Though the two-hour sheriff’s search sprang from a case of mistaken identity, resident Bryan Harrison said the mix-up brought to light a very real Mountain House problem — a population boom of feral cats.
“Two thousand (feral cats) might be conservative,” said Harrison, the vice president of Mountain House Feral Cat Rescue, a resident-based group started in late May to try to get the feral cat population under control.
“It’s hard to know (how many),” he said. “It’s blown into a big problem. You do see a cat here and there, almost everywhere you go.”
Mountain House Feral Cat Rescue started with founders Anne-Marie Swainpoel, who is the group’s trapper, and Jacqueline Lacaze-Dekker, the group’s president. The two women were united in a goal to help a feral cat commonly known around the Mountain House Market as “Harry.”
Harry had developed an eye infection, and when they had rescued him and had his problem resolved by a local veterinarian, the two women turned their attention to the thousands of other feral cats roaming the community.
“It stared with Harry, and it kind of escalated,” Lacaze-Dekker said.
A short time later, Harrison and his wife, Patricia, offered their help, he said. The rescue now consists of the Harrisons, Lacaze-Dekker, Swainpoel, Kristie Harada, Jennifer Serena, Amy Young, Rachel Mullen, Danielle Koehn and Scott Dekker.
The goal of the group now is to catch feral cats, have them sprayed or neutered and turn the adults loose again in the community, while the kittens are tamed for adoption. Since late May, the rescue has stopped nearly 30 feral cats from breeding and found homes for nearly two dozen kittens.
The problem likely started when the housing market crashed in 2008 and many Mountain House residents abandoned their house cats, Harrison said. Over time, those cats have produced generations of feral offspring.
Based on statistics, he said, a single breeding pair of feral cats can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years, taking into account the progeny of their offspring.
If left unchecked, Harrison and others fear the population could become a huge nuisance.
“If we waited another year (to start), it might have been beyond a level of catch-and-release — we might have had to euthanize them,” he said.
Many of the volunteers have opened their homes to become foster parents to dozens of feral kittens, including the Harrisons, who have shared their house with as many as 17.
“I’m a big animal advocate and lover — all of us are,” Patricia Harrison said.
Each kitten they save is a success story, she said, showing off the eight who occupied a special room in their house Tuesday, Aug. 14.
One kitten they named Smokey had a breakthrough the other day, she said, when he purred in her arms for the first time.
“It happened all of a sudden,” she said with a smile. “It’s a moment.”
The key to the foster program, Swainpoel said, is to provide the kittens the nurturing they need to rid them of feral instincts and prepare them for adoption as house cats.
The younger they are, the easier they are to train, she said.
The goal is to capture the kittens in the first six weeks, because after 12 weeks they are typically too feral to return to society as pets, she said. Cats that can’t be domesticated are sterilized and returned to the cat colony where they were captured, so they can continue to help the control the area’s rodent population.
Several volunteers around Mountain House have tried to care for feral cats by monitoring feeding stations that provide food and water to the colonies.
Catch me if you can
Catching feral cats is no easy task, Swainpoel said.
Each day, she sets up nonlethal traps at dawn and dusk in areas where cat colonies have been identified. Among the Mountain House hotspots is the creek that runs through a portion of the community.
She said cats live there because of the available food source of squirrels and rodents and great hiding spots in the shrubs.
“It takes 24 to 36 hours from trap to release,” she said. “If there are (young) kittens, we try to get the adults back in 24 hours.”
The key to the rescue’s success is educating the public, she said.
“Whether you like cats or don’t like cats, whether you feed them or don’t feed them — we want to keep them around, but we don’t want to overpopulate the community and they become a nuisance,” Swainpoel said. “I think we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg.”
Funding the program through their own efforts, group members have dished out thousands of dollars to keep the rescue going. The fees they charge for a kitten adoption, $100, covers only the spaying or neutering costs and the feline’s first set of medical shots. The other costs they incur — including cages, traps, food and resources to finance the rescue — are paid for by members.
Bryan Harrison said the members hope to attain nonprofit status soon to reap the benefits of state and federal grants.
Mountain House Community Services District directors Andy Su and Jim Lamb have voiced their support for the rescue, and Su said he placed the group on the board’s September agenda to discuss giving them $5,000 for their cause.
“I applaud them,” Su said. “Pest control is one of the 18 functions the MHCSD is responsible for. I think what they are doing is great.”
Lamb agreed that the volunteers provide a service that is beneficial to the community.
“Don’t want them to bear a fiscal problem that was our cost to begin with,” Lamb said. “It’s been on my radar for a while. I wish more was done earlier so it wasn’t as big of a problem that it is. Catch and sterilize seems to be an effective program.”
The community has slowly rallied around the rescue, Bryan Harrison said, and donations are starting to come in.
Earlier in the week, a couple of children had a cookie sale and dropped off $2 in an envelope, which was preceded by a gift of $5 and portions of their allowances each week to help the cats. It’s small, but every bit helps sustain the group.
To spread their message, members of the rescue have created a website, www.mountainhousecats.com, and a Facebook page, which also advertises the kittens available for adoption.
“It’s been an adventure,” Bryan Harrison said. “It all happened pretty quickly. If we didn’t do something, it was going to get really, really ugly.”
The rescue will host a fundraiser from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 13 at the Mountain House Bar, 16784 Grant Line Road. The event will include live music and a silent auction, and donations of auction items are being accepted.
At a glance
• Mountain House Feral Cat Rescue: www.mountainhousecats.com or 597-8150