Dogs think: “They pet me, they feed me…they must be gods!”
Cat’s think: “They pet me, they feed me…I must be a god.”
Feral Freedom Isn’t Free.
0630 Hours. Chico. CA. I wake at first light with a start. Sit up. My t-shirt is moist with perspiration. Dreams are receding from my memory, fast, into the blackness, pulled away the way waves are. Can’t make sense of them. There are just snippets, flashes: fur…claws…a sense of dread. I rise and begin gearing up.
My gear is an SLR camera and a hand-held recording device. I’m a writer, not a cat hunter, myself. I’m drawn to brave and dedicated people, but that’s not the way I was made, I suppose. Ever since I was little I’ve always felt like I was outside of everything, looking in. But now I’m starting to think maybe I’m just a coward is all.
I throw back a cup of black coffee, then sonicare my teeth. Oh, these comforts that I never think twice about.
This is to be a ride-along; I’m embedding with Butte County’s #1 Cat Hunter, Armeda Ferrini, as she carries out a tactical mission in the meth and marijuana riddled hills known as the Cohasset region.
I know little of the actual details of the mission. Simply that there are thirteen targets, and we are to employ a Trap/Neuter/Return method1, which is the set of techniques that have, over the past few years, been steadily replacing the old ways, known as Seek and Destroy2.
1 – Trap/Neuter/Return is similar to a technique used extensively in the American law enforcement system known Trap/Institutionalize, Traumatize, Train For Crime/Return, as well the counterterrorism techniques born of a post 9.11 world known as Trap/Torture/Never Return
2 – They aren’t really known as that.
In the old way of doing things, feral cats and unclaimed strays were generally put down3. But in the past few years, a revolution has swept the nation. Often referred to as the “Feral Freedom Project,” proponents of this new path seek to address marginalized feral communities, which have frequently been treated as little more than animals. They’ve issued a “Million Cat Challenge” (#millioncatchallenge.org, #catlivesmatter) and claim that T/N/R-ing is not only more humane, but also, because the spayed/neutered cats are less aggressive and horny; that the techniques cut down on fights and noise. In Butte, with T/N/R, targeted feral cats are renditioned back to the Butte Humane Spay and Neuter Clinic, a black site4 where unspeakable things are done to their genitals and then they are returned to their original location where, presumably, they’ll have flashbacks of being abducted and experimented on that none of their friends will believe.
3 – By “put down,” I don’t just mean made fun of.
4 – Butte Humane didn’t confirm or deny whether such a program exists. This is probably because I didn’t ask them that question, though.
The humane thing, it turns out, is to trap them, incapacitate them, and then cut off their balls.
Outside, in the frigid early morning air, I get into my car and drive off to the agreed upon rendezvous point, which is Armeda’s house.
Not A Crazy Cat Lady
0700 Hours. Armeda’s House. I pull up the long, curving driveway and finally see Armeda, who is loading cat-traps into the back of her Mini Cooper against the black frame of her garage. We exchange hellos. Armeda has short, brown-grey hair, fine, small bones, beautiful, high, rosy cheeks, and wears a practical outfit of jeans, walking shoes, and a turquoise zip-up sweater. Her eyes dart here and there as she readies her equipment; her movements are economical and precise.
It’s surreal to me that this unassuming-looking woman is the most decorated and respected cat hunter in the North State, the founder and leader of an elite unit of cat hunters called the Neighborhood Cat Advocates (NCA)5. And yet it’s an unassailable fact.
5 – “NCA,” not” NSA,” though it’s easy to confuse the two
Take, for comparison’s sake, Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal sniper portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the controversial new film, American Sniper. He had 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. That ain’t shit. Armeda is responsible for thousands of beings of Middle-Eastern descent not being alive6 The Neighborhood Cat Advocates’ 7 hunting squad, comprised of five women and one man, has T/N/Red some two thousand cats since its inception just two years ago8.
6 – if we’ve learned anything from anti-abortion activists it’s that Causing Future Somethings To Not Be Alive = Killing. Just think of the sweet, cute, cuddly little kittens that would have dreams, that would be playing with balls of yarn one day, that never will now, because they’ll never exist. I think of Armeda as the “Catinator,” not just because of her monomaniacal, unstoppable focus on her targets, but also because she assassinates cats that haven’t even been born yet, the cats of the future.
7 – an organization so serious and on their shit that they didn’t even sucumb to the temptation to call themselves Neighborhood Advo-cats, which, like, how do you resist?
8 – The funding wing of the organization is ran covertly through a front organization called PawPrints Thrift Boutique, located at 1360 East First Ave.
Armeda gives me a quick tour of her house before we leave. She lives without human companionship with a dozen cats (six feral and six tame) in a sprawling estate on acreage, surrounded, on one side, by an eight foot high cat fence. Each of the many beautiful rooms has its own assortment of cat climbing structures, scratch implements and little laundry basket-sized beds. As I walk by, languid cats—both within the coyote-proof enclosure outside and in the home—look up at me with disinterest bordering on disdain.
