It’s a quiet afternoon in the modest San Francisco neighborhood of Bayview—until a community cat caregiver calls out to her small colony in a booming voice from the porch of her home. It’s meal time, and this ritual is a joy to behold.

One by one, four of her community cats emerge—out of bushes, from behind houses, and around corners—and streak toward her familiar voice. Three of them are eartipped; a sign that they have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated through the San Francisco SPCA’s Shelter-Neuter-Return (SNR) program.

These cats are among the thousands that receive SNR—a version of a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) involving a shelter—each year through the SPCA’s Community Cares Program, a member of Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends Network. Community cats, also known as feral cats, are humanely trapped and brought into the SPCA’s facility by Community Cares Program staff or community members.  The cats are then spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped in-house, held for a brief recovery in a designated area, and, finally, returned to the location where they were trapped.

Audra Farrell, the Community Cares Program Supervisor

Audra Farrell, supervisor of the Community Cares Program, dodges around one of the Bayview cats as she lugs over a large bag of kibble for the caregiver’s colony. The program doesn’t have the funding to provide food to every caregiver, but Farrell knows it’s important to help dedicated community cat caregivers, especially in lower-income areas like Bayview.

“Building trust with the community, no matter where they are, makes our work possible,” says Farrell. “We’re not just here to help community cats. We help the people who care for them, too.”

As the cats dig into the food, Farrell looks toward the only one without an eartip. Heavy, a handsome black and white cat, managed to escape during the last attempt to trap him for SNR. But Audra knows it’s only a matter of time before she and her team are back for Heavy, and every other cat still in need of their services in Bayview and all around the city.

This targeted, community-based SNR work, which the San Francisco SPCA offers free of charge, has been ongoing for more than 20 years—long before most people knew of Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). In 2016 alone, some 1,500 community cats went through the program. The four full-time staff members of the Community Cares Program also monitor and manage the city’s community cat population, and help the residents who care for them.

When the SPCA first got involved with TNR in the early 1990s, the Golden Gate Park’s community cat population was in danger. The SPCA had to act fast to prevent them from being rounded up and killed. The park’s administrators agreed to let the cats remain as long as the SPCA spayed or neutered and vaccinated them. No new kittens were born, and today, only a few cats are left in the entire park.

Since those early days, the Community Cares Program has expanded and had similar successes with colonies throughout the city. From small, overgrown backyards to piers littered with the concrete remnants of construction, the team is out and trapping community cats in every possible urban environment. It’s a task that requires help from the entire community, including San Francisco Animal Care and Control (SFACC).

Any time the SFACC staff members impound community cats, they send them to the SPCA, which spays or neuters, vaccinates, microchips, and eartips the cats in their in-house surgery suite. From there, the Community Cares Program staff return the cats to their outdoor homes. Since 2011, SFACC has reported a 14 percent decrease in their intake of cats, thanks to the SPCA’s SNR efforts.

“There’s a direct connection between the number of community cats we help and the intake of cats into the shelter,” says Farrell. “When our numbers go up, theirs go down. That’s been true for the last few years, and it proves that TNR is working.”

In addition to taking cats from SFACC, the Community Cares Program actively encourages citizens to get involved with TNR. When residents call in about community cats, Farrell and her team ask if they are willing to trap the cats and offer to loan them humane traps. Residents often agree to give it a shot—and some even get hooked.

“With how small our team is, we can’t do it all alone,” says Audra. “The community is an important resource, and we find that a lot people are willing to help. We’ve had many people tell us after they trapped for the first time that they want to do it again!”

That growing number of supporters in the community helps drive the Community Cares Program, informing staff about where individual community cats, kittens, or colonies are located.  As more citizens learn about TNR, a network has emerged, and more community trappers are answering calls for help themselves.

That community support allows the SPCA to maintain its impressive facility, which spans nearly two city blocks. Behind a sleek, modern exterior is a maze of rooms, including holding areas for adoptable animals and multiple clinics run by staff veterinarians. In their adoption rooms, cats and kittens lounge on replicas of San Francisco icons, including the Golden Gate Bridge, a hippie van, and a row of tiny houses straight out of a Full House episode. Each room is equipped with its own tablet so visitors can access each cat’s information.

Of all their resources, Farrell is most proud of their mother cat and kitten nurseries. One nursery houses socialized cats, while the other is dedicated to feral mothers. It’s called the Mamas from the Streets Initiative, in which the SPCA works to ensure that feral kittens are trapped with their mothers and housed together in a safe area. Once the kittens are old enough, they are taken to be socialized by SPCA staff or volunteers and eventually adopted. The mothers are spayed and returned to their outdoor homes. This combination of SNR and adoption has already saved 37 feral mothers and 136 kittens so far in 2017.

“So many shelters don’t have the resources to care for kittens,” says Farrell. “We work with animal control to educate the community and do our best to bring all kittens in with their mothers, who take the best care of them. I always encourage shelters to establish this sort of program, because it doesn’t take much to set up and it saves so many lives.”

Next year, the San Francisco SPCA is celebrating its 150th birthday—and 150 years of saving animals’ lives. Alley Cat Allies is proud to wish this Feral Friend a happy birthday, and appreciates the lifesaving work they continue to do for community cats around the city. With its progressive programs and collaboration with the community and shelter, the SPCA is a model for the rest of the nation.

“Our biggest goal is just to keep helping community cats and humanely manage colonies,” says Farrell. “A lot of the time, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing to go help the moment someone gives us a call. We have to keep going until the day that no more cats or people need us.”