MANITOU SPRINGS • Tripod — you’ll soon find out why someone named this cat “Tripod” — glowered warily from a safe distance, ignoring the morsel of fried chicken goodness.
Clearly, we were not to be trusted.
The cat’s skittishness was understandable. He had been trapped before. And when many customers at the Townhouse Lounge see him, their first reaction is: “This cat has been hurt. It needs to be trapped and taken to a veterinarian.”
Tripod’s stray-cat strut may be a little awkward on three legs, but he manages OK. So does litter-mate Nubbins, hobbling around with a missing front paw. And Annie Hieser-Busch, missing a length of tail.
They are not the victims of a fox or coyote, but of rampant inbreeding among feral cats. Their mother was probably malnourished and breeding repeatedly, experts say. The deformed kittens wandered up to the Townhouse on Manitou Avenue at 5 weeks old.
The “Townhouse Kitties” are now patio regulars, a shy curiosity for customers and passers-by. They are also a visible reminder of the feral cat problem in the region, and a living argument for getting strays spayed or neutered.
“There are no nutrients in (the mothers’) bodies. They’re cross-breeding and it’s easy to understand why they were born that way,” said Kass Johns, a regular customer who became enamored with the wild kittens that took up residence behind the Townhouse in 2008, living off patio table scraps.
The cats seemed intent on staying. But the last thing anyone wanted to see was more inbreeding, so in December 2008, after considerable effort, Johns trapped them and got them fixed.
“They were so wild. I lost blood in the trapping,” she said.
The cats were neutered through Project CATS, a feral cat program of Dreampower Animal Rescue. The organization assists with the trapping and pays for the surgery, with the stipulation that the cats be released where they were caught.
“They’re not procreating, so we’ve kind of solved that problem,” said director Aubrey Eastman. “They know the hiding places. They know where they’re at and where to go if a predator comes through.”
A year later, the Townhouse cats would still run away at the sound of Johns’ voice.
Customers enjoy the cats
These days, the original three cats have been joined by two other strays, not deformed and more amenable to being held and petted. They, too, are spayed or neutered and all live outside.
They scuttle around the patio, stay warm in the rocks behind the lounge or other hidey-holes. Sometimes they catch critters or birds. Tripod even climbs trees.
“He doesn’t know he doesn’t have a leg,” Johns said. “He doesn’t know he’s handicapped.”
Employees get so many questions, they posted informational signs around the patio telling the cats’ story.
The customers seem to enjoy the cats, especially the children, though Townhouse owner Roger Stahlak said five is enough.
“At some point, if we get too many more, it could become a nuisance,” Stahlak said. “It’s a novelty right now.”
“Nuisance” is a good word to describe the feral cat problem exploding in the Pikes Peak region.
“The problem is getting quite worse,” said Dreampower’s Eastman. “It’s mainly because of the economy. People just can’t spay or neuter their animals, much less worry about the animals out in the alley.”
Dreampower’s neutering program has existed for a decade. With funding based on grants and donations, the organization had 100 stray cats neutered and released last year, Eastman said.
The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region has also launched a trap-neuter-and-return program, modeled after Dreampower’s. Since September 2009, it has sterilized 653 strays. It accepts strays from Colorado Springs.
Both programs take only cats that will be fed upon release, as a way to create healthy cat colonies and gradually cut down on the estimated 116,000 feral cats in the region.
Cats are still wild
At the Townhouse, feeding time belies the cats’ wild nature. They line up at dawn and cry for food, and a Townhouse employee feeds them daily, with food donated by Johns and another neighbor. They also eat quite well on scraps and handouts from customers.
But make no mistake, these are wild cats. Only two like to be touched, and Johns has never considered adopting them. She also knows they may someday vanish, either wandering off with feline fickleness or meeting a darker end at the hands of a predator.
Said Johns, “If natural selection takes them, so be it, but at least we’re easing our conscience and not letting them reproduce.”
As long as they stay, she will visit. The black newcomer they named Kitten-Fish even stays on her lap.
“Any cat person knows the best ones are the ones that find you.”