“So…uhh…you said you weren’t a cat lady?” I ask, puzzled, my voice going high and thin.
“I said I wasn’t a craaazy cat lady,” Armeda corrects, laughing. Several times throughout our time together, Armeda mentions, apropos of nothing, that she is not a crazy cat lady.
We get into the Mini Cooper and head out to Cohasset. Through a dense brim of fog we drive, up, up, into the hills.
The Kattengal Valley
0800 hours. Cohasset. “So we won’t do a lot of talking now,” Armeda says in hushed tones as we exit the Mini Cooper.
We’re parked next to two rusting, wheeless trucks and a single-wide with smoke arcing from a metal chimney and an American flag hanging listlessly from the front porch. The air is clear and thin, here above the fog line. Ravens caw and flutter in the canopy above. Pines stretch skyward all around us and their fresh scent is a welcome relief from the nostril-flaring odorific oppression that is Armeda’s Mini Cooper, which she informs me is generated by a mix of “cat pee and mackerel.”
Armeda does some reconnoissance with her local contact, Richard. Then she scoops out a little dollop of canned mackerel for each trap and sets them up where Richard normally feeds, by the house. Almost immediately, cats of various colors and sizes come swishing and sashaying toward the traps and we stand over by the wheeless trucks to give them some space.
“They just started showing up,” Richard tells me, launching into the rather ironic (and unsubstantiated) genesis story of his herd of cats9. “There was some people who used to live up the road up, here, see. And she used to work for the Cat Coalition [The Chico Cat Coalition is another non-profit dedicated to helping stray and feral cats]. And when they got evicted, they left a whole bunch’a cats. And they just started wanderin’ down here and got mixed up with the other two or three cats I had here and, now, we’ve got an explosion of ‘em!”
9 – A group of cats is actually called a “clowder”
“It’s just gettin’ expensive, is all,” Richard continues. The cats, with their cute, fluffy, snuggliness, are extorting him for nearly $100 a month in food, and he can’t handle any more. “On a fixed income it’s kinda hard.”
Armeda comes marching over with a trap filled with her first cat of the morning, her mouth pulled into a satisfied little grin. “See the joy you get when you get a cat?” she announces. “I don’t wanna leave without getting my car full of cats.”
“I just hope they can get ‘em fixed and whatnot before they come into heat and start breedin’ more,” Richard says. “The males…they really tear up them females, when they go to mate with ‘em. They bite ‘em on the back of the head and the neck. So that they can’t run away from them and stuff.”
“Geez, so like 100% of cat sex is actually cat rape?” I ask.
“Yeah,” they say, simultaneously10.
10 – for the record, neither say “jinx,” though it was clearly warranted
“It’s vicious,” Armeda says. “It’s vicious mating. It’s not easy on the cats.” I later read/see on the internet (I don’t recommend googling this) that cat penises have backward-pointing barbs on them that tear up the female cats’ vaginas and keep them from escaping. Looking at pictures of these little, pink, ribbed-for-her-torture weapons, one starts to question the goodness of nature/God/cats/men/all-sorts-of-stuff.
“That’s why I want to get ‘em fixed,” Richard says. “So they’re not goin’ through that.”
Another trap goes off. Armeda retrieves it, puts a towel over the cage, and puts it into the Mini Cooper.
Animal Emotions, Stray Thoughts On Love
“These little ones can really do a job on you,” she says, showing me her scarred up wrists and hands. To try to tame feral kittens, Armeda wraps them up like little burritos with a towel, just their heads sticking out, then she pets their little faces and feeds them baby food with a spoon, while holding them against her bosom, so that they can feel her heart beat.
“Ooohhh!!!!” I say, clasping my hands and emitting little high-pitch noises from cuteness-pleasure as she describes this.
“Why cats?” I ask, when my faculties are recovered.
“I’m helping people,” Armeda says. “It’s helping cats, but it’s really helping that person in there. They spend a lot of money. They can’t afford it. It’s kinda like social work, in a way.” Armeda describes situation after situation, from the man living out of his van with nine cats, to the hoarder with 49; elder abuse, people with addiction, disabilities, even the families of deceased cat people.
“Everyone’s got a story,” she says11.
11 – Yep.
For 31 years, Armeda was a professor and the Chair of the Department of Health and Community Services at Chico State. She’s always had a service bent. (What I’m slowly learning is that, though this Cat Hunting thing is obviously mostly about assassinating cats of the future and the thrill of the hunt and about being a badass warrior, I think that, perhaps, at least on a subconscious level, it may also be about selflessness and dedication to something higher than one’s self i.e. a very high form of love.)
“I always tell people this job is WAY harder. You get addicted to this.“It’s like ‘how many can you get?’ ‘How many can you save?’ And when are we going to get to the point where we’re going to have this under control? I’ve always been a driven person and this is a continuation of my driven personality. And it can take up a lot of your time. My biggest challenge is to be able to maintain a life and still be able to trap cats. You get up early and…you know…it’s hard to have a relationship.”
