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When Aubart moved into the house in 2007, the place was almost uninhabitable. Feral cats roamed indoors and outdoors. There were no litter boxes. Aubart scoured, repainted, refinished. She turned a carport into a heated shed, decked out with shelves and cubbyholes and numerous exits, where she could feed ferals. And she set about trapping and fixing the cats, determined to transform the property into a model managed colony.
These days the house is presentable, if still a work in progress. Late in the afternoon, Aubart gets ready for the evening feeding, bustling from kitchen to living room, surrounded by three domestic cats and two dogs, including Little Man Tate, a small, vocal scamp of indeterminate breed, rescued months earlier in Mexico. In a pen are three feral kittens somebody asked her to foster, assuring her they were only four weeks old. They're not.
"These were dumped on me Saturday," she says. "They're eight weeks old. At four weeks, they're easy to socialize. But eight weeks is a little old. You need someone who's going to be holding them a lot, not someone who works twelve-hour days."
She picks up one of the kittens. It hisses, but tolerates her caress. "It sucks to be me," Aubart mutters.
As the sun sinks, the ferals begin gathering in the back yard. Four, five, six — more lurking in the shadows. Some have matted fur and resemble tufted rugs that have been left out in the elements too long. Others are sleek, black or gray, but clearly not in their prime. Aubart says she has about a dozen regulars, most of them ten years or older, well beyond the life expectancy of the typical feral.
Sparrow, a one-eyed snaggletooth, is at the front of the line. When Aubart first arrived, the other eyeball was still attached but dangling out of the socket. She has names for all of them, knows their individual quirks and temperaments: Carrot. Rainy. Pettie. Mattie. Lucas. "I love these cats as much as I love my own," she says. "They're not domesticated cats, but they're not wildlife. They're their own category."
Not all of the neighbors love the ferals. Many longtime residents are used to the cats that wander the alleys, but others have complained about unwanted visitors and deposits in their yards. Aubart plans to install mesh barriers above the privacy fence in her back yard to keep the cats contained there. But first she has to rip up the yard, which now is a sea of weeds and stickers, and reinforce the fence at ground level to keep the cats from digging out.
Aubart opens cans in the shed, dividing the contents among several plates. Sparrow and the others surround her. The crowd seems to double magically, as cats slip into the shed from two directions. A few still hold back, wary of the two-legged visitors. Some ferals can become accustomed to a single caretaker, enough to tolerate contact with that person — but no others.
Some want nothing to do with any human. Four ferals live in Aubart's house and never go outside. They are all failed experiments in socialization. Three of them the former owner tried to domesticate. "The other one is my fault," Aubart says. "You can only wait three weeks to get them back to their colony. I waited too long. Now I have a cat I only see every few weeks. He loves the other cats, but he hides from me."
Colonies such as this one are the only alternative to mass extermination of ferals, says Angelilli. She points to another successful colony in her own Five Points neighborhood, where one couple has trapped fifty cats over a period of three years and returned them. The neutered veterans now stay close to their feeding stations. "This is a community problem, and it needs a community solution," she says. "You can't depend on one small agency to manage the entire feral cat population of the metro area. It's unrealistic."
After all, cats are inherently social creatures, and over time, colonies can spill into each other. Managers have to be vigilant and keep an eye out for newcomers, especially if the left ear isn't notched. Aubart knows her shed is a beacon for wandering cats of all kinds, even if they have a home somewhere.
"I have nine regulars that I see every day," she says. "But I've also had seven new ones since February. Four of them are tame."