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Christina McCullen and her husband, Atish Sen, were at the drive-through of a local Wendy’s when they saw a group of hungry-looking kittens near the restaurant’s dumpsters.

Unable to ignore the kittens’ plight, they fed the group some chicken nuggets, but they found that the cats were shy and skittish and didn’t want to get near the couple.

They thought the cats were abandoned strays, but they were intrigued by how they came to be living at Wendy’s. McCullen and Sen did some research when they got home and quickly learned something they hadn’t know before: there’s a difference between stray cats and feral cats.

“The difference between a feral cat and a domestic cat is that feral cats are afraid of humans, so generally they flee,” McCullen said.

As a result of that meeting three years ago, McCullen and Senn became animal caretakers for the Columbia, Missouri, branch of the Spay, Neuter & Protect (SNAP) organization.

The local SNAP chapter was founded by Columbia Second Chance, a no-kill shelter run entirely by volunteers. Second Chance works with veterinarians and other programs in the area for humane control of feral cat colonies.

Today, McCullen and Sen care for four feral cat colonies in Columbia, but they say they help only a few of the estimated 33,270 feral cats in the area.

According to the Best Friends Animal Society, there are 87 million free-roaming, homeless cats in the United States.

These cats have little to no chance of being adopted because they are, in essence, wild. They are afraid of people and they lack the behaviors that would make them properly domesticated. The large population of cats at the Central Missouri Humane Society shelter means feral cats are almost always euthanized, McCullen said.

Colonies of feral cats in Columbia, and many other places, are usually the result of strays left behind by owners who move without taking animals. That creates the first generation of a colony, and as the colony expands through reproduction, subsequent generations live as wild animals in order to survive.

McCullen began caring for the colony she discovered at Wendy’s, which had increased to 41 cats by the time she could capture, spay and neuter them all.

Ultimately, she was able to find homes for many of the colony’s residents and was able to shrink the colony to six cats.

The way she cares for the colony illustrates the interaction between a feral cat colony, its caretaker and SNAP.

SNAP provides support and funding for volunteers who monitor a feral cat colony. Donations pay for spaying and neutering. The program also trains volunteers to capture the cats to be spayed or neutered.

At Peach Tree Animal Hospital, a local clinic, it costs an average of $60 to neuter and vaccinate a feral cat. SNAP pays for the veterinary services, but volunteers buy food and pay transportation costs.

Once the cats are spayed or neutered, they will be placed back into the colony. If any members of the colony show signs of socialization, they can become candidates for adoption.

For SNAP and its volunteers, supporting a feral colony rather than euthanizing it has certain benefits.

If there is an available food source such as a trash container and the existing ferals are removed or killed, other feral cats will move in and fill the void.

The trap, neuter and release (TNR) method is intended to combat this by returning spayed or neutered cats back to the same area where they were removed.

The cats will protect their territory from any new cats, McCullen said, and after time, the population will dwindle as older cats die and no kittens are born.

“For every cat that we can neuter or spay, there are that many fewer kittens born,” she said.

[Source: The Missourian]