Janis Newman of Bothell traps 500 feral cats a year, having them spayed or neutered, and vaccinated, before finding them homes or releasing them where they were found.

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This year, just like the year before, and the four years before that, Janis Newman will trap 500 cats now living the wild outdoor life in the Seattle metro area.

Such as maybe the cats that took up residence in the bushes behind your backyard. She’ll have them spayed or neutered, then either find them homes or return them to where they were found.

She is 60, a retired schoolteacher, and she obviously is passionate about helping these cats. She says she spends about $8,500 of her own money each year on this passion, but “I don’t want to think about it.”

Her husband of 24 years, Chris Newman, a retired electrician, is a very understanding man. Their Bothell home has become Cat Central.

“In some ways it makes me crazy,” he says. “In other ways, it keeps her occupied and happy, and I guess I tolerate it. And some of the little kittens are fun to have around.”

Visit the Newmans’ Bothell home and, if the garage door is open, you’ll see it crammed with cat carriers — some holding recently trapped cats — and dozens and dozens of stacked towels that are used to change the bedding in the carriers.

She buys canned cat food by the carton, always looking for sales.

Their upstairs bathroom is turned over to holding some cats that Janis Newman is trying to get more socialized; and so they can move around, but in a confined space.

She didn’t set out to be a cat trapper, says Newman. It just happened.

“I didn’t want to do it. I still don’t want to do it,” she says. “But the need is so great.”

500 cats a year

There is no accurate count of the number of truly wild cats, or abandoned or lost cats, that have become free-roaming.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are as many as 50 million feral cats in the United States.

Nancy Howard, director of Feral Care, a Bothell group that aids wild cats, puts the number of such cats in the Seattle area at “tens of thousands.”

Newman, who works with Feral Care and other cat-rescue groups, arranges to have the cats she’s trapped to be spayed or neutered, and vaccinated, with vets who provide the service at low cost. She says about half of the 500 cats she traps each year are feral, and the rest include domestic cats such as those that have been abandoned by their owners and have started living outdoors.

As the economy tanked in recent years, Newman says, she saw more and more such abandoned cats.

She tries to adopt out the young ones that can be socialized by being held frequently, letting them get used to a human.

In a carrier in the garage, a group of kittens are domestic enough that they like being held and petted. In another carrier, an adult feral cat looks warily from the back of the carrier. In another, a kitten tries to act fierce, but its hisses are tiny.

Newman asks residents where she had trapped the cats if the now-sterilized cats can return to their original outdoor homes that they know best, and if the residents will feed them.

Newman has remarkable success with this latter request.

Some of the cats are adopted out as barn cats, even if the barn turns out to be a garage. But that happens infrequently. Some unadoptable cats end up at a farm in Snohomish County that Feral Care calls its sanctuary.

How it started

The requests to have cats trapped come daily, which Newman says should first go to one of the animal shelters, who knows the names of cat trappers.

“Sometimes how we find out about the cats is from smokers,” says Newman.

That would be the employees forced to take a cigarette break outside, like the ones at a Maltby plastic-manufacturing business.

“The guys would feed the cats,” Newman says.

Then the business shut down and the cats were left without a meal ticket.

Let’s try again to have Newman explain how she ended up trapping 500 cats a year, easily spending seven or eight hours a day on this endeavor, sometimes making midnight calls to check on a trap.

Ten years ago, she says, a friend who was taking care of a colony of feral cats moved out of town and asked Newman if she could take over the duties. “I was just supposed to be feeding them. Then I discovered that some weren’t fixed,” she remembers.

So she trapped the cats that needed the surgery, and then … “it just evolved from that.”

She remembers how, in those early days, she looked inside the car of another volunteer who fed feral cats, “and there were these bags of food in her car. I thought it was weird.”

Now, Newman travels in a Ford Ranger not only with cat food, but cat traps.

Setting the trap

On a recent afternoon, Newman is getting ready to set some traps at the Woodinville residence of Kim Gately.

In an e-mail to Feral Care, Gately explained: “I have a female feral cat that showed up here last year sometime and proceeded to have kittens and more kittens. We have been able to catch many of them and find homes.

“However, this summer we were gone and the kittens got out of control and some of the last year’s kittens showed back up here, and the mom is pregnant again. It appears that some of the older kittens are sick and the younger ones are very wild. I really need some advice/ help.”

The e-mail from the Gately was forwarded to Newman, and what could she do but help?

Arriving at the residence, Newman opens the back of the Ranger and sets up three metal-wire traps, which she buys for around $60 each.

She lays down some towels or newspaper on the bottom, fills a dish with come canned cat food, and also puts a trail of cat food leading from the gate to the dish.

When the cat reaches a trip-plate near the back, it springs the gate shut.

Newman’s husband does like to tinker, and he has tinkered with the traps. He put in a device that signals Newman’s cellphone with the text message, “Trap closed.”

Most of the time, it is cats the traps catch. But, infrequently, a raccoon or possum end up trapped. Once, Newman accidentally trapped a Chihuahua.

At the Gately home, Newman had already trapped a mom cat and her daughter, who also had mothered kittens, and six kittens. There still remain three kittens to catch.

It doesn’t take long for the kittens to come out of a crawl space. Later that evening, Newman reports all three have been trapped.

Kim Gately says she doesn’t mind the cats returning. She doesn’t mind feeding them.

“I’m OK with a few of them. It’s just when they start multiplying,… ” Gately says.

For Newman, another e-mail is waiting, about eight feral cats in Duvall, and then there have been two voice-mails, each about unneutered males hanging around.

Newman says that her sister worries about how much time she spends helping the wild cats.

“I know, I know,” says Newman.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com