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Cat's Cradle 

A story of cats in an abandoned house, the woman who feeds them and the imminent threat they face

There is not much time for Fran Vinnacombe to rue the day she became the keeper of the colony. Two years ago, when she first learned from a neighbor about the wild cats living in the old house on the alley south of downtown, she felt a vague twinge of sympathy, then checked her watch and sped off to her advertising job at Famous-Barr, late as usual. These days, she keeps track of time according to how long the cats have left, which isn't much, and it weighs on her mind pretty heavily. After all, she reasons, this is partly her doing.

When she first went to the century-old abandoned house entangled in overgrown foliage, she found a handful of wild cats whose ancestors had colonized the red-brick cadaver years before. They were wild, tiny lions that quickly disappeared through back doors and cellar windows at the sight of human beings, but there was a helplessness about them that toyed with Vinnacombe's sympathies. Despite her busy schedule, she started leaving food for them several times a week. At the time, it wasn't much of an inconvenience; it was two blocks from where she lived with her husband, and feeding seemed a harmless, and humane, thing to do. "I really am normal," she says. "I'm not a crazy cat lady."

At first, she didn't see much of the cats when she came to leave food, but she sensed them watching her from behind the crumbling stone foundation. And the food would be gone when she returned. Soon she caught more and more glimpses of their wide-eyed curiosity, and eventually they stared warily from porch roofs, stairwells and tree limbs, hungry, haunted and hesitant. Within time, the cats came to recognize the sound of Vinnacombe's car in the alley, and although they came running from their hiding places when they heard her coming, they always stopped beyond touching distance. Vinnacombe was mesmerized by their unapologetic independence.

With each passing month, the cats got healthier. But they also started having more kittens -- up to three litters of three to four kittens per year, per female -- who in turn lived relatively disease-free lives. Vinnacombe quickly realized that if she kept feeding the colony, it would grow uncontrollably. But she also knew that if she alerted the city animal-control division, the cats would be trapped and then, most likely, euthanized. "It's not like anyone wants to adopt a feral adult cat," Vinnacombe says.

In desperation, she contacted a group called Alley Cat Allies (ACA) in Washington, D.C., and learned how to "manage" a feral-cat colony. The group's controversial goal, according to its founder and national director, Becky Robinson, is to maintain the overall health of the wild group with regular feedings and then to trap individuals, spay or neuter them and release them back to the colony. "If a housecat becomes a stray and then has kittens, those kittens are never exposed to people," Robinson says. "That means that in one generation they go wild. So we only return cats (to the colony) who are healthy and have been sterilized. This means the colony remains in place, but slowly, over time, its numbers should decrease, because it becomes a nonbreeding population."

Robinson cites several California studies that seem to indicate that controlling and stabilizing feral-cat colonies leads to a decrease in the number of cats brought to nearby shelters. Her organization hopes to eventually replace the concept of "eradication" with "colony management" and offers free advice and training for potential "colony managers."

Becoming a colony manager, however, requires a daily commitment, as Vinnacombe soon learned. She started feeding the colony -- 3.5 pounds of wet food, five cups of dry food and 1 gallon of fresh water -- every day. It was difficult going to the house every morning before work -- she had trouble getting to work on time as it was -- but if she could start trapping the cats one by one and sterilizing them, then her problem would eventually be solved.

Many animal-control experts, however, wince at the thought. "We really prefer that people not feed feral cats," says Rosemary Ficken, an animal-control supervisor with the St. Louis Health Department. "There is no leash law for cats in the city, so a lot of stray cats do go feral. But we do not encourage anybody feeding them, because they can be a real nuisance."

And, indeed, some people who lived near the abandoned house voiced their concern to Vinnacombe about the growing feral settlement. But Vinnacombe didn't have much of a choice: She'd been at it for almost two years. She now knew each of the cats by sight, knew their ages, their habits and their various disabilities. There was Big Daddy, for instance, the patriarch of the colony, a huge black panther with ears shredded from fights. Then there was Mitzy, the little brindle female, and the two Siamese and the two black kittens who were inseparable. If she stopped feeding them now, they would all probably die.

At the same time, she recognized her responsibilities: "If your kindness adds to the population explosion, it's your responsibility to have them spayed or neutered," Vinnacombe says.

Unfortunately, trapping them proved almost impossible. She managed to capture three, but they were like "miniature buzz saws" once caught. She had them sterilized, but instead of returning them to the colony, she kept them in her own home. But three wasn't enough, and despite all of her efforts, Vinnacombe couldn't lure any more cats into her traps. As the months wore on, more and more kittens arrived.

To Vinnacombe's horror, so, too, did developers, contractors and subcontractors, who at the beginning of this year's warm weather, began rehabbing the historic old house. Although she usually welcomed any sign of urban renewal, this one cut a mile-wide trench through Vinnacombe's heart. With every new storm window, sheet of drywall or roll of roofing felt nailed in place, the cats -- her cats, now -- were that much closer to eviction. They'd already been forced to migrate to the cellar of the neighboring shell of a house, but that, too, would soon be invaded by construction crews.

Vinnacombe spoke to the people working on the house and explained her situation. The workmen readily agreed not to hurt any of the cats, and John Thompson, of Thompson Construction, even took a full litter of newborns home when he found them hidden between the ceiling and the roof. But she knows it's just a matter of time. Last week, one crew started reconstructing the roof, and another began clearing away brush from the backyard.

Over the weekend, Vinnacombe managed to trap one of the black kittens, but whether she'll find a suitable home for it is questionable. "People think you can't tame wild cats, but if you work at it, if you want to, you can," Vinnacombe insists. "And that first time that you bend over and they rub against you, it's so cool, because this wild thing has finally said, 'You're OK.'"

If she manages to capture the rest -- an unlikely prospect -- Vinnacombe will have them sterilized and hopes she can convince enough people to at least take them in and feed them in their own yards.

This morning, Vinnacombe bends over the eight blue bowls she set out the morning before and wipes each one clean with a paper towel as she soothingly calls to the dozens of animals gathering around her. Like hundreds of other colony managers in urban areas across the country, Vinnacombe feels a profound sense of responsibility. The sound of hammers and hacksaws from the house, though, reminds her that hers is being lifted involuntarily from her shoulders.

Related Links:
Alley Cat Allies
St. Louis City Animal Shelter

Queries about the feral cats mentioned in this story can be sent here.

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More by Melinda Roth

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