Tuolumne River Regional Park in Modesto is one of the county's most beautiful parks, says Karen Mosser, a daily visitor.
Mosser isn't there just to soak up the ambience, though. She's there to take care of some of the park's residents: a colony of feral cats.
About 20 of them live in blackberry bushes. Wary of people and predators, they tend to stay hidden. But when Mosser's car pulls into the park, they come running.
She knows them all.
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"Sylvester is the head male of the colony. He's a black and white 'tuxedo' cat, and he rules the roost," Mosser said. Some are shy, and there always seem to be newcomers, kittens and tame adult cats dumped by owners who no longer want them.
Mosser traps the new arrivals and gets them sterilized. They get a tell-tale notch on their ear, so she knows which have been fixed.
"You must fix the cats if you are feeding them," Mosser said.
The idea of maintaining a feral cat colony is that if the members are sterilized and fed daily, they can live out their lives without breeding and adding to cat overpopulation.
Statistics on feral cats are hard to come by because the cats are almost impossible to count. Estimates of the population nationwide are 60 million to 70 million.
Feral cat organizations estimate that one pair of breeding cats and their offspring can produce more than 400,000 cats in seven years.
Stanislaus County officials and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals support the trap, neuter and return concept, but not everyone does.
The American Bird Conservancy and the Wildlife Society oppose the practice because they consider feral cats to be a non-native species that preys on native birds and rodents.
The Stanislaus Audubon Society hasn't taken a stand, but the national Audubon Society contends that feral and free-ranging domestic cats have a "significant, negative impact on bird populations."
Feral cat colonies must be registered with Stanislaus County, and the caretaker must feed the cats daily and make a "reasonable" effort to sterilize the members of the colony, according to the county's animal control ordinance.
The alternatives -- trapping and taking the cats to the county animal shelter to be euthanized, or letting them continue to breed, adding to the county's overpopulation of stray cats -- are unacceptable to Mosser and others who adopt feral colonies.
Neva Walker cares for colonies in downtown Waterford and at the Fox Grove Fishing Access on the Tuolumne River at Geer Road. Rozelle Seifert tends a colony behind a shopping center in northeast Modesto.
The colony tenders say they got started largely by accident. Seifert was driving through the shopping center four years ago when she spotted some wild cats "running around and looking desperate."
There was no food or water, Seifert said, and the cats were suffering. She left food and water, and when she returned the next day, it was gone. Now she feeds them daily and has trapped and sterilized them all. She found adoptive homes for a few, and the colony has stabilized at eight cats, she said.
Those who tend the colonies typically pay for sterilizations out of their own pockets and rely on programs, such as the Alley Cat Guardians' spay-neuter clinic events, to reduce costs.
On a visit to Tuolumne River Regional Park, Mosser said she saw a man feeding the cats, but he wasn't trapping and sterilizing them. She had read an article in The Bee about maintaining feral cat colonies and decided to try it, she said.
Walker heard someone say they had left cats at Fox Grove Fishing Access, and she went there to check it out. She found an older man feeding a group of cats, and she started leaving food as well. The man told her he was having trouble affording the food, and she gradually took over the feeding.
"Once you start, you can't stop," Walker said. "They all wait for me."
Walker estimates she spends $500 to $600 a month for cat food, sterilization and immunization. She gets some help from groups such as Modesto-based Alley Cat Guardians, uses Stanislaus County's voucher program and sends cats to other counties to take advantage of sterilization programs. The county voucher program provides a spay or neuter, vaccinations, and a microchip to a pet owner for $50. The county subsidizes the program; access was recently cut back because of high demand and the cost.
Unlike Seifert's colony, the cats at Fox Grove and Tuolumne River Regional Park are not stable. Parks are notorious dumping grounds for people wanting to get rid of litters of pet kittens and cats.
"There have been 22 kittens dumped (at Tuolumne River Regional Park) this year," Mosser said. "We would have 222 by now if they were left alone."
Mosser calls the rescue groups to try to get the cats adopted, works with Alley Cat Guardians and sends cats to Auburn for sterilization.
She buys a bag of cat food every day to feed the colony, in addition to the cost of trapping and sterilizing the cats. A 20-pound bag of cat food can cost $9 to $30, depending on the quality, according to PetSmart.
Alley Cat Guardians offers help with donated cat food and the spay-neuter clinics, said president Nicole Montroy. The monthly clinics offer $10 sterilization for feral or free roaming cats, along with vaccinations. The clinics are announced on the organization's Web site, www.network.bestfriends.org/acg.
The clinics can handle 30 to 40 cats, however, and Alley Cat Guardians gets calls for 58 cats per week. The group is working toward setting up its own facility with a capability of sterilizing as many as 50 cats per day, Montroy said. More information on the proposal is avail- able on the Web site.
Neighbors not always happy
Neighbors of cat colonies aren't always thrilled with trap, neuter and return. The Fox Grove colony is adjacent to the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center, which traps a lot of Walker's cats and takes them to the animal shelter. The center managers told her the cats have killed baby birds the center was trying to save.
Mosser said the threat to birds is not as significant as other factors.
"People blame cats for killing birds, and cats do kill birds," she said. "But birds are losing habitat and dying from pesticides and hunters. Cats are a low percentage compared to the rest."
Residents who are upset about stray cats should like the trap, neuter and return philosophy, Mosser said.
"There are so many complaints about cats because the population is totally out of control. I don't know of any neighborhood in Modesto that there aren't cats," she said. "It's a nightmare. Trap, neuter and return stops the birth of more cats."
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2349.