“You’ll never catch this one!” is only too often the welcoming gambit when we arrive at a site. Do people expect us to pounce on the cat, wrestle it to the ground in order to restrain it and put it in a basket? We are hardly equipped for a physical match with a cat, instead we use our great advantage, our brain, to entice the cat into a trap. Before we go into any detail, we have to answer three questions we are often asked by the public.
1. “Can’t you just throw a coat or blanket over the cat?”
Whereas a domestic cat enjoys the game of rushing underneath sheets and blankets, as we experience every day when we make our beds, a feral cat would be petrified of a big moving object and disappear like lightening. Should we be so “lucky” to seize a feral cat that way, what would we then do with this frantic scratching, biting bundle?
2. “Can’t you use tranquillisers?”
Certainly not for feral cats in an open space, because we do not know where the cat will be several minutes later when the sedation becomes effective. It could go to sleep in a dangerous place.
3. “Can’t you dart it?”
The use of tranquilliser darts is restricted to large wild animals as a last resort and performed by specially trained and authorised marksmen.
Having ruled these methods out, are we ready for the battle of wits? Feral cats hear and see very well and any disturbance can spoil our trapping; utmost quiet and discipline are two important requirements, the other two are cat psychology and patience. I am often asked what the secret of my success in trapping is, the answer – “cats wait – and I can wait longer”. Since we lure the cats into the trap with food, it is most important that they are hungry on the day and all feeding has been stopped the night before. Only a very hungry cat will enter this unfamiliar box and many trapping attempts were entirely fruitless when the carers had fed “only a bit” before we came. Well meaning people have cut bushes down and moved fences to make our work easier with the result that the cats have disappeared altogether for the rest of the day. It is vital that the cats are unsuspecting and, if possible, do not see and hear us at all; instead of discussing our trapping plan in the garden we talk inside and behind closed doors, making the traps ready before we finally take them outside and lay a trail of tiny food morsels, before leading the string from the trap back into the house through a gap in a door or window. Inside, we remain still whilst we watch the cats approach. It might be necessary to hide behind a curtain or piece of cardboard with a viewing slot if the cats behave very warily. I wish I had the latter idea many years ago when we tried to trap a group of feral cats in a car park behind an office block. Attracted by the smell of food, the twelve or so cats appeared immediately, looked into our car and went again; they were only used to seeing empty cars. I was at my wits end and cut three holes, for eyes and nose, into my dark woollen 50p jumble sale hat, whilst my driver lay across the back seat. The cats soon reappeared and this time, thinking the car was unoccupied, one was caught immediately. Excited by my success I rushed out to cover the trap. To the great amusement of the on looking office workers I had forgotten to remove my balaclava, fortunately we had introduced ourselves when we arrived!
In order to avoid any commotion and to calm the captive cats down we cover the trap as quickly as possible and move it out of sight, if possible into a house where we can transfer the cat through the side-panel of the trap into a suitable transfer basket, and so that the trap can be used immediately for the next cat. If we deal with a group of cats, it is advisable to appear on site two hours before the usual feeding time and avoid making any associated noises such as rattling biscuits etc. The cats may pass incidentally one by one and can be caught without the others watching and becoming trap shy.
Only recently I have caught eight cats of a colony in two and a half hours and only because of a shortage of available cages, the remaining two the next day. The breeding in the colony has now been halted, eight of the ten cats were females and some thirty-two feral kittens would probably have been born before Easter. Spending only two afternoons in the freezing cold was really worthwhile considering how much suffering has now been prevented.
© Elke de Vries – CAT 77 Fieldwork Advisor