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Meet 'Trapper John,' an Expert Kitty Catcher Who Some Say Has Gone Rogue

By Serena Dai | October 3, 2013 6:30am
 John Norton, 58, is known as Trapper John among the feral cat colony caretaker community. Caretakers are suspicious of this trapping, but Norton said the only humane way to manage stray cats is to bring them to shelters — even if it means they'll be euthanized.
John Norton
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UPTOWN — His business cards include fluffy kittens and paw prints on a pink or pastel background, but that's not the image some people have of John Norton.

To them, he's the notorious "Trapper John," a former city Animal Control worker gone rogue, according to people who maintain feral cat colonies around Chicago.

He was fired by the city, but still drives around in a pickup truck trapping stray cats. He brings them to shelters, where some end up being euthanized. 

The cats aren't safe wandering the city, Norton said. But for the people caring for the feral cat colonies, he's getting in the way of a 5-year-old program that aims to trap the cats so they can be spayed or neutered and released.

He's so well-known to those who maintain the colonies, like the Tree House Humane Society in Uptown, that organizers recently distributed a flier warning people about him and telling them to watch out for his blue Ford truck.

Collette Walker, the coordinator of the spay and neuter program for Triple R Pets, said multiple cat caretakers in the neighborhoods — many of whom are elderly women — have told her they have felt intimidated by him.

"I am afraid of him," she added.

But Norton said he's not doing anything wrong. Trapping stray cats, while discouraged by animal control authorities, is not illegal.

Norton, a tall, thin 58-year-old who lives on the North Side, said he has dedicated the last 25 years to capturing feral cats because, as he sees it, the only humane way to treat a stray animal is to get it off the street — even if that means it will ultimately be euthanized at a shelter.

"They can vilify me all they want," Norton said. "Great souls have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds."

As for the fate of the cats he catches, Norton said: "I don’t do the euthanizing."

Trap, Neuter and Return

For five years, Cook County has had a trap, neuter and return policy in which stray cats are captured, then vaccinated and spayed or neutered. The cats are registered — marked by cuts to their eartips — and given microchips before they are released back to a specific area.

They are then watched over by a volunteer caregiver with a relationship with one of several designated sponsor organizations, including the Tree House Humane Society, Triple R Pets in Western Springs and PAWS Chicago, which has locations in Lincoln Park and Little Village.

About 12,000 cats have been sterilized and vaccinated in the county through the program.

Donna Alexander, head of the county's Department of Animal and Rabies Control, said the program has decreased the stray cat population by 30 percent since it started five years ago — the goal of people on all sides of the issue, she said.

"Capture and killing is what we have been doing for decades," Alexander said. "It was not working."

But Norton doesn’t believe Cook County's claims and doubts the program keeps stray animals safe, he said. As far as he's seen, the stray cat population is just as robust as it always has been, he said.

"To me, it's trap, neuter and abandon," Norton said. "They're putting them back out there, subject to abuses."

A History of Trapping

It was that potential for abuse that led Norton to start trapping cats when he was 33 years old and working as a tool and die maker at a machine company.

Like many stray cat caregivers, he initially started caring for cats that showed up in his backyard. But over time he noticed their health was deteriorating — one had an open cut and another had an abscess on its ear.

Feeding them, he decided, was the wrong way to go.

He found a humane trap where animals walk inside, step on a trigger and a door shuts behind them. He took them to a shelter.

The next time he trapped cats was after seeing kittens at his local fire station. He followed the mother and found she was living under an abandoned house. 

He never stopped after that.

He said he started trapping in Uptown, where he'd find alleys with 20 or 30 cats. But eventually, he went everywhere. He made a habit of writing down locations when he saw a colony. He'd return on weekends and after work, sometimes waking at 3:30 a.m. and spending more than eight hours trapping. He keeps a black, three-ring binder filled with photos of some animals he's captured.

He'd catch 10 to 15 cats in a session at times.

"It snowballed," he said.

Norton said his most "awakening" experience was at the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. A friend in law enforcement told him that the place was overrun with stray cats, living in buildings that were set to be demolished. Kids and teens were sending them down garbage chutes, throwing them from the roofs and hurting them with explosives, he alleged. He snapped photos of cats hanging from the wall, their guts out, that he found in abandoned buildings, he said.

Norton started visiting the projects regularly to trap cats. Residents called him "the cat man," he said.

When Chicago Animal Care and Control had an opening for an officer in 2004, Norton applied. It paid less than his other job, but he’d always loved animals, and at least he would feel like he’s alleviating suffering, he said.

But working for the city was not the do-good experience he thought it'd be, he said.

