City Beat

City Beat: Feral cats in Sacramento have human friends

Some people play golf on the weekends or go wine tasting. I have a buddy who fixes up old Studebakers.

Carrie Holler? Her hobby is taking care of a gang of feral cats that lives in some bushes near the Sacramento River.

“I’m totally not a crazy cat lady,” she said.

She certainly doesn’t seem like one. Holler is a state worker who drives a nice little Volkswagen. She rides her bike on the weekends and has lots of friends.

And every morning, Holler stops by an alley off Front Street to feed a colony of 35 wild cats. She has names for many of them. Christopher Robin is a friendly little gray guy. The colony’s alpha male walks around attacking the other cats and has an obscene name we can’t print in the newspaper.

You might think Holler’s hobby is the kind of endeavor city officials would frown upon. Feral cats are basically wild animals. There are fears they spread a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis to people and other animals. Bird lovers hate feral cats because feral cats love birds.

Then you meet Gina Knepp, the director of the city animal shelter, and it all makes sense.

Knepp is energetic and unapologetic. The big shots at City Hall love her because she gets things done.

For two years, Knepp has aided a network of people who feed and care for feral cat colonies. When these volunteers find a new cat in their tribe, they bring it to Knepp, who vaccinates and spays or neuters the animal. If it’s feral, the critter is returned to the colony.

Other organizations have been working to save these cats for years. But when Knepp took over the city animal shelter three years ago, the facility was killing 700 feral cats a year. That number has dipped below 100, and Knepp argues the new philosophy will stabilize the feral cat population.

So what is a feral cat? Well, it’s not the ordinary neighborhood kitty that the nice lady next door feeds. It probably won’t play with your kids or sit in your lap.

A feral cat is a cat that has lived most or all of its life outdoors. It roams the streets in a pack. If given the chance, it will gladly rip your face off.

OK, it won’t rip your face off. And Knepp said she’s taking all kinds of measures to protect us from these beasts, pumping rabies vaccination into every feral cat she gets her hands on. She also wants people to stop dumping cats in alleys.

But people do, and the cats are everywhere. Knepp said one woman takes care of 26 colonies and spends $1,000 a month on cat food. There’s probably a feral cat colony in your neighborhood, with someone like Holler watching over it. People who study such things estimate there is one feral cat for every six humans in a city like ours. That’s about 80,000 feral cats in Sacramento.

It makes one little mountain lion roaming through east Sacramento seem pretty harmless.