CHINATOWN — Cook County's program to round up feral cats came to Chinatown this week, with a dozen strays getting rounded up to be spayed or neutered and released.
It's part of the county's efforts to humanely control the stray cat population in the region — and the Chinatown cats took the bait.
The cats found a mixture of canned chicken, tuna and kitty kibble to be their temporary undoing, as they were trapped for transport to a PAWS shelter to be spayed or neutered before being released back into the colony.
"It's a good system," said Collette Walker, coordinator of spay-neuter programs for Triple R Pets, one of six Cook County-sponsored agencies authorized to oversee stray cat colonies. "The cats suffer out here, even when they have a really good caretaker. They're domestic cats. They don't belong outside."
The program has been criticized, mainly by bird-watchers, but its aims are simple. Cats are out there, whether as runaways or abandoned by owners. Once in the wild, they're difficult, if not impossible, to redomesticate.
Trapping and euthanizing the cats can be costly to local governments and not reduce their populations, since cats learn to flee capture.The trap-and-release program halts their ability to multiply, then monitors the colony as it naturally dwindles.
Walker recognizes some would prefer simply killing the cats.
"They want immediate results," she said. "They want the cats gone. They don't see the long-term gain. The cats really are gone."
Walker estimated that 10 percent of all colonies Triple R has overseen are now dormant, with no more cats to care for.
"Their cats are gone through natural attrition," she added.
Benny Wong is one of almost 500 caretakers to sign on with Triple R to see that the cats are fixed, vaccinated and cared for.
He has about a dozen strays hanging around his Chinatown home. He's been caring for some of them since the death of a beloved dog five years ago. He also has four house cats, which are not allowed outside.
Wong didn't give the strays their normal feeding the night before the roundup.
"In a well-fed colony like this, they pretty much depend on food," Walker said. "They have to be hungry to be trapped."
She whipped up a batch of the chicken-tuna-kibble mixture and began sprinkling it around Wong's back concrete deck between his house and garage.
The "bait trails" led into wire-mesh traps with spring-release doors. Key to this trapping expedition, however, was also the clear trust the cats have developed in their caretaker.
"They know me. I can pet them," Wong said, quickly adding, "There's some I won't touch."
In this case, however, both he and Kim Thompson, also along for the trap (and both wearing heavy gloves), were sometimes able to push the cats fully into the cages as they fed. Once caged, they were quickly covered with blankets, as caged cats can panic and hurt their teeth or claws, but once covered tend to calm.
"This is unbelievable," Walker said. In the first half-hour they had five covered cat cages lined up in the garage.
Cat colonies tend to organize around "queens," Walker said, just as lion prides tend to organize around hunting lionesses.
"The queens are always the hardest to trap," she said. "That's how they get to be queens."
A few of the female cats were noticeably pregnant.
"Oh, momma, I want you," Walker said to one cat with white markings on its throat and chest. "See how pregnant she is? She's about to deliver." Walker sweetened the food at the back of one of the cages.
It was a bittersweet part of the effort, however, she well knew.
"The policy is spay and abort," she said of pregnant ferals that are captured. "There are no homes for these babies." So they're eliminated as part of the spaying surgery. The adult cat, however, is released — never to have a litter again.
"There aren't going to be any more kittens to flood our shelters," Walker said. "We've got to end the cycle. That's what's important."
The pregnant cat crept into the cage, with only its tail hanging out. Walker tiptoed up to try to shut the door, but the cat backed out. She mildly cursed her impatience and motioned for everyone to move away. A few moments later, the pregnant cat went back to feeding in the cage — and sprang the door.
"Bingo!" Thompson said.
They had 10 cats trapped, including another pregnant female, when they shifted tactics and started trying to capture the stragglers in a drop cage. One was feeding at an abandoned bowl of food, and it clawed at Walker as she took it away. The cat then approached a bowl under a larger, bottomless cage with three sides propped up off the ground with a hinge.
Walker pulled a string attached to the hinge, and it fell level to the ground, trapping the cat. They covered it with a comforter to calm it, then gingerly herded the cat out a side panel into a smaller cage.
They trapped the last cat of the day — a larger male who had been bullying others on the fringe of the yard — in the same manner. When the trap dropped, the cat rushed at the side and even pushed the cage a half-foot, but it, too, was soon calmed and transferred to a smaller cage.
"You got Big Boy!" Wong said with admiration.
They all spoke of the few cats that hadn't shown up that morning, and resolved to plan another trapping expedition, but by that time there were a dozen covered cages lined up in the garage.
"If we don't get the remainders, it just starts all over again," Walker said. "So we'll be back and trap some more."