San Antonians face tough choices as the cat population increases

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With her eyes on the heavily pregnant tuxedo cat that emerged from a thicket about 20 feet away, Monica Caballero said the fetuses were being aborted. She said death is more merciful than living in a local park.

“You wouldn’t survive out there,” she said. “They would be snatched up by predators – owls and hawks and raccoons and coyotes.”

Despite city ordinances governing pet ownership, San Antonio is teeming with stray cats. Caballero, vice president of the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, is one of many volunteers investing time and resources to help slow its spread.

The tuxedo cat tentatively approached the trap, a conglomeration of netting and PVC pipes supported by a narrow wooden plank made by Caballero. The cat’s desire for a full belly had overcome its initial suspicions. Hunger, Caballero knew, is a powerful motivator. Given the opportunity, no animal – especially an expectant mother – will go without a meal.

She put a white paw in the trap and hesitated. When nothing happened, she wasted no time digging through the pile of sardines that had lured her out of hiding.

With a quick backward movement, Caballero pulled on the rope that came off the plank. The trap slammed shut with a hard bang. The cat, sensing that it had been tricked, whirled and threw itself against the bars in a vain attempt to escape.

According to Sherry Derdak, president of the Cat Coalition, there are maybe 200,000 stray cats living in the greater area. Their numbers are constantly increasing because the warm, dry weather endemic to the Southwest is conducive to breeding.

“This is an overwhelming problem for the community,” Derdak said.

The nonprofit was founded in 2005 to promote TNR — or “Trap, Neuter, Return” — a population control method widely adopted by many major US cities.

Coalition volunteers capture and sterilize the cats before listing the domesticated ones for adoption and releasing the feral ones back into the wild. In this way, Derdak explained, the existing clan dies out naturally.

Since Derdak began keeping records in 2010, she said the coalition has subsidized surgeries on more than 37,141 cats, preventing untold numbers of births.

“Freddy” looks at visitors at a local park on Friday, March 4th. He lives with a colony of five other cats cared for by volunteers from the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition.

Jerry Lara / Staff Photographer

Without organizations like the Coalition, said Lisa Norwood, director of public relations and public relations at Animal Care Services, “there would be cats around every corner.” The city government runs its own TNR program. They operated on 3,645 cats under the program in fiscal year 2021, according to Norwood.

A single female can produce up to four litters annually. These kittens, in turn, can become sexually active as early as four months old. Keeping up with the exponential growth rate is a challenge.

“We’re just making a very small dent in the problem,” Derdak said.

Cue the formation of one of San Antonio’s most intriguingly niche communities: cat groomers. They provide food, water, shelter and veterinary care for one or more stray cats. Devotion to their feline charges, many of whom resist physical affection with bites and scratches, goes beyond financial stability.

“You may be one step away from becoming homeless yourself,” Derdak said, adding, “I know people who … buy tuna with their food stamps.”

While the overwhelming majority of caregivers work alone in the comfort of their own homes and backyards, the most dedicated are among the roughly 200 volunteers at the Wildcat Coalition. Some devote hundreds of dollars a month or dozens of hours a week to their duties.

Caballero was taking a walk through the same park where she would eventually catch the mom-to-be one fall day in 2010 when she saw a bunch of cats running towards a car. It was clear, Caballero said, that they recognized the driver, a woman who was handing out food while Caballero looked on. Inspired by her altruism, Caballero took a course on TNR methodology and began caring for stray cats herself. She now spends two to three hours a day on it.

In the nearly 12 years since Caballero made the jump, the number of cats in the park has gone from 120 to about 24, divided among five colonies — small packs of sterilized cats that stay in one place and socialize with one another. There’s Freddy, a stocky orange tabby; there’s Jimbo, who likes to hang around the train tracks that criss-cross his territory; there’s Blossom, who is so delicate Caballero fears she might be killed by a hawk or some other bird of prey.

“They see our cars, they hear our voices, they come out, they’re very happy to see us,” Caballero said. “You can see them building a relationship with us.”

