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Program helps house semi-wild cats

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You’ve heard of special-needs children, of course, and special-needs dogs. Little known to most, however, is Albuquerque’s program for special-needs cats.

Macaroni rules the barn on veterinarian Janeen Counts' property, where he "reliably chases off vermin, but is strangely friendly for a feral," Counts says, leaving her to suspect he had some human interactions in his history. Barn cats work well as predators, even if they are regularly fed. (Courtesy Of Janeen Counts)

Macaroni rules the barn on veterinarian Janeen Counts’ property, where he “reliably chases off vermin, but is strangely friendly for a feral,” Counts says, leaving her to suspect he had some human interactions in his history. Barn cats work well as predators, even if they are regularly fed. (Courtesy Of Janeen Counts)

Between the tame, well-socialized kittens who will become cherished house pets, and those banged-up toms who are managed in their outdoor colonies to live out their lives as feral, there is yet a third variety of cat with its own devoted human champion.

At the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, they are known as barn cats, and they are a small subset of adoptions for people who specifically want a semi-wild cat to chase away vermin in their barn or stable.

Not everyone qualifies to adopt such a cat, however. And not every cat can be one.

Typically these are the felines that fall in the cracks between adoption and trap-neuter-return, the city’s feral cat management program. They could be ferals who need to be removed because of community complaints, or pets who have turned to be so wild or crazy that they cannot be adopted out.

Since 2010, Kathy Stratton has made this project her own. A former volunteer with AWD, she inherited the mission and developed it into a full-fledged adoption program, which she runs with the diligence and scrupulousness of any other rescue.

“I take feral cats only from rescues,” she emphasizes – not individuals. At AWD, that means a volunteer like Jim Matthews, who evaluates cats that come in, has already made the call and pulled the cat for her.

Likewise, before placing a cat, “I go meet them, go out to the facility, because they have to agree to keep the cat inside for a month before letting them out,” she explains, so it becomes acclimated to the new home and does not run away.

“I deliver as far away as Chama, but I go fully prepared to bring the cat back” if the situation does not meet her approval, she says.

Stratton also takes the time to counsel potential owners beforehand, and prepare them for what may turn out to be way too much cat.

“I explain that they will go after birds, lizards, bunnies, rattlesnakes. Some are so feral they cannot be cornered – they might attack. If they have kids, we need to talk.”

Stratton also has taken back cats who turned out to be too friendly for the barn. She will exchange any cat that fails to be an adequate mouser.

But it often turns out that people don’t really know what they want, she says. By establishing a relationship with adopters, teaching them how to get along with their barn cat, and encouraging them to stay in touch with any problems, Stratton strives to ensure the cat will not end up back at a shelter or on the streets.

Most of the animals that come to her have their left ear tipped, a sign they’ve already been trapped and neutered but somehow failed life in the colony.

“You do still have to leave food out for them,” she said of the barn cats. “Give them a treat and shake a container of pebbles so they’ll hear it. They learn to come in. We encourage bringing them in at night, because of coyotes and owls.”

In the ideal world, all cats would live inside with their people all the time, she says. “But that’s not practical.”

Finding an alternative for cats who are neither tame nor wild is “another part of that whole effort, to fit the cat to the people.”

“It’s a nice way of saving cats,” adds Jim Matthews, who sends Stratton about 100 cats a year. “Another way.”

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