On a recent morning, Karen Stettes and Joyce Mason were prowling a Dundalk neighborhood, searching for feral cats.
They had been called in by Ty Tippett, who lives in the neighborhood and knows where to find them. Stettes and Mason believe there are about 40 cats nearby.
Tippett took them to four homes where the owners had given them permission to set up traps in the cats’ favorite haunts, like underneath sheds.
Stettes and Mason are volunteer trappers for Community Cats Maryland. They capture feral cats, spay or neuter them, vaccinate them and return them to where they were found. Often someone who is caring for a feral cat colony does the trapping. In this case, Stettes and Mason are helping Tippet and his neighbors.
They got into feral cat trapping when they had a problem of their own at their homes in northeastern Baltimore County, near the Harford County line. Their feral cat population grew from two to more than 100.About two years ago, they reached out to Community Cats Maryland for help. The organization lent them traps.
"Our first roundup was 63 cats," Stettes said.
"They’re all fixed except four boys," Mason added. "They’ve been elusive to the traps, and we’re going to work them little by little."
Baltimore County is trying to bring under control an exploding feral cat population. No one knows for sure how many there are. But Peg Nemoff, the director of Community Cats Maryland, says the feral cats in Dundalk and Essex alone would keep them busy.
The county is working with Community Cats Maryland to trap the cats, but not to have them euthanized.
Mason and Stettes place 15 metal, rectangular traps around the neighborhood next to Dundalk High School. They bait the traps with sardines _ the smellier the better, they say. There is a pedal on the inside. The cat goes in to get the food and steps on the pedal, which releases a spring that closes the trap door. They set the traps and they wait.
Stettes and Mason caught 14 cats in about 12 hours. Once a cat is in a trap, it is given food, water and a litter box, and the cage is covered to help keep the cat calm. That’s where the cat stays until it’s taken to Community Cats Maryland’s clinic. Last weekend, trappers brought in nearly 70 feral cats.
Nemoff says a feral cat colony often gets started when people get a pet, then don’t have the money to get it fixed. The cat goes into heat and starts crying and scratching to get out.
"The cat owner opens the door and lets the cat out," she said. "She goes out, connects with an un-neutered male and you’ve got kittens.
One mama cat can have several litters a year.
Baltimore County used to give citations to people who managed feral cat colonies. But it’s done a 180. The county is letting Community Cats Maryland use a new building behind the Dundalk Health Center for its monthly clinic.
Here, the feral cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated. It’s free because the organization is all-volunteer and the county pays the expenses. After a couple of days, the trappers come back, pick up the feral cats and return them to their colonies.
Trap, neuter and return is controversial. Some animal-rights activists say it does nothing to help feral cats: they still suffer and die horrible deaths because they have to fend for themselves outdoors. They say it’s usually more humane to euthanize them. Others counter euthanizing feral cats is inhumane and ineffective, while a trap, neuter and return program can stabilize a cat population.
The people who manage feral cat colonies see the animals as kind of standoffish outdoor pets. They feed them. Name them. And care for them. Pat Youells and his neighbor trapped six feral cats in Parkville to bring into the clinic.
"It’s much better to get them taken in, get them fixed rather than, you know, Animal Control coming out and destroying them or something like that," Youells said. "Especially if you love the animals."
Feral cats can be a pain. They can turn your flower bed into a litter box and do a number on the songbird population. But trapper Joyce Mason says her cats have been earning their keep. You won’t find one mole, mouse or snake in her barn.