Caballero has seven cats of her own, not counting the two she currently raises for the Coalition.

Like many caregivers, Caballero and her colleague Yvonne Saldivar grew up around animals — Caballero as a farmer’s daughter and Saldivar as a former veterinarian for the military. It worries her to see people wantonly killing cats or policemen dismissing such killings as trivial.

The similarities often end there.

Nurses are as diverse a community as any other, according to Derdak. Many are suburban moms and dads who bear little resemblance to the stereotypical cat lady. United by nothing but a commitment to alleviating suffering, they have forged strong professional and personal bonds.

Monica Caballero, 53, of the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, sets a trap to capture a female cat at an area park Friday, March 4.

Monica Caballero, 53, of the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, sets a trap to capture a female cat at an area park Friday, March 4.

Jerry Lara / Staff Photographer

“We all know each other,” Caballero said. “It’s like a small network of people that you can rely on when it comes to taking in abandoned animals.”

“This work — and it is work — brings people together and there’s a sense of family,” Derdak said. “And we try to look out for each other and take care of each other and help each other.”

“Whenever it feels like the world is against us, we know our tribe, our like-minded people, are ready in the coalition,” Saldivar said.

What Caballero calls a network, Derdak a family sense, and Saldivar a tribe is far from a necessity in an industry that demands physical and emotional toughness.

Being a cat sitter means being inundated with tales of woe. Caballero has seen or heard of some terrifying sights: poisoned cats, cats hit by cars, cats mauled to death, cats hanging from trees, kittens kidnapped by hawks, kittens torn down by raccoons.

The coalition has received reports of a man who has bred cats to bait wild boar and another who is accused of putting a bag of dead kittens on the bonnet in retaliation for feeding the neighborhood’s stray cats, according to Saldivar to have left his neighbor’s.

“Sometimes I question humanity, and I hate that sometimes it matters,” she said. “But then I remember … there are more like-minded, good-hearted people out there than these bad guys, and that’s what drives me.” Because if I didn’t, I would lose my mind.”

Even cases that don’t involve cruelty can force heartbreaking decisions. For example, when a volunteer rescues a cat in need of thousands of dollars in veterinary care, the coalition faces a difficult choice: save that cat’s life or feed dozens of others for several months. Some volunteers, Caballero said, quit almost immediately because they can’t handle the emotional strain. However, she can’t imagine ever permanently throwing in the towel – swapping the bloody wounds, raging infections, overflowing litter boxes and Sophie’s choices for a mainstream hobby.

“We all personally spend more than we probably should,” Caballero said. But she added, “It makes me happy.”

After making sure the pregnant tuxedo cat was secure in its carrier, Caballero drove to the park to check on Freddy, Jimbo, Blossom, and their colony mates. The cats watched her from a safe distance as she scanned the clearing for safety hazards. Caballero did-tot when she saw open cans in a corner.

Well-meaning people often provide food for the park’s cats, she said, but the act of kindness actually harms the wildcat coalition, as hunger is an incentive to fall into traps.

Satisfied that the colony was stable, Caballero set out for their next target: an abandoned church on the north side. Weathered and abandoned, it has become a popular camp for homeless people, Caballero said. While the windows had at one point been covered with sheets of plywood, one at the back had been forcibly removed, exposing a dark passageway. Rusty nailheads surrounded the makeshift entrance. Nobody seemed to be inside. No one seemed to be on the property except for the cats.

Seeing Caballero approaching, they fled, scaling fences, squeezing through cracks in the church’s clapboard walls, and disappearing into the tall grass of the neglected lawn. Within minutes, the only obvious sign that the property housed any residents was a pair of cat beds on the porch, one white and one with zebra stripes.

Caballero turned and walked back to her blue convertible. She had other things to attend to before she could continue trapping. She shook her head and said she plans to ask Animal Care Services on Saturday morning to take the pregnant cat – that is, perform an abortion.

It was already Friday, but the cat had no intention of cooperating with its captor.

That afternoon, Caballero checked them out and found that San Antonio’s stray cat population had increased by two.

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