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Kristin Des Marais crouches in the damp and shines a flashlight into the vast crawl space beneath the apartment building. The light sweeps across rocks and mounds of dirt, the glint of an empty tin can, a flash of tail. Eyes glare back, glittering and metallic, then disappear.
A light, drizzling rain muffles sound, but an unmistakable kittenish mewing rises from the depths of the cavelike recess, beyond the light's reach. A pudgy skunk waddles through the beam, headed away from the noise.
Des Marais stands up and clicks off the torch. "There's so many places they can hide," she says. "This isn't going to be easy."
There are nine buildings in the apartment complex, many with exposed crawl spaces. The place has ponds, courtyards, a clubhouse, without a human in sight in all this rain. But there are cats slipping in and out of the basement-level covered parking, cats huddled next to dumpsters and still-warm car engines, cats on porches and stairs. They slink back silently when Des Marais approaches.
It's impossible to even attempt an inventory on a wet night like this. Some tenants think there could be fifty cats around. Others say it's closer to a hundred, which would make this complex in southeast Denver one of the larger feral cat colonies in the area. It could be even more. From the uncovered garbage cans to the cavernous crawl spaces, all the elements are in place — food, water, shelter, horny cats — for a major population explosion.
Animal-welfare activists have requested that the address be withheld; they say that revealing the location of a colony encourages people to dump unwanted cats there. In neighborhoods that have feral cat problems, the common lament is, "There were just two a while ago." But a female cat can have two or three litters a year for life. Her female kittens can get pregnant at five months. Before long the brood is hooking up with unfixed domestic cats, and a Malthusian nightmare has begun.
Estimates of the number of feral cats in the metro area range from tens of thousands to 125,000 (a Denver Dumb Friends League figure) to an improbable quarter-million (based on a formula that assigns one stray cat to every six humans in an urban setting). The Rocky Mountain Alley Cat Alliance, the lead group spearheading efforts to deal with ferals locally, has identified dozens of colonies and more than 2,000 cats in one survey, showing a heavy concentration along the Colfax and Federal corridors. But that figure is considered just the tip of the tabby.
"We know what's happening in colonies that we've touched, but there are places all around that no one knows about," says RMACA executive director Amy Angelilli.
Thirty thousand cats are euthanized every year in Colorado, double the rate of dogs. Many are homeless cats considered unsuitable for adoption. Working with RMACA, Des Marais and other volunteers are trying to reduce the kill rate by trapping ferals, spaying or neutering them, then returning them — in effect, transforming the entire colony from feral to sterile so that it will eventually die out on its own. But trap-neuter-return, or TNR, is a controversial solution, often unpopular with communities afflicted by the colonies.
"More often than not, people will call and say, 'Come pick up these cats,'" Angelilli explains. "They think we have a special vehicle we drive around and pick up stray cats and bring them to this utopia in the country. If people knew about TNR and why it works — but it needs to start before the population gets out of control. By the time people call us about the problem, they're usually so fed up that they just want the cats gone."
That appears to be the case at this apartment complex. Des Marais tracks down the tenant who invited her here, a man named Santos. He says things are getting worse by the day. He caught a neighbor shooting at the cats with a BB gun and asked him to stop.
"He said, 'Those aren't your cats,'" Santos recalls. "He told me to mind my own business."
Another tenant saw a coyote eating a cat. Cats have been found with their entrails hanging out. One was decapitated. Santos doesn't think all the mutilations are the work of coyotes. "People can be cruel," he says.
Des Marais nods sympathetically. The TNR job at this colony is beginning to look overwhelming, but she's willing to try. She volunteered for the no-kill MaxFund shelter for years, running its mobile adoption program, and eventually started her own nonprofit, Four Paws Pet Center of Colorado, which works with small shelters around the state to arrange low-cost or free spay/neuter clinics. Since last year's economic meltdown, calls to her group have tripled. Four Paws now subsidizes 1,200 surgeries a month — many of them out of Des Marais's own pocket.
"I was in Rocky Ford last weekend," she says. "We had people at 5:30 in the morning lining up and waiting to get their animals fixed for free, including some feral cats. One woman had fifteen around her place. You'd think farm people could care less, but there was definitely a need. They just can't afford it."