On her third try at the mobile home park, Donna Peiffer finally trapped Big Fluffer. He wasn't happy about it.
Fangs bared, the beefy gray tomcat hissed and thrashed in his cage, shooting Peiffer a murderous look as she covered the trap with a sheet and loaded it into her car for the trip to the veterinarian. Big Fluffer didn't know it, but he'd be back in a day or two, minus his testicles.
"The neighbors think he's the one fathering most of the kittens around here," Peiffer said, panting from the exertion of lifting the heavy trap into the back of her SUV. "Well, that's done."
Called feral, free-roaming or community cats, the Lehigh Valley is teeming with animals like Big Fluffer – the name given to him by the residents of the Breinigsville, Pa., mobile home park. Each spring, the feral cat population swells as females deliver litters in woodpiles and under porches, a phenomenon that overwhelmed rescuers call "kitten season."
Advocates say trapping, neutering and returning feral cats to where they were found, a process called TNR, helps reduce both the number of cats and the mating behaviors – like fighting and spraying urine – that infuriate residents. While volunteer groups have long spearheaded TNR efforts, more government agencies, including the Bethlehem Police Department, are now getting involved.
"TNR programs are a long-term solution to a continuous problem," Bethlehem Chief of Police Mark DiLuzio wrote in a memo introducing his department's TNR initiative in July. "If we do nothing, the issues will still be here and will grow."
PUBLIC HEALTH PROBLEM
Feral cats are a touchy subject in many Lehigh Valley towns, where cat-loving residents ignore or protest ordinances against feeding them, while their neighbors complain about cats turning gardens into litter boxes and slaughtering songbirds.
"Domestic cats have no natural place in our environment, therefore, in my opinion, every effort should be made to remove them completely and permanently from the outdoors," said Peter Saenger, president of the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society.
Even DiLuzio, who likes cats so much that his press releases and memos often feature feline photos, acknowledges that feral cats can cause problems. His officers routinely field complaints about large cat colonies in the city.
"It's a public health issue, and it's a safety issue," DiLuzio said. "People can get scratched or bitten. A cat, like any other animal, can spread rabies."
When done correctly, TNR helps prevent rabies and other diseases, advocates say. Before being released, trapped cats get a medical exam, rabies and distemper vaccine and, at some clinics, flea and tick treatment. Unfixed male cats, which constantly fight over females, often come in with bite wounds and need antibiotics, said Dr. Nicole Paul, a veterinarian at No Nonsense Neutering in Allentown.
"We can see some terrible bite wound abscesses," she said. "That's another good reason to get these cats fixed. If there's less fighting, there's less biting and less chance they are spreading diseases."
Trapped cats are also "ear tipped" before being released, a process in which the top one-half inch of the left ear is removed, leaving a clean line that's distinguishable from more ragged wounds that a cat might sustain in a fight. Ear tips are a signal to other trappers that a cat has already been spayed or neutered.
Sterilizing both pet and wild cats is important, Paul said. Female cats can have up to three litters a year, with an average of four kittens in each litter.
Up to 75 percent of kittens born to free-roaming cats die, according to the Humane Society of the United States, from poor nutrition, disease and parasites. Others are killed by predators and male cats, or are hit by cars.
"The babies born outside certainly suffer," Paul said.
Paul performed surgeries on 42 cats, including Big Fluffer, on a recent Friday. She said the number was typical for this time of year, when more people seek help from trappers.
FEEDING WITHOUT FIXING
No Nonsense, a nonprofit with five locations in five counties, charges $35 to neuter and vaccinate feral cats. While that's far less than the $200 or more a pet cat owner might pay at a for-profit veterinarian, it's still too much for some people who suddenly find themselves hosting a colony after leaving food out.
"People feed, but they don't fix," said Carolann Dos Santos, a trapper working in Bethlehem's TNR program. "When they find that TNR costs money, they say, 'It's not my cat.'"
Some municipalities chip in for TNR, paying No Nonsense an annual fee that defrays residents' bills. Homeowners in some Lehigh Valley communities can benefit from a PetCo Foundation grant procured by the Sanctuary at Haafsville that drops the cost of TNR to $15.
In some towns, including Hellertown, Forks and Palmer townships, there's no co-pay for residents who bring feral cats to No Nonsense Neutering. A full list can be found on the nonprofit clinic's website.
In Upper Macungie Township, residents pay just $15 for TNR at No Nonsense. That helped Bill Kotowski, who inherited a 17-cat colony when he bought land to build a house several years ago.
"The previous owner did tell me that I was getting some cats with the property. I thought it would only be a couple cats," Kotowski said. "Then all these cats started coming out of the woods."
Peiffer, who volunteers with No Kill Lehigh Valley, a Bethlehem nonprofit that helps pet owners with unexpected veterinary bills and promotes TNR, trapped the adult cats on Kotowski's property and found homes for several kittens. While adult feral cats are aggressive and cannot be pets, young kittens can be socialized.
Over time, Kotowski's colony shrunk to five cats.
"It was invaluable, what she did for me. There was no way I could have done it myself," he said.
REDUCING THE POPULATION
A lifelong cat fan, Peiffer, 56, of Allentown, began rescuing cats about nine years ago. She was mourning the death of her own cat and found an outlet in volunteering.
A corporate flight attendant by day, Peiffer spends many nights crouched behind trees, holding her breath as feral cats circle the traps she baits with smelly canned fish or cat food. When a trap door slams shut, Peiffer, leaps into action, racing to lock the trap and cover it with a cloth. Once covered, the trapped cats calm down and are usually quiet during the ride to the veterinarian.
Male cats need about a day of recovery after surgery, female cats at least two days. Peiffer keeps them in her garage during this time, then brings them back and releases them.
On the night she caught Big Fluffer, one of 22 cats she and other volunteers recently pulled from the same mobile home park, Peiffer trapped a small black cat with an ear tip. She recognized it from a previous trapping expedition and released it.
"Look at the way it bolted out of the trap," she said, as the cat escaped in a blur. "That's how you can tell it's feral."
While there are few scientific studies on the effectiveness of TNR in reducing feral cat populations, local proponents say they're seeing results. Dos Santos, who runs a cat rescue in Hellertown when she's not trapping for Bethlehem police, said she responded to 70 TNR requests in Hellertown in 2015. Last year, the number dropped to seven.
DiLuzio believes Bethlehem residents will also see fewer feral cats if they're patient and let the TNR process work. He hopes the effort cuts down on animal cruelty cases, since his officers have found cats shot and poisoned in the city.
"The way you judge a society is by the way it treats its animals," he said. "This is not a cat problem, it's a human problem."