2015-10-16 / Community

Catwoman keeps feral felines in check

York County has first full-time cat trapper
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Kathy Deschambault, the new feral cat trapper for The Cleo Fund, a division of the Animal Welfare Society of West Kennebunk, delivers one of her captures to the AWS shelter, Oct. 8. There it will be spayed or neutered and then released back to the area where it was found, as part of an effort to control the population of wild felines across York County. (Duke Harrington photo) Kathy Deschambault, the new feral cat trapper for The Cleo Fund, a division of the Animal Welfare Society of West Kennebunk, delivers one of her captures to the AWS shelter, Oct. 8. There it will be spayed or neutered and then released back to the area where it was found, as part of an effort to control the population of wild felines across York County. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — Of all the careers Kathy Deschambault imagined herself having when she was a little girl, she never pictured herself herding cats. But now she has a job as York County’s first full-time cat trapper, and she couldn’t be happier.

Deschambault was managing a convenience store in Wells eight years ago when a local golf course manager mentioned a mother cat and her kittens had been living under the clubhouse. With winter coming, he was afraid the cats would starve and so, being an animal lover, Deschambault immediately jumped on the horn to a local shelter, which promised to help.

That help came the following day when a shelter worker showed up at Deschambault’s store with a trap.

“They said, ‘Here.’ And that’s how I got involved,” she said in an Oct. 8 interview, with a laugh.

From that day, Deschambault got more and more involved in helping to trap feral cats, working with area shelters, including the Animal Welfare Society (AWS) in West Kennebunk. AWS actually feeds and supports a feral cat colony around its facility – cats which are too wild to be housed within its walls, or adopted out. Deschambault had helped trap cats to be removed from various places to be brought to the colony. However, that’s not always a viable solution because feral cats live partly off the land, and the area around AWS will only support just so many of them. About 20 is the limit.

But earlier this spring, Deschambault was showing off the colony and the AWS facility to a woman from California, who was so impressed she made a suggestion. The Cleo Fund, an independent nonprofit which since 2013 has operated under the auspices of AWS, had recently begun offering free spay and neutering operations to feral cats brought to the shelter. In order to help control the population of feral cats, the woman said, why not go out and get them, instead of merely altering the ones brought in by property owners,

The woman backed up that suggestion with a donation, and the Cleo Fund launched a three-month pilot program, which, with additional donations, lasted five months. Deschambault, of course, was the natural choice to do the job. Since capturing her first cat eight years ago, she’s brought in “at least 500” feral felines, she says.

During the pilot program, Deschambault caught 67 cats, with another 248 identified from across the Greater Kennebunks region as being “on deck” and awaiting capture.

Each cat was spayed or neutered and released back to the area in which it was caught, assuming no argument from the property owner. The program turned out to be such a success that, earlier this month, the Cleo Fund elected to make it an ongoing project, and a regular part of its operating budget.

“Until we had Kathy, when somebody called the shelter, there was nothing we could do to help them. We didn’t have the resources,” said Cleo Fund manager Sharon Secovich. “But then once we had her, once we were not turning down calls, we realized there is a huge need in York County.

“People don’t want these cats euthanized, and we don’t do that anyway,” Secovich said. “So, we T-N-R – trap, neuter and return.”

“We don’t just release them anywhere, we return them to the place where they came from, because if they are healthy and thriving, they obviously have habitat, food and water,” explains AWS executive director Abigail Smith. “If we can’t do that, we’ll put them through another program at AWS, but what we won’t do is euthanize them. We will not euthanize a healthy cat.”

A feral cat is seldom fit for adoption.

“These are cats that were either born or at least living for a significant time in the wild, without human contact,” Smith said. “We are not able to socialize them and then put them in your living room. That does not work. The human approach is to let them live out their lives as they’ve already been living.”

An exception in certain circumstances are kittens, caught early enough in the wild, and so-called barn cats, which tend to tolerate a higher level of social interaction. Still, for most cats, the goal, Smith says, “is to stabilize the population where it is, so it won’t continue to grow.”

“Like any group of wild animals, they will find a balance of how many cats can sustain in a certain area,” Smith said. “Then, if we can get it to balance, with the spay and neutering, over time it will begin to diminish.”

Deschambault can attest to that fact. Prior to taking the Cleo Fund job, she found one colony that spawned 22 kittens one season but produced just four since a more recent visit.

Neither AWS not the Cleo Fund has any hard numbers on how many feral cats there are in York County. However, anecdotal evidence indicates there is cause for concern.

“It’s funny,” said AWS Development Director Kerrie Leclair. “Someone will call Kathy because they think they have three or four cats on their property and she’ll go out and quickly find out, ‘Oh, no, you’ve got 15 or 20.’

“But the problem is not really the few feral cats that may exist in an area,” she said. “It’s all the kittens they could become.”

“There’s really no way to know,” said Smith. “What we can measure is how many kittens are brought to use each year.”

Smith added that since the Cleo Fund spay and neuter program has kicked into high gear over the past year, the feral cat population has consistently decreased.

“You have to stabilize the population first to really address the problem,” Smith said.

Because the feral T-N-R program is new, AWS and the Cleo Fund are not sure how much it will cost on an annual basis. Still, $50,000 is an early estimate – a considerable cost for organizations that run entirely on donations and volunteer help.

“Eventually, the best model for this program is that community members will support it, too, not just asking for help but doing some of the trapping with training from Kathy,” Smith said.

For anyone who sees a feral cat, a notch in the top of its left ear is an indication that animal has already been trapped and spayed or neutered.

The trick, of course, is to trap the ferals first, a job that knows no one sure-fire method.

“It changes every time I trap,” Deschambault says. “But the one thing I have that most people lack is patience. I’ve sat six or seven hours to watch one trap. I don’t just leave them because that’s dangerous for the cat and too dangerous for the equipment.

Deschambault uses a gravity trap – one in which the trap door swings into place with far less force than the typical spring-loaded trap. That’s safer for the cat and, being quieter in its operation, also less traumatic. She baits traps with cat food, catnip, tuna fish or the favorite delicacy of the wild cat – sardines.

“It depends on the cat,” she said. “I usually get to know the situation first. I spend time watching so I know about what time of day the cat is most likely going to come out to eat and then, usually, by the time I set the trap, I have the cat within just a few minutes.”

A blanket quickly thrown over the trap helps to keep the cat calm for the trip to AWS, where it is altered and returned to the wild within two to three days. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s the feral cat that is dead quiet under its blanket on the ride to and from AWS.

“It’s the cat that is only semi-feral, that has had some human contact, that will cry on the whole way in,” Deschambault says.

Deschambault has been trying to catch one cat for more than two years, since before going to work for the Cleo Fund. She’s named the elusive cat Dolly, because it lives near a dollar store in North Berwick.

“She has a habit of having kittens and then leaving them at someone’s door,” she said. “We’ve been pretty much keeping up with the kittens, but I still have yet to catch her.”

Still, regardless of whether she ever rounds up Dolly, Deschambault says she’s found her life’s calling.

“I absolutely love it,” she said. “Once I started it and realized how much I was helping cats that were destined to not only die, but to make others suffer by becoming not one cat, but 40 or 50 cats, I knew I was doing something worthwhile.”

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