…a project initiated by Kuhelika Ghosh (shown right) and Inna Larsen, supported by a grant from the Graduate Public Humanities Exchange (HEX), and carried to completion in partnership with community partner 9 Lives Rescue Inc. If cats could speak, they would like to thank M*** and Joe, who cared for them when no one else did.
Photo: One of the barn cats, a furry beauty with a shortened tail, possibly due to a farm accident. It’s hard to tell with all the fur, but she’s pregnant in this photo.
Written by Kuhelika Ghosh
Kuhelika Ghosh is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores multispecies gardens and food justice in contemporary Anglophone Caribbean literature and culture.
The Graduate Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) program at UW-Madison funds public humanities projects that forge partnerships between community organizations and graduate students. In partnership with 9 Lives Rescue, Kuhelika’s project is helping support the feral cat communities in Madison by reducing overpopulation through a sterilization program, ensuring safe habitability and access to resources, and spreading awareness about community cats’ needs and spay-neuter education to underserved communities.
TNR can be a long and time-consuming process, but sometimes rescues can get lucky and have 12 cats trapped and fixed within a week as we experienced in April of 2023.
In short, TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) helps support the health of feral cat populations in urban and rural communities. The process involves capturing cats in live traps, spaying/neutering and vaccinating them, and then transferring them back to their outdoor neighborhood with an ear-tip to identify sterilization.
Our first location was an abandoned barn in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. Inna Larsen, the trapping coordinator for 9 Lives, had encountered a post on the neighborhood app NextDoor where a woman was asking for help to relocate the feral cats she had found in the barn she just bought.
I spoke to the new farm owner M*** who told us the incredibly tragic history of this farm. We were told that the previous owner had been convicted of livestock abuse based on extreme neglect, and that the farm was seized by the state government and sold to M***. With the farm empty, no one was caring for the cats left on the farm.
While this story might be difficult to read for most people, it has a happy ending due to the generosity of community members in this rural area.
M*** told me that her dad was a construction worker, and growing up, she and her mom had trapped cats a lot from construction sites. These experiences made her sympathetic towards the abandoned cats and she would leave food out for them ever since she first set foot in the barn after buying the land.
One of the neighbors Joe is a retired firefighter and would feed and check in on the cats as well. In fact, he is a lover of all animals including his two pet cows Buddy and JJ, who are TikTok famous. Check them out here.
Photo: The big orange tom at the top of the photo is likely the dad of many of the kittens on the farm.
In this situation, both M*** and Joe are highly experienced with feral cats, having trapped them in the past. They were aware of post-treatment procedures as well. M*** said she had a shed/garage where the cats could recover afterwards, and barn homes acquired through her contacts. We are grateful to have had M***’s and Joe’s voluntary service which made the TNR process quicker and easier.
After talking to M*** on the phone, we headed out to the farm where we finally met the cats, most of them scared and hiding in alcoves inside the barn. The most surprising part was a crate full of five kittens, just a few weeks old. See the photos of the cats in the barn below:
Photo: This wooden crate was about 3 feet square and 4 feet tall, with five little kittens tucked in one corner amongst the paper scraps. These kittens were brought in with their mom by the rescue and treated for parasites. When they were old enough they were spayed or neutered, vaccinated and microchipped, and adopted to loving homes.
After evaluating the site and speaking with M*** and Joe, the plan was simple. M*** kindly provided a couple of traps and we spread them out around the barn. We placed the bigger trap inside the crate of kittens, hoping that the mother cat would go into the trap. Once the mom was trapped, Joe scooped up the kittens gently and placed them in a small carrier, ready for a trip to their new foster home.
Usually, trapping takes a while since cats do not like to enter unfamiliar enclosed spaces. But this time, we set the traps with food inside and hoped for the best.
Luckily, the very next day, we received a call from M*** and Joe saying that there were 4-5 cats trapped along with the mother cat and her kittens. This was much sooner than we expected, so Janell, the 9 Lives founder and director, had to spring to action and find the earliest appointments to fix the cats.
The mother cat and its kittens were relocated to a foster home to recover in the meantime. The remaining cats had to wait in their traps for a day or two (with food and water of course) before their neuter/spay appointments.
Photo: The mama cat, given the name Cloud, was eventually spayed and returned to a farm not far from her former home. She will have a wonderful outdoor life with Joe’s mom.
Over the next week, 12 cats were fixed including the ones trapped on the first day. After their recovery, the cats were sent off to barn homes while the kittens were raised in foster homes until they could be adopted. All have since found happy homes.
Usually, kittens are not adopted until 9 weeks at the very earliest. After they’re spayed or neutered (the earliest would be at 8 weeks), they have a week of recovery after that and are then put up for adoption. Kittens as young as the barn ones need to be adopted in pairs or by families that have another kitten around the same age for the sake of companionship and learning behaviors. Once they get to be 12 weeks old, they can be adopted as single kittens.
Another of the cats was pregnant, and gave birth to four kittens at the foster home. The kittens are 9 weeks old as of this writing and will soon be spayed and neutered and put up for adoption. They are at peak cuteness and should find great homes! Mom is a beautiful, long-haired kitty who is very friendly and will also be listed for adoption.
Photo: Left: Pallas’s first night at her foster home. Two weeks later she had her four kittens, shown at right at about 2 months old.
While it is often said that feral cats are fearful of humans, with this barn trapping we found several exceptions. We believe this is due to the time and effort spent by Joe and M*** as they fed and cared for the cats through the winter.
By the time of the trapping, both M*** and Joe had grown attached to the cats and decided to keep one of the cats each as outdoor cats. Joe also gave two of the cats to his mother – one is outdoor and the other is indoor-only. It is so sweet to see that the cats and volunteers form a bond through this shared process of trapping!
To read more about barn trapping, visit here.
Photo: M***’s outdoor cats. On the right is one from the barn trapping.