Cattrap ministers to feral cats on Martha’s Vineyard

Lee Dubin of Cattrap Inc. and Susie. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Feral cats, which number some 70 million in the U.S., caught former Island resident Laurie Huff’s attention in the early 1990s. So, she founded Cattrap Inc., a nonprofit agency dedicated to trapping, neutering, providing shots and worming, before releasing the cats back to their habitat with a small ear clip noting that they have been treated.

Ms. Huff lives in California now, but West Tisbury resident Lee Dubin has continued the work since moving to the Island 12 years ago. She estimates that Cattrap has ministered to 5,000 feral Island cats since its inception in 1994. She has no idea what the Island feral cat population is, but a study found online this week indicated that one pair of feral cats can produce generations totaling 400,000 cats within seven years. The Island is regarded nationally as an origination point for a now vigorous national feral cat care movement. AnnaBell Washburn is generally credited with beginning the first U.S. shelter for ferals here in 1980.

In an interview during a stormy weekend, Ms. Dubin showed this reporter the headquarters for Cattrap operation, 15 acres of farmland on Christiantown Road in West Tisbury, which can temporarily house dozens of wild cats.

Ms. Dubin was also in the midst of a perfect storm of felines last weekend. “We got a call from a gentleman in Aquinnah who had attracted a colony of 40 cats and kittens. We’ve trapped 38 of them to date, including 23 new kittens. We’re calling them The Aquinnah 40, “she said as she moved through a series of rooms in a former horse barn, battening down the feline hatches in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy’s arrival. She explained the function of myriad separate spaces, some with caged areas for recently trapped cats awaiting treatment and other open spaces with cat doors for 15 permanent feline residents, part of an initial group of 59 cats tended by Ms. Huff.

Cages are an important component of the feral care system Ms. Dubin oversees. “We don’t handle the animals. They are resistant to human touch, so we need a series of transport cages and residential cages that interface so we can move them safely,” she said, noting that she uses Tru-Catch traps. “They are square-ended and fit our transport and shelter cages.”

Before moving to the Island with her husband, Richard, Ms. Dubin volunteered on Cape Cod, forming a chapter of PAWS, a national animal care organization. She met Ms. Huff at a conference.

“I asked Dick, whose law practice is here, whether we could move to the Island rather than commuting, so I could work with Laurie,” she recalled.

Last weekend, Ms. Dubin was preparing to transport five cats and kittens to an Island veterinary office for spaying/neutering, worming, and rabies shots.

“I can’t tell you how remarkable our vet partners are,” she said. “Some offer us a hugely discounted rate. Others volunteer in other ways. I mean, we aren’t talking about treating one domesticated kitten here. This is a group of feral cats. I can’t thank them enough.”

Ms. Dubin has adopted a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to the Aquinnah 40 colony of ferals. “I like to raise the money before treating them, but time was of the essence here, so I went ahead with treatment and hope to recoup my expenses,” she said.

Earlier this month Ms. Dubin used a $500 coupon she received to take 10 cats to Fall River for treatment. “I’d prefer, obviously, to treat them on Island, but it takes some of the pressure off our vet partners,” she said.

Cattrap is a charitable organization funded by donations, with expenses of about $20,000 a year, Ms. Dubin said.

A fundraiser called Caring for Kitties will be held this Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs. A gourmet Italian dinner will be served between 5:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children, with proceeds benefiting the care of the Aquinnah 40. Tickets are available at Healthy Additions on State Road in Vineyard Haven or by calling Ms. Dubin at 508-696-3869. Donations may be sent to Cattrap Inc., PO Box 1273, West Tisbury, MA 02575.

Cattrap works with other Island animal care agencies. “Really, I’m the facilitator,” she said. “We have the space to house the cats, but we couldn’t do this work without these organizations and the animal control officers. The Animal Shelter has helped in the adoption process and lists us on their Facebook pages.”

Noting that the Aquinnah 40 includes 10 kittens suitable for adoption, Ms. Dubin said, “We’re hoping that a joint effort to adopt will find good homes. We want to give them 10 kittens wormed, neutered, with shots and their nails clipped, ready to go.

“Adoption fees would go to the shelter. These are kittens that are a few weeks old, that are being socialized, and the shelter, understandably, has a 10-day quarantine period for new arrivals, which can be a problem for socializing the kittens. So we want to move fast.”

While the first generations of feral cats began as stray or abandoned domesticated animals, they adapt to the wild, and succeeding generations resist domestication. Feral-born kittens in the four- to eight-week age range can be domesticated, but the opportunity for domestication is a tight window.

“Knowing what I know now, I would never attempt or advise domesticating an adult feral,” Ms. Dubin said. “You might have a five-month-old feral be willing to sit on your lap — after seven or eight years.”

Just then, Holiday, a pleasant, long-time feline resident at Cattrap, served as an example. Holiday responds to Ms. Dubin’s voice but avoids physical contact.

Ms. Dubin is also aware of a national debate about whether trap/neuter/release (TNR) or euthanizing is the better option to control the increase in feral cats. She agrees with the view that TNR is the best option. “Euthanization is expensive and is too time-consuming,” she said. “You can’t just go to the MSPCA (Masssachisetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) anymore, and we can’t keep up with feral growth that way. Releasing neutered animals is the most effective solution over time.”

Ornithological groups worry that ferals present a predatory problem for bird populations, though Ms. Dubin says she sees little evidence. “I’m no expert, but I don’t find bird carcasses here,” she said. “Ferals also eat mice and other rodents, so, on balance, I don’t think it’s a big problem.”

The long-term future of Cattrap is a problem, however. Six years ago the land on which it sits was sold and the buyer agreed to lease back the 15 acres to Cattrap for seven years. The lease runs out in December, 2013. “I’m worried about what will happen to Cattrap,” Ms. Dubin said. “This is the only facility on the Island that’s equipped for this work right now.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Dubin is committed to the work. “I love cats but, honestly, I like dogs a little better,” she said, smiling. “I just believe this work is important. It needs to be done.”

The story has been changed from it’s orgininal posting. The first version stated that Ms. Dubin moved to the Island with two sons and her husband. She has one son and one daughter who were in college when they move to the Vineyard.