Making a Difference for Community Cats: Project Bay

Photo provided by Project Bay Cat
Photo provided by Project Bay Cat

What would you do if you found 175 cats living along a popular hiking/biking trail? In 2004, that’s what the founders and volunteers of Project Bay Cat faced along San Francisco Bay. They began spaying/neutering the cats. They also rescued kittens and friendly adult cats and found them homes. A feeding program was developed, with feeding stations being placed well away from wildlife habitats. The group also launched several efforts to stop the abandonment of cats. According to its Facebook page, the idea behind Project Bay Cat is “to humanely manage the cats and gradually allow their numbers to decline due to natural attrition and adoption.”

When record keeping first started in 2004, there were nearly 175 unfixed cats. Due to the group’s TNR efforts, adoption of friendlier cats, and natural attrition, the population has been reduced by 98%.

There are an estimated 30-90 million homeless community cats in the United States, but models like that of the MRFRS prove that TNR works. For today’s post, I interviewed Cimeron who is a co-founder of Project Bay and Martha was a project team leader. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post examples of other successful TRN programs.

Photo provided by Project Bay
Photo provided by Project Bay

ALLISON: Why did you start Project Bay?

CIMERON: We looked at every possible solution and analyzed each for its long-term effectiveness, how humane the solution would be, its cost, and the effort each would take. In addition to TNR being the obvious humane solution, one of the other primary reasons why we chose to employ TNR is because it provided a permanent solution. It was really the only option that provided that. There are scores of examples throughout the world that show that killing feral cats does not permanently reduce their numbers. Remaining uncaught cats over-breed to fill the void left by those that are killed. This creates an endless cycle that costs municipalities and taxpayers extraordinary amounts of money. It also creates an endless cycle of killing, which is a pretty barbaric method of “control.” Our research told us that killing feral cats is not only an inhumane approach, it’s also ineffective and costly one.

ALLISON: How did you get TNR put in place?

CIMERON: Methodically! We first created a tracking sheet to identify all the colonies and each cat within each colony, which helped us determine how many cats there were and to develop a plan about where to trap first. Then we used that tool to keep track of each cat with relevant info, like when he/she was fixed and vaccinated, any health issues/treatments the cat has had, whether the cat had kittens, etc. This helped us keep detailed histories on each and every cat, which is very helpful.

We also were lucky enough to have two wonderful veterinary hospitals offer to spay/neuter the cats for free, and one of those vets continues to provide ongoing free care for the cats whenever they’re injured or ill. There are some wonderful people in this world, and our vet is one of them!

Photo provided by Project Bay
Photo provided by Project Bay

ALLISON: Who most supported your TNR efforts?

CIMERON: That’s a hard one to answer. So many people supported us in such amazing ways! The vets we work with are simply incredible and supported us a ton. The City is phenomenal and has supported our efforts every step of the way. The community stepped up and many became super dedicated volunteers and donors, and we couldn’t have done it without them either. And Homeless Cat Network, our parent organization, has supported us throughout this whole time with donations of kibble, they built the feeding stations, helped us organize and run fund raisers, and whenever there was room in their foster program, they also fostered some kittens and adult cats for us to help socialize them and find them homes. It’s truly been a joint effort with so many people in our community working together to make it happen. Our success is due entirely to this team effort approach, and to the incredible efforts of all the people involved in Project Bay Cat. We are grateful to each and every one of them!

ALLISON: Did you face any opposition?

CIMERON: The City held public meetings to discuss the issues and hear concerns from the community. Just about everyone was concerned about the well-being of the cats. No one wanted to see them suffer and it’s clear they needed help. Some were concerned about the impact the cats had on the general enjoyment of the trail beside which they live. (Let’s face it, it’s hard to enjoy a nice walk when you see starving kittens with goopy eyes screaming at you for help). And some were concerned that the cats could be impacting birds. Interestingly, there was one lady who was concerned that there weren’t enough cats on the trail. She wanted to see MORE cats there because she wanted them to chase away birds. (She doesn’t like bird poop.) The City brought together the people who represented the main concerns and we quickly figured out that we share common goals. Once you look at a challenge in this way and try to identify common goals, then you can come up with common solutions. All of us agreed that we want to treat the cats humanely, protect birds, improve the trail-users experience, and work toward the goal of making the trail totally cat-free in time.

Photo provided by Project Bay
Photo provided by Project Bay

ALLISON: To what do you contribute the decrease in numbers of free-roaming cats?

