This is a story of how one can become a crazy cat lady, despite being categorically opposed to the concept, let alone the practice. In many ways, it’s a story just like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life, except instead of ending with people celebrating the true meaning of Christmas and the innate goodness of humanity, it ends with a woman feeding a bunch of cats in the freezing cold while talking to herself.

The tale began last summer when I returned home from vacation to discover a feral orange cat had given birth under my porch. The kittens were already scampering about—when they weren’t lying on top of one another in an orange heap—and Momma Cat was prowling around for food and bolting every time I attempted to investigate the situation (the underside of my porch is not particularly easy to access and bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Upside Down in Stranger Things).
Truth be told, I fervently wanted to ignore the entire situation, but my supportive friend group urged me not to with statements like, “If you don’t do something, those kittens will die and it will be all your fault.”
I found it hard to reconcile my lifelong status as an animal lover with the putative title Kitten Killer, so I asked around for tips and was directed toward the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society’s Gatos de Santa Fe program (sfhumanesociety.org/our-programs/gatos-de-santa-fe).
The five-year-old free program is a Trap, Neuter, Return (TNR) initiative for the city’s feral cats. When kittens are involved, if they are young enough to be socialized, they’re put into foster care and then up for adoption. Adult cats are neutered and then re-released into their neighborhoods to continue being cats who no longer make more cats.
And so it was I found myself in my driveway at 5 am (prime cat-catching time, apparently) waiting for Gatos de Santa Fe’s Mike Mason (who has since retired) to meet me and set the traps. For the record, you don’t have to meet them—they will set the traps while you remain in bed—but I was worried he might have trouble locating the spot where Momma Cat and the kittens had decided to take up residence.
The trapping went on for a few days and, by the end of the week, Mason had caught all four kittens, Momma Cat and a male cat I decided was Baby Daddy. The kittens indeed went into foster care and I tracked them through the system until they were adopted.
But what to do about Momma Cat and Baby Daddy?
Mason told me they might decide my yard wasn’t safe and take off (what with the kidnapping and all), but they might not. He offhandedly suggested I might put some food out, noting they would particularly appreciate it post-surgery.
Fast forward six months to now, winter, where I am greeted by Momma Cat and Baby Daddy each day at 7:30 am as they await their food. “Greeted” is a bit of a stretch. They stand several feet away until I put their food out and run if I move even slightly toward them.
That’s OK. I don’t need love from random cats. I have a domesticated cat, Jasmine, whom I adopted five years ago from the shelter who spends most of her life trying to sit on my lap.
SF Animal Shelter Executive Director Jennifer Steketee, a veterinarian, says the Gatos de Santa Fe program “has dramatically changed the number of homeless cats in our community. The number of cats coming into the shelter has been drastically reduced.” As a result of increased space, the shelter has even been able to take cats from elsewhere.
Feral cats are very unlikely to ever become pets, she told me. But enlisting Gatos de Santa Fe is the humane option for helping cats who live outdoors, who will generally live longer lives if they are fixed, she says. And it’s better for the people living with feral cats, since spayed or neutered cats are less of a nuisance.
“Some people don’t like that male cats are peeing around their yard,” she says. “When they’re neutered, they don’t do it as much, so it can be a benefit to the homeowner. They also won’t have loud cat sex, and sometimes that’s annoying to people.” Are there people who do like male cats peeing in their yards and listening to loud cat sex? A story for another season …

If you, like me, have feral cats in the vicinity and want to help them stay healthy during the winter season, here are some tips:

  • Ensure they have access to fresh water, which will freeze in the winter
  • Create an insulated space for them (alleycat.org has several options, including the DIY variety)
  • Set up a feeding station to keep food out of the elements, and heat up canned food and/or use heated electric bowls