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Des Marais is prepared to spend two grand to get the apartment complex's cat colony fixed at RMACA's high-volume clinic. But the plan soon hits a snag. Hours after her site visit, Des Marais learns she's not welcome on the property. The company that manages the complex has arranged for a pest-control service to remove the skunks and cats. Ironically, trapping skunks requires a wildlife permit and relocation of the animals, but cats can simply be turned over to the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter — which, since ferals are not adoptable, will end up euthanizing them.
Des Marais is stunned. "They told me my money is better spent elsewhere," she says. "I'm not used to this kind of thing. I'm trying to help."
The management company just wants the cats removed, but it's possible that the pest company might turn the animals over to rescuers — just as long as they don't bring them back to the complex. Des Marais and other volunteers begin working on a relocation plan for the entire colony.
It's a formidable task. Not only is there no magical place in the country for them to go, but feral cats are highly territorial. Relocating them requires keeping them confined for weeks until they get comfortable in new surroundings. Contrary to the myths about cats being able to fend for themselves — the same myths that have helped create the feral cat problem in the first place — a feral released in the country will try to find its way back to its colony and probably perish in the attempt.
"Cats are about twenty years behind the dog movement," notes Angelilli. "In Denver, the dog is treated like a kid. People still think of cats as independent. They think they can fare well on their own. But they're not going to fare well in your alley."
Moving with the brisk efficiency of a field medic, Holly Aubart prepares a seemingly endless procession of cats for surgery. She kneels with a syringe over a plastic carrier, and soon the caterwauling inside the box stops. She places the anesthesized cat on a counter, at the end of a chain of similarly comatose kitties, and shaves its belly.
In the adjacent room, veterinarian Jason Cordeiro is cutting, snipping and sewing. After thousands of identical operations, he has the procedure down to an unvarying series of steps that can be timed with a stopwatch. Spaying a female takes about seven minutes. And neutering a male?
"Thirty seconds," Cordeiro says.
He demonstrates on a gray tomcat, snoozing obliviously in a device that spreads its legs akimbo. In moments the testes are stripped and removed; balanced on the index finger of Cordeiro's glove, they look like the tiniest of seed pearls. He peels off the glove and flicks it and the tom's future generations into a trash receptacle. Aubart moves the patient to the recovery room and brings in another.
Cordeiro and Aubart are the surgical team driving the Feline Fix, the high-volume clinic launched by the Rocky Mountain Alley Cat Alliance. Located a few blocks east of Federal in the Valverde neighborhood, the clinic has been open since July. But today is its official "grand opening," complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a visit from city councilwoman Judy Montero — and 47 speedy surgeries.
Most of the patients are domestic cats, brought in by owners taking advantage of the clinic's low prices ($35 for neutering a tame cat, $20 for ferals). But one row of traps in the pre-op room is covered with blankets, some of them shaking with the displeasure of a wild thing caged. These are ferals. The tip of the left ear of each feral will be removed after surgery, signaling to trappers and colony managers that these have already been fixed.
RMACA doesn't provide fostering, shelter, adoption or relocation services; it's chosen to focus on neutering as the best solution to the overpopulation problem. Last year the group fixed 3,400 cats. With the opening of the clinic and a grant from PetSmart Charities, RMACA plans to double that number in the coming year.
As the program expands, Angelilli expects that an increasing number of the clinic's clients will be feral cats. But at present, the group has no reliable process for getting them to the operating table. If people call to report a feral cat, RMACA will loan them a trap and show them how to use it. The organization also trains volunteer trappers who coordinate raids on colonies, bringing the ferals in waves to the clinic to be fixed, then returning them to the colonies. Another nonprofit, Divine Feline, runs a mobile clinic that can visit a particular colony and fix the population on site. Yet there are far more colonies than volunteers, and residents who call for help usually expect someone else to do all the work and cover the expense.
"The ideal situation would be for a partner organization to be involved in the trapping and community outreach, but nobody does that," Angelilli says. "All the other agencies are sheltering and rescuing, that kind of thing. They may have traps to loan out, but they don't have a trapping coordinator, a community-relations person to lead workshops. Right now we don't even have good data to show that our efforts are impacting the community."