CIMERON: It’s a combination of things. To be honest, when we first began the program, we didn’t know if our TNR and rescue/adoption approach would work or not. None of the parties involved had ever done TNR on this large of a scale, so we’ve kept meticulous records to chart the program’s progress. Also, at our request, the City put up signs all over the trail explaining that abandonment is illegal, so that has helped a lot too (since the colony first started due to illegal cat abandonment).

As of 2016, the original colony size had been reduced by 79.4%. More than 95% of the cats had been spayed/neutered and vaccinated, which stabilized the colony and allowed it to decrease due to natural attrition and adoption. 124 cats and kittens had been placed in permanent homes, which has been another reason for the decrease. Every year, the colony size decreases, and one day in the not-too-distant future, there won’t be any cats living along the pedway.

ALLISON: How have you tracked this data?

CIMERON: A very simple tracking tool that we originally created as a Word document. It’s basically a table with several columns of info about each cat, such as: name, photo, medical history, description of unique identification (such as “right ear nip, kinked tail” etc), date they were last seen, etc. We also create an annual report for the City and Homeless Cat Network to summarize the previous year’s statistics, happenings and important info.

Photo provided by Project Bay
Photo provided by Project Bay

ALLISON: What have relocations/barn programs been like?

CIMERON: We are a TNR/colony management program, not a relocation program. We care for the Project Bay cats on-site. We have had several cats adopted, but that’s not considered relocation.

ALLISON: What have been adoptions been like?

CIMERON: Simply incredible! Sometimes it takes a bit of time for the cats to adjust to life indoors, but most often, they take to the good life immediately. We have lots of posts about this on our Facebook page, so scroll through the photos and videos and you’ll see lots of happy adoption tales.

ALLISON: How do you recruit and train volunteers?
We find new volunteers by posting videos on our Facebook page, by word-of-mouth, and by referrals from our volunteers.

ALLISON: How do you volunteers stay in contact with each other?

MARTHA: We mostly use email to correspond with our volunteers. We have a contact list that we use with a group email list of all our volunteers, a separate email distribution list for weekend backup feeders and weekday backup feeders to cover if our regular feeders are not available so the volunteers know who to contact. We also have a Yahoo Group established for Project Bay cats on Yahoo, where we have group emails and can upload files, contact lists, etc so they are all in one place for our volunteers to access.

ALLISON: Does Project Bay Cats have any guidelines?

MARTHA: Our volunteers are required to sign a Volunteer Application Form and Liability Agreement with our parent rescue group, Homeless Cat Network (HCN) before they can volunteer so we have their contact info and an emergency contact on file. If under 18 yrs old, the volunteer must have a parent or guardian sign.

ALLISON: Share a sad moment of TNR.

CIMERON: A few of the Bay Cats have had terminal cancers and once they began to suffer, we had to put them to sleep to spare them pain. We develop relationships with the cats, even those we can’t touch, so when we have to make the difficult decision to put one to sleep when they’re declining and cannot be cured, it’s tough. But we accept it since it’s all part of colony management work. We try to focus on the fact that their time on earth was happy and fulfilling, thanks to the dedicated efforts of our volunteers and our program.

Photo provided by Project Bay
Photo provided by Project Bay

ALLISON: Share a high moment of TNR.

CIMERON: The highlight of TNR is seeing the difference it makes in the cats’ lives and the way it effectively stabilizes the colony size. Once spayed/neutered and vaccinated, we saw that the cats relaxed a lot since they no longer had to carry the burden of pregnancy, care for kittens or fight for mates. And since kittens were no longer being born, the colony size stopped growing. These are huge benefits of TNR.

ALLISON: Anything else?

CIMERON: We’re profoundly glad that we chose TNR as our approach to solving our feral cat challenges. It has worked extremely well for us, and our goal of permanently solving the feral cat challenge will soon be achieved. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of people are involved, but it’s really enriched all of our lives and made us more compassionate people for doing this work. I can say with certainty that I’m a better person for having been involved with Project Bay Cat.

Doing animal rescue work is profoundly life-changing, not just for the animals, but for all of us who help them. Through our Project Bay Cat community, we’ve met some amazing people who have blown us away with their kindness, compassion and dedication. And there have been times when no one has been available to help out, which pushed us to get creative and taught us that we were far more resourceful than we ever thought. Doing this work of love forces us to face tough issues, which helps us figure out who we really are and how important it is to stand up for what we believe in. It teaches us to be more ourselves, to push through the fear and anxiety, to focus on what really matters most. To see the difference it makes to the animals we’re helping, to turn their lives around, that’s pretty incredible.

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