They are feral — wild and possibly dangerous. But they are also scared, hungry and in danger.
They get a little help from people who spend hours feeding the stray cats around the city and even trap many in a practice called catch, neuter and return. Just like it sounds, the cats are lured into a trap, taken to a vet to be altered and then returned to where they were found.
The method may seem counterintuitive to some, but there is a strategy to their stakeouts. The goal is actually to reduce the number of feral cats and the practice is promoted by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Orange County Animal Care.
Lynn Chadwick puts the concept into action in her area of Huntington Beach. She has been feeding and trapping cats for more than a decade and has worked it so that other people feed them on a regular basis. Still, she checks in on them at least a few times a week.
"I don't really enjoy it but it feels good to do it for the cats," she said. "If I didn't have to do it, I wouldn't."
On a recent weeknight she does her rounds in the area of Beach Boulevard and Utica Avenue. She stops behind several businesses and a couple of group homes to check the status of the bowls.
There is a small alley behind a bar in which workers pass a jar to pay for the cat food. Those bowls have some food but they are running low on food in the bin. She makes a note to remind them to buy more.
Later she stops by the parking lot of a business. In the back corner is a small area where she refills the bowls — she has warned a nearby neighbor to keep her cat inside, both to prevent it from eating the food and from getting snagged by a coyote.
After that she drops by a spot that is a little more special to her. She hasn't been able to recruit any feeders here so she comes by twice a day to leave food and usually the cats come out to visit — from a distance.
The cats have been fixed — all of the cats at her regular stops have been.
"Their ears are clipped so we can tell which ones have been fixed," she said.
Huntington Beach Police Chief Ken Small said in an email that he knows of Chadwick and her work. He doesn't support feeding feral cats, but does support trapping them for the purpose of spaying or neutering them.
"That practice will help reduce the number of feral cats in our community," he said.
He said Chadwick should have permission from private property owners to trap on their property, but does not know of any opposition to the practice.
People who trap must first draw the cats out by feeding them on a regular basis until they develop a routine. Then, the cats are not fed for a day or two to make sure they are hungry. A trap with food is set out and they wait for the cat to show up or check the trap often so the cat will not be in the cage too long.
Then the cats are taken to the vet to be spayed or neutered, often by a doctor who does the procedure at a discount. If the cat is feral they are returned to where they were found. If they are adoptable, they are fostered or brought to a participating pet store to help find them homes.
The trappers typically attempt to find all the cats in the colony to prevent any more unwanted litters.
According to the ASPCA website, the number of feral cats in the U.S. is estimated to be in the tens of millions.
"Sadly, many communities still opt to control populations using outdated methods, including lethal elimination or relocation. Not only are some of these methods horribly cruel, they are also highly ineffective," the site says.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, if cats are euthanized, like coyotes, more will just move in to take advantage of the food and shelter made available and it will create an endless cycle.