There weren't enough officers to respond to calls, and sometimes it would take months to address a problem, he said. By then, the animal in question had died, or the problem had been taken care of, he said.

“It was heartbreaking. It was an atrocity,” he said. "They call themselves serving the people ... [but] citizens would get so mad. They would cuss at you.”

Norton also said he didn't get along with his co-workers, who "ridiculed" him for trapping so many animals and called him "a kiss-ass" for his high production. He found his co-workers were “lazy” and did not want to leave their trucks, he said. He trapped while off duty.

"If I can get these poor animals off the street, why not?" he said. 

Then in 2007, Cook County made trap-and-release, which is also known as TNR, the law.

Norton was fired from his job in February after eight years, but is appealing his dismissal. City officials wouldn't comment on his case. Norton also wouldn't talk about what happened.

Impact of 'Rogue' Trapping

Despite losing his job, Norton continues to trap cats and bring them to shelters. If animals are euthanized after he’s dropped them off, Norton said, that’s not on him.

"Once the animals are in the shelter, I wash my hands,” he said.

But advocates say trapping cats that are healthy — and already spayed or neutered — is wrong. 

Jenny Schlueter, director of Tree House Human Society's feral cat program, acknowledged that neighbors don’t always take kindly to colonies. Tree House has had to deal with cats that have been poisoned, shot with BB guns and drowned.

But the movement is making progress, and more people are starting to understand the benefits, she said. If neighbors have an issue, they should call Tree House to work it out — not call a man who might seem like an easy fix, she said.

Removing cats from registered colonies hurts the goal of decreasing the population because sterilized cats act as placeholders, she said. Removing them “creates a vacuum effect” where any animals that are not sterilized will reproduce more quickly to replace the missing cats by breeding with new cats that join the colony, she said.

To have "rogue" people trapping and removing the cats, is upsetting, she said.

Norton said he doesn't know when he’s trapping registered cats or non-registered ones.

But a Humboldt Park woman, who did not want to be named, said he approached her this summer, claiming he did "animal rescue" and saying he wanted to trap cats cared for by her and a neighbor.

They told him the colonies were registered with Tree House, but after he left, the woman said she found a flier with the words "TNR Reality Check" across the top and a photo of a dead cat posted on the garage where she'd been feeding the cats.

"I just felt like he was misleading," she said. "He sounds like he's animal rescue, but in my mind, he's not rescuing animals. He's just getting them euthanized."

Norton said neighbors unhappy about nearby colonies have called him, but he said it's infrequent. He denied leaving anti-TNR fliers, but added "If someone is leaving them, what's the harm?"

And he said he never asks for money, despite allegations.

"I never profited by it," Norton said. "I lost money with gas, with time, with equipment, thousands of dollars worth of equipment."

Forever Trapping

For many years, Norton brought the animals to the Animal Welfare League, which has offices in Chicago Ridge and at 6224 S. Wabash Ave. At one point, he even included their names on business cards, which he said he gives out to help people find him.

But the Animal Welfare League has since stopped taking animals he brings in after caretakers and other shelters called to inquire about lost cats, said Linda Estrada, director of the league, who was "furious" that her group was listed on his business cards.

As required by the TNR law, the league always scans the animal's microchip to ensure they aren't part of a registered colony, Estrada said.

"We cringe when we see traps because we see the horror when people trap and don't know what they're doing," Estrada said.

Norton declined to say which shelters he uses now.

Norton isn't the only person in the city who doesn't like trap-and-release. Birders also have been critical. But Roger Shanley of the Chicago Audubon Society said it doesn't work with Norton. 

"Hell no, he's not" partnering with birders, Shanley said.

"When you start to get vigilantes — 'I think I can take care of this' — that’s just a little too ugly," he said.

After years of suspicions, Tree House put out a flier last month with a photo of Norton and his truck ... and a stark message.

"WARNING!" it reads, "This man was recently seen trapping registered colony cats (ear-tipped & microchipped). If you find this man trapping your registered feral colony cats call 911 immediately."

Norton said he has to live with being "vilified" by cat lovers, who've even taken to the Internet to criticize him. Someone even once painted the word "death" on his doorstep, he said. But somebody has to speak the truth and do the work, he said. Cats should not be on the street, he said.

"Reverence for life does not preclude killing," he said. "I don’t like to kill anything. To alleviate suffering, sometimes it's more merciful to give it a humane death."

Even though he wants his job back, Norton said he is now in school and may change careers.

But he won't stop trapping. 

"This is a calling," he said. "I don't care if I ever get recognition. In my heart, I know I'm doing the right thing."