Every night the gray cat curls up on the air conditioner unit outside 23-year-old RN Mary Katherine Hudson’s bedroom window and meows, waking her up.
It’s not just the one cat either, dozens of stray and feral cats live in her apartment complex. So many, in fact, that the management sent out a letter threatening to fine any tenants who feed them.
However, this is not unique to the 109’s Overton Trails apartment complex, where Hudson lives.
Cari Alexander, director and founder of Frogs and Cats Together and TCU’s music and media librarian, said the last number of stray and feral cats counted in Fort Worth was 150,000.
This number might be conservative, Alexander said. The cats are hard to count because for every one that is seen and counted, five are hiding.
The cat population can increase at a rapid speed because one female cat is capable of having two and a half liters a year after they become sexually mature and able to reproduce when they are between four and six months old, Alexander said.
“It’s awful,” Hudson said. “The one [cat] follows me from my car home and just makes noise all night. Some mornings there are even paw prints on my car.”
Robert Reilly, a criminal justice major at TCU, lives in the same complex as Hudson and said his dog keeps getting sick from eating the cat food that is left by the woman who feeds them.
Reilly said the house he used to rent was often visited by cats, too.
The cat population consists of feral and stray cats but distinguishing the difference between the two is almost impossible.
“Feral have either been born in the wild to a feral or a stray gone to feral mother or they’ve just been out of domestic for so long they don’t remember,” Alexander said. “That’s the thing that cats do, they’re great survivors. It takes them about four or five days their survival instincts kick in. It doesn’t take them long to go semi-feral.”
Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection of cats, uses things like body language, vocalization and the cat’s schedule to distinguish between the two.
Alexander said cat populations on college campuses, like a lot of TCU’s cat population, come from students abandoning their pet.
“They need a food-water-shelter source and college campuses are great for that,” she said. “If we can get to them quickly enough, we can re-socialize them and then put them through an adoption venue.”
Feral cats are harder to socialize according to Ally Cat Allies. It is in their best interest to live outside.
Kittens up to four months old, feral or stray, can be socialized and make good companion pets, but after four months it becomes almost impossible to socialize them, Alexander said.
Hudson said she doesn’t have a problem with the cats being around, but the waking her up and following her home is starting to bug her.
“At some point enough is enough. I’m not ready to be a crazy cat lady no matter how much they [the cats] want me to be,” she said. “It wasn’t bad when it was just the one, but every night it seems like there’s another [cat].”
Reilly said he is no longer going to stop his black lab from chasing the cats.
“Maybe she can get them or scare them off and they will just go away,” he said. “They are so annoying.”
Getting rid of the current cat population won’t mean the population won’t come back.
According to Alley Cat Allies, biologists have found that removing the cats only creates a vacuum that attracts other members of the species from neighboring areas.
It only takes one female cat to start a colony, which soon turns into 35 cats, Alexander said.
Fort Worth Animal Care & Control provides Trap, Neuter and Release services for feral and stray cats but does not try to socialize or adopt them out.
Frogs and Cats Together focuses on Trap, Neuter and Return as opposed to release.
Alexander said the use and understanding of return instead of release is very important.
“The adults are going to come back because three quarters of the time they’re not capable [of being socialized],” she said. “Every once in awhile they’re a previously socialized cat that once they get back inside they’re like, ‘Oh thank God, I’m with humans again,’ but most of the time they are wild as march hares.”
The cats returning can be beneficial to the environment and nearby individuals.
“At one time the [apartment] office got rid of almost all of them [the cats], but then there were cockroaches,” Tyler Chandler an assistant chemical engineer and resident of the complex said. “But before you could complain about the cockroaches the cats were back. You basically have to pick one.”
After the cats return, they are better behaved, they don’t reproduce and they control the rodent and reptile population, Alexander said.
Trap, Neuter and Return is not hard but is time-consuming, Alexander said.
The process starts by finding where the cat colony spends the majority of their time and feeding them, Alexander said.
“The feeding is so important,” she said. “You gain their trust that way, you can watch them for medical issues and you can watch for new ones to show up.”
Despite the necessity, feeding the cats is not popular among the public, she said.
An email sent out from the apartment complex management on Nov. 11 said that large numbers of cats and cat food were seen around the complex. It said, “Please be aware that any resident that is caught feeding the ferell cats will be charged $100.00 per offense.”
Jodi Perrigo a 47-year-old accountant and self-proclaimed cat lover feeds the cats in the Overton Trails complex nightly with no worries about a fine.
“They can try to fine me, but you have to feed them if you neuter or spay them and if they want them gone this is how you do it,” Perrigo said.
Perrigo has lived in the complex for seven years and says the number of cats has remained steady.
She has also been feeding and trapping the cats for all seven years.
“Every company and manager that comes in wants to get rid of the cats. What they don’t realize is I am getting rid of the cats, but more will fill that one’s place. It’s a cycle,” she said.
After Perrigo traps the cats, she gives them to rescue groups to be adopted out as opposed to returning them to the complex.
One of the complex’s management companies over the years was shooting the cats with BB guns and after that started she decided getting them away from the area was the best solution for everyone, Perrigo said.
It is not just cats being around the area and waking neighbors up that is the problem, they can pose health risk to humans as well.
Most of the diseases affect people only through contact with a cat like rabies, while some are from bacteria and fecal matter.
Alexander said that Trap, Neuter and Return allows cats to get vaccinated, which helps curb diseases.
“They get vaccinated for rabies for sure and it’s a three-year shot,” Alexander said.
The life expectancy of a feral cat is between three to six years so the vaccine basically covers them for their entire life, Alexander said.
“Once they’ve had the rabies vaccine it’s always kind of in there, so it’s not that big of a deal if they don’t get revaccinated,” she said.
What cats are using as their litter box needs to be monitored, Alexander said.
“If they’re too close to daycares they’ll go over to the sand box and think ‘Oh this is the biggest litter box I’ve ever seen’,” she said. “So, in that case you have to redirect and kind of move them down a little bit.”
However, relocating is difficult and avoided as much as possible, Alexander said.
“Part of what’s great about Trap, Neuter and Return is you are watching for [feline leukemia]. Some groups get them tested, we get all of our [cats] tested because we are a campus population and that’s part of our mission, to have the cats safe and the students safe,” Alexander said.
Hudson said she has never been worried about catching a disease because the cats won’t let her get close to them.
Perrigo said she has only seen a handful of cats with any sort of disease through the seven years she has been rescuing them and none of the diseases were serious or untreatable.
The cat population in Fort Worth seems to have stabilized after the City of Fort Worth introduced mandated Trap, Neuter and Release, Perrigo said.
Alexander said the cat population on TCU’s campus is not increasing because the organization does not let it.
Frogs and Cats Together has served the TCU campus since 2004, trapping roughly 200 cats in that time, Alexander said.
The organization consists of five or six people who each have their own colony of cats, which they take care of.
“Everybody’s got their colonies they go feed. They’ve established their trust their bond,” she said. “That’s what makes people so passionate about when they do this, it’s like they have cats. The know their cats, they’ve named them, they’ve fixed them, they’ve taken care of them and so it’s not for the faint of heart because stuff does happen to them. Its heart-wrenching, it’s like losing an animal.”