"Breakfast time!" Rhonda Van calls out at Project Bay Cat while shaking a bag of kibble. Like magic, smiling furry faces emerge from the boulders lining San Francisco Bay. TimmyBob, Cranky Pants, Spot, and Long Socks sprint toward the volunteer, pausing momentarily to bump heads. Rhonda walks toward a hidden feeding station in a nearby meadow with the jubilant cats following closely behind, their happy tails held high and waving like flags above the wild grass.
A bewildered runner jogging along the Bay Trail recreation path stops to watch the feline procession. "Are those your cats?" he asks the volunteer. Rhonda laughs and replies: "No, these are the cats of Project Bay Cat. They’re feral; well, some are friendly now."
Right on cue, Cranky Pants rubs against Rhonda’s legs, and she tells him that the diluted tortie got her name because she gets grouchy whenever her soulmate, TimmyBob, isn’t by her side. The runner looks even more perplexed than before, and slightly distressed. "Wait, what? How do you know that? They have names? And why are they here? There aren’t any houses nearby."
While cleaning food bowls and pouring fresh kibble, Rhonda explains to him that cats were abandoned here along the bay many years ago and they gave birth to kittens who grew up to become feral, since they didn’t have the benefit of human contact. When some compassionate animal lovers stumbled upon the cats nine years ago and started Project Bay Cat to help them, there were 175 cats, and they were breeding fast. Today, thanks to Trap-Neuter-Return, adoption efforts, public education, and anti-abandonment programs, the cat population has been reduced by 60 percent. No more kittens are born here, and cats are no longer abandoned at the colony.
There are 70 cats left, all of whom are healthy, happy, and always excited to see volunteers arrive with breakfast.
It’s not your typical colony. Unlike most feral cats, who live in the shadows, at Project Bay Cat they’re right out in the open. Living along a popular recreation trail, hundreds of runners, kiteboarders, bikers, and walkers see the cats every day. It’s hard to miss the cats when they’re lovingly wrapping tails around one another and posing on the rocks beside the sparkling bay with a picturesque bridge glowing in the background.
Since there’s no chance of hiding the cats, as most colony managers might try to do to avoid drawing unwanted attention, Project Bay Cat’s leaders have instead capitalized on their visibility to educate people and inspire them to help the Bay Cats and other cats in need. Thanks to signs and brochures about the program at the most popular cat-viewing locations along the trail, they’ve built a compassionate community of volunteers and supporters to provide daily care to the cats, including food, water, shelter, veterinary care, and their favorite thing ever: Fancy Feast with gravy. "It takes a lot of effort, and it’s work of love," says Rhonda.
Now with the program’s Facebook page, people from all over the world are getting to know the Bay Cats and their unique personalities, seeing what it’s really like to manage community cats, and finding inspiration to help homeless animals in their own neighborhoods.
One of them is Shannan Muench, who recently flew to California from her home in Florida to visit Project Bay Cat while on vacation. "They’re doing such a wonderful thing and I really want to learn from them so I can get something going where I live in Florida," she says.
During her visit, she learned all about Project Bay Cat’s solutions to various challenges, from building feeding stations that are skunk- and raccoon-proof, to medicating sick feral cats, to developing relationships with veterinarians to get free and low-cost treatment for the cats. But the most memorable part for her was spending time with the Bay Cats themselves.
"They all have their own histories and stories -ÔÇô they’re individuals." While petting a Rubenesque tuxedo cat named Long Socks, Shannan says, "Their lives mean something, you know?"
She’s right ÔÇô- they do. Even though the cats don’t have owners, they do have people who care about them. Project Bay Cat’s 40-plus volunteers and all their Facebook friends celebrate whenever one of the Bay Cats get adopted, and they’ve cheered for 104 adoptions so far. They share funny, happy, and touching stories about the cats and their captivating personalities. And they mourn together when one of the cats passes away of old age.
"It takes a community to take care of community cats. It’s not the cats’ fault that they ended up living outdoors, and it’s not the most ideal life for them, so it’s up to compassionate people to make it right," says Project Bay Cat’s director, Mary Macdonald. "The colony is shrinking, and one day there won’t be any more cats at Project Bay Cat, which is all part of responsibly managing a colony. But until then, we’ll work hard to make sure that no other cats are abandoned and that those who remain in the colony get the care, love, and kindness they deserve, so they can live out their lives in peace."
She admits that it’s not always easy; sometimes there are shortages of volunteers or funds to pay for the cats’ supplies, and it takes a lot of teamwork and energy to take care of the cats. But one way or another, the work always gets done.
As for the runner, he was so mesmerized by the cats and the program that he ended up accompanying volunteer Rhonda on her feeding rounds. "Those two over there who are head bumping ÔÇô- are they related?” he asks while helping pour food and water into ant-proof bowls at each feeding station. “And what about that gray one over there? What’s her story?" By the end of the feeding rounds, he knows a little bit about each of the cats and what Project Bay Cat does to help them.
He fishes a $20 from his pocket and hands it to Rhonda to help pay for the cats’ food, then reaches down to pet Croucher, who Rhonda calls a "fake feral." The once-shy tabby used to maintain a 30-foot distance from people at all times, but now volunteers have socialized her, and she can’t get enough love.
"Think I could volunteer to be a feeder?" the runner asks. Rhonda nods with a smile and says, "Of course! I think Croucher just approved your volunteer application."
Project Bay Cat co-founder Cimeron Morrissey is a cat rescuer and award-winning writer who was named Animal Planet’s Cat Hero of the Year in 2007. In addition to her writing and rescue work, Cimeron provides advice and guidance to rescue groups and is a public speaker who teaches people how to help animals in need.
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