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.
Orange County Animal Care director Ryan Drabek supports the practice, and said the county used to have a voucher program run through the Orange County Society Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in which just under 400 cats were spayed or neutered and in the first year there were 1,000 fewer cats brought to the county shelter.
"It is vital as a program to reduce the stray cat and feral cat population," Drabek said.
But the program ended in 2009 after a year. He said he knows the practice still exists through volunteers and the help of some vets but hopes to reestablish a program at the county — especially for the benefit of the wilder bunch and the unwanted litter of kittens.
"We receive feral cats all year and because we can't adopt them out they are all euthanized," he said.
Sometimes these feeders and trappers find a cat that isn't feral, just stray, and that's when the kitty really gets a second chance. After the trip to the vet, they get a chip put in them and the search for a new home begins.
Many of these people are part of rescue groups like Second Chance Pet Adoptions or Bark and Meow, both based in Huntington Beach. These groups foster cats, place them at area pet stores for adoption and hold weekend adoption events.
The adoptable cats are mostly brought to PetCo and PetSmart and are held in the back of the stores until the adoption weekends. They are adopted out usually for around a $100 to $150 fee.
Chadwick works with Second Chance Adoptions and said a lot of people call her because they get her name from different websites and from Second Chance.
"I used to be able to find homes for most of the adoptable cats but that was before the economy tanked," she said.
She said in the past four or five years she has seen more cats being dumped and it has been harder to find forever homes.
"It was more under control before," she said.
These volunteers often try to care for cats and small dogs in another way as well by sending out warnings to anyone who will listen to keep their small pets safe from the coyotes roaming the streets.
Chadwick puts up signs to warn of the wild animals and stops people in the street or knocks on doors at houses with a cat roaming free. She warns that though it hardly looks like the great outdoors, the coyotes find their way to the residential neighborhoods and snatch cats left outside.
She focuses on the area around Delaware Street and Utica Avenue. As she drives up the neighborhood streets she can point out the many places where the cats used to live and when she found out they had gone missing.
The city considered an ordinance to trap and kill the coyotes at its Nov. 20 meeting, but voted instead to educate the public about the dangers. A pamphlet was mailed out with residents' water bills at the end of last year.
Huntington Beach resident Susan Lipman feeds the cats and worries about the coyotes. She said the pamphlet was fine, but will not take care of the problem.
"The coyotes are becoming more and more aggressive and pretty soon even hazing isn't going to deter them," she said in an email.
"I can name person after person whose indoor cat got out accidentally and then was found torn to shreds — people out walking their dogs who have been approached by packs of five coyotes. Nowadays, I cannot attend any social function or volunteer event where someone isn't talking about the coyote problem in H.B.," Lipman said.
Lipman said the trap, neuter, return practice would be good for decreasing the coyote population too.
"If nothing is done, five years from now it will be so out of control that they will be walking the streets downtown," she said.
Suzanne Christy-Goldberg volunteers with the Bark and Meow Foundation and along with the work she does adopting out cats on the weekends and cleaning the cages they are kept in during the week, she hands out fliers about the myths and facts about coyotes including that coyotes are known to attack even if humans are standing with their pets. The fliers also warn that coyotes are everywhere in Orange County, even in the urban areas.
Drabek said there are a few things residents can do to discourage coyotes such as not leaving food or standing water outdoors all night and he suggests trimming hedges that the animals can use as a den.
In 2010, Councilman Joe Carchio proposed a ban on feeding animals like stray cats in part to educate them about some of things that bring coyotes to residential areas. He ultimately pulled the proposal for what he felt was a lack of support from the community and the council.
Drabek said it's difficult to prevent people from feeding the cats as they feel sorry for them and don't want to see them starve.
He said he supports the teachings of Urban Wildlife Specialist Lynsey White Dasher who said removing coyotes is infective and teaches hazing of coyotes as a way of giving them back a fear of humans.
Chadwick has her own way of spreading the word. Along with the many fliers she hands out and puts up, she is happy to inform people in person. As she leaves her twin strays with a bowl of food and water, she sees a woman walking her small dog. She thanks the woman for walking the dog on a leash and then makes sure to warn her to watch for the coyotes common in that area.
Her duties for the night are done.
"I would rather have a glass of wine at night," she said, "but when you know it's here, how can you not do it."
Volunteer or adopt
Who: Second Chance Pet Adoptions
Phone: (714) 487-1518
Meet the Pets: PetSmart, 7600 Edinger Ave. across from Bella Terra; Petco, 5961 Warner Ave. at Springdale
Who: Bark and Meow Foundation
Phone: (714) 655-3298, Suzanne Christy-Goldberg
Meet the Pets: PetCo, 327 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana
Who: Catnip and Carrots Animal Bunch, Inc.
Phone: (714) 379-7204
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.catnipandcarrots.org
Meet the Pets: PetSmart, 7600 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach
Adoption Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, 6 to 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesdays and 7 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Off hour appointments available.
Rabbits are brought in the first and third Saturdays of the month.