. Merriss Waters, the medical director for the clinic, says the goal among all the activists is to ensure there are not more cats in the world than there are families to take them home.

“Everyone in shelter medicine and animal welfare wants to put themselves out of a job,” she says.

 

AT A 75-ACRE cattle ranch in Enumclaw, the 14 barn cats are nowhere to be seen. A feeder that holds a 20-pound bag of high-protein cat food sits in the hayloft, along with water bowls, but rancher Dave Gleason says the furry exterminators mostly stay out of sight.

Gleason bought the picturesque ranch in 2015. His hay was infested with mice and rats, and the barn cats he inherited were skinny and sick.

He said to himself, “Somebody must be thinking about this,” and did a quick Google search. He found Working Cats and Horton.

Horton drove out to the ranch and, over several days, trapped 12 resident cats. Their coats were matted, the hair falling out, and they were infected with round worms and giardia, a parasitic disease that causes diarrhea in cats.

One of the sick cats died, but Horton nursed the others back to health and determined that six were suited to hunting rodents and living in a barn. She placed eight other rescued feral cats that she thought were also good fits — short hair, strong bodies and good health — at Gleason’s ranch.

Gleason has nothing but praise for the cats. “They’re perfect employees,” he says. “They don’t complain. They don’t take vacations. And since they got here, we’ve never seen a rat or mouse.”

He compared his cats to the pest exterminators his wife hired to rid her business, a furniture and home-décor store, of rodents. The company charged her $700 to set up a trap and $70 a month to monitor it.

Gleason made a $200 donation to an animal-rescue group.

Cats at the Feral Cat Sanctuary in Bothell have plenty of climbing toys. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Cats at the Feral Cat Sanctuary in Bothell have plenty of climbing toys. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

Standing in the barn, with the heads of calves nudging through wooden slats, Horton and Gleason talk about the previous fall and the sick cats she rescued. Those that recovered, but weren’t suited to the ranch, she placed through the pet-adoption website petfinder.com.

Horton pulls out her cellphone and beams proudly as she shows Gleason a picture of the home where two of the formerly matted, wormy cats ended up: a Redmond McMansion complete with a circular drive.

 

IN OUTER BOTHELL, where 10-acre farms are giving way to big, new subdivisions, volunteers have cobbled together a sanctuary for wild cats who have no other place to go. They might have been rescued from hoarders — living indoors but uncared for and unsocialized. Or purebreds dumped by unscrupulous breeders.

There’s a cat whose high-strung, frenetic family rejected it for being high-strung and frenetic. Three of the cats were rescued from a storage shed where they’d been left along with a homeless family’s belongings. Two of the three were bald from stress. In all, 100 cats call the sanctuary home.

Nancy Howard, the director of the Feral Cat Sanctuary, describes how the refuge started with an 8-by-12-foot wooden storage shed and was gradually added on to as volunteers raised funds. Today, it’s a 5,000-square-foot fenced enclosure set on a horse pasture.

Inside, there are dozens of carpeted cat trees, fleecy cat beds and curtained cat dormitories. There are big, sandbox-sized plastic trays for kitty litter. Electricity, to power the overhead fans and the dormitory heaters, was added just last year.

Seattle Times photographer Alan Berner brought his GoPro to the Feral Cat Sanctuary in Bothell. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

What’s most surprising is how peaceful it is. Cats sit with closed eyes, resting on their haunches on all of the horizontal surfaces. Some play in the rafters or claw the wooden support beams. There’s only an occasional hiss, what Howard characterizes as a “horn honk,” when one cat wanders too close to another.

“When you have so many cats, no one forms territory. They chill,” Howard says. Some volunteers come just to pet the cats that have warmed to human affection. The “friendlies,” she calls them, often have behavior problems, such as peeing indoors or unpredictable aggression, that make them poor candidates for adoption.

Howard’s day job is as the owner of a Kirkland pet store, The Whole Cat and Kaboodle. She coaches cat owners on nutrition and behavior and says every bad behavior is a cat trying to communicate a need. She thinks many problems can be traced to cats not getting enough meat in their diets.

On multiple picnic tables in the shelter, the morning buffet is arranged. There are a half-dozen choices — canned cat food, ground turkey, ground canned salmon, cooked chicken thighs and grain-free dried kibbles. The meals are prepared by Debbie Stewart, whom Howard describes as the “paltry-paid sanctuary lead.”

The clipped ear of this free-range cat in Burien indicates it’s a male (left ear clipped) and neutered. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
The clipped ear of this free-range cat in Burien indicates it’s a male (left ear clipped) and neutered. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

“She’s passionate that the cats are extremely well-cared-for,” Howard says. Like the other cat-rescue groups, the sanctuary survives on donations and volunteers.

I ask Howard about the stereotype of the crazy cat lady. Over several days of interviews, I haven’t met anyone who fit the stereotype of an old maid with a half-dozen cats weaving around her legs, someone who relates better to cats than to people.

Howard tells me that she produced a “crazy cat lady” calendar a few years ago to raise money for the sanctuary. It included pictures of an accountant, an animal control officer and an attorney — all dedicated, she says, to saving cats, to getting them spayed and neutered so there are no new homeless kittens, and the sanctuary eventually empties out.

“When people call me crazy, it’s the biggest insult,” Howard says. “I’m passionate.”

She gestures to the dozens of cats around us dozing peacefully and adds, “Somebody has to be a voice for these guys.”