“But you do love cats, right?” I ask.
“I like cats,” Armeda says. “It’s more like service to the cats then ‘I love cats so much.” A lot of people say ‘I love cats so much’ then I ask them “Would you like to volunteer?” and they say ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that, I love them too much.’ Well no. You really would love them if you would help the cats out. Not just love them by petting them. That’s not love. Trying to make their lives better, that’s love.”
“So love isn’t a feeling, it’s an action?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s the way I figure.”
“And what does your boyfriend think about all these cats?”
“I think if he had his choice I wouldn’t be doing this because, I’m just—I’m not as available.” Armeda explains that he’s got a dog and she has a dozen cats so they couldn’t possibly live together, i.e. oil/water, Montagues/Capulets, Etc/Etc. But she says they wouldn’t live together, anyways, probably.
“No, I’m just too set in my ways. I think most people get a certain age and they really need their space. But we have nice traveling and get together a lot. He got the mackerel for me yesterday. I was so happy! It was very nice. 14 cans, and I’m in 7th heaven!”
“So, you don’t need roses, you just need cans of mackerel, huh?”
“He’s even lent me his car to do this when mine was broken.”
“True love,” I say.
“True love,” she says. “When there’s cat pee and mackerel…that’s true love.”
Takes A Lot Of Balls
“This is Emiliano and he writes for the Synthesis and I thought you were gunna be doin’ some poppin’ of some testes,” Armeda says to Dr. Rachel Caspary, the Vet on duty here at the Butte Humane Spay & Neuter Clinic.
“Oh well, in just a second here we will be,” Rachel says, laughing.
“I don’t know if I can handle seeing that,” I say to Armeda as she settles her cats in and shows me around a bit.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she says.
There are several rooms with cats in various states of intoxication. We cruise around and baby talk to them. Cats are meowing pathetically as if asking, “Why meow? Why meow?”
The cats are ready, we’re told. In the surgery room, a grey and white, tiger-striped cat is passed out and splayed spread-eagle on a little operating table. An oxygen mask the size of a styrofoam cup is affixed to his face.
There is some concern about me photographing people’s cats without permission in such compromising positions. “Oh, I can block out their faces,” I say.
“Yes, no one’s going to be able to identify them by their scrotums, probably,” the Vet decides.
A Veterinary Assistant named Clinton with a big tribal earring is shaving a grey poofy cat’s balls with electric clippers at a prep station. “My career has become shaving cat balls,” he tells me, employing a make-fun-of-myself-first-and-what-will-be-left-to-say approach. “If I had a dime for every time I was on the scrotum-end of a joke…” he says (I just want to make it clear, going forward, in case there are any children or sensitive readers out there, that I will not be making any tasteless jokes about “shaved pussies.” Finding any way to bring up such a crass, easy, and, frankly, immature pun—even in a meta or ironically distanced way—would just be sad).
Rachel takes the splayed, tiger-striped cat’s balls between her fingers. Cat balls are—size-wise—not very substantial. Unlike dog balls, which, on some larger breeds, can cause a certain locker room effect of unfavorable self-comparison, cat balls are tiny, not even marbles, really. Rachel takes a scalpel blade and slices the sack open in one fluid motion. Then she sculpts out each little ball, placing them, in turn, on a paper towel, as casually as one would shell a peanut.
“That’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever been this close to,” I mumble.
“This surgery is a weird one for you to watch,” Rachel says, over the sounds of Clinton vacuuming up some shorn balls with a shop vac. “Someone who worked here before described it as medieval.”
“So how many balls have you…you know…?” I ask.
“Are you counting two per cat?” Rachel specifies.
Records are checked; complicated mathematical formulas are evoked—involving both division and multiplication by two—and, finally, a figure is arrived upon: 14,760. 14,760 total balls since their opening in November of 2010.
“That’s a lot of balls,” I say.
And Armeda is responsible for a sizeable chunk of those balls (plus an equal number of ovaries + 7,380 uteri). The entire staff agrees that she’s the area’s #1 cat hunter. On a lot of days she brings in between a third and half of the cats being de-genitalled. She was given the Louis Pantell Humanitarian Award at last year’s Humane Society Gala, which, I believe, is like the Cat Hunting equivalent of the Silver Star or the Purple Heart or something.
So remember, If you or someone you love has a cat, or 37 cats, they need “taken care of,” who ya gunna call? Neighborhood Cat Advocates, that’s who. Their strikeforce hotline number is: (530) 324-2292. And, then, quite likely, they’ll dispatch their #1 asset, the Catinator herself, Armeda Ferrini. She’ll load the Mini Cooper up with mackerel and traps and towels. Then into that dark morning, she’ll set out. Armeda won’t quit. She won’t give up. She’ll find them. That’s what she does. Freeloading feral cats of the future beware.