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Finding felines

Trail camera photo courtesy of Caylen Kelsey | After determining which cats require trap-neuter-return and which have been identified as lost, Caylen Kelsey begins her strategic trapping effort.
Volunteer team marks one year trapping in Almeda burn zone

Caylen Kelsey was trapping for an identified cat in the Almeda fire burn zone in April when she came across a burned truck — a mother cat and five kittens curled up in a bed of ash and fiberglass inside. At that moment, Kelsey said, she knew her mission was about to evolve.

Kelsey spent the previous eight months matching lost and found fire survivor cats. Through her efforts, Kelsey discovered a colony of 25 adult cats that a group of local women had been feeding since the Labor Day fires of 2020.

In addition to trapping identified lost cats, her focus expanded to a trap-neuter-return effort for feral and stray cats in the colony to prevent future births in hazardous conditions and demolition areas. She recruited help and raised money to spay and neuter the entire colony.

The morning of Sept. 9, Kelsey started the Facebook page “Almeda & Obenchain Fire Oregon Lost & Found Animals,” and spent the next year organizing information and coordinating on-the-ground efforts. She began matching lost and found fire cats on social media after the Camp fire in 2018, and knew the Almeda and Obenchain fires would demand similar efforts for displaced animals, she said.

The page features hundreds of photos of cats organized into albums by general color, and the occasional correction for a misidentified cat. Some cats with scorched and crimped whiskers are unrecognizable next to a pre-fire photo.

Most patients that came through the Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center after the fires regained normal functions, while some suffered extensive skin and tissue damage to the head leaving them prone to eye and ear problems, or mobility issues where paw pads and deep foot tissues were damaged, said Dr. Rory Applegate, veterinarian with SOVSC.

“We do not see lingering respiratory concerns from those fires in particular, but with the persistent smoke in the area many of our pets have some breathing issues, regardless of if they were involved in the fires,” Applegate said, recommending that pets stay mainly indoors until the smoke clears.

Strategic trapping

Kelsey keeps a spreadsheet with information about more than 400 lost cats from the time of the fires, which she compares to sighting reports and trapped cats.

“In order to outsmart a target cat out there who was too savvy for standard cat traps and even a drop trap, I had to build a custom trap,” Kelsey said. “After I finally caught him in my custom trap, I was able to help trap additional identified, trap-savvy lost cats in the Almeda fire zone that had eluded other trappers.”

For strategic trapping, she’ll place a trail camera at a feeding station and monitor who drops by. The stations condition cats to return to one location on a regular basis. After determining which cats require TNR and which have been identified as lost, Kelsey waits in the dark with traps and night vision.

Kelsey is not a rescue volunteer, adoption service or animal foster parent, but a network of community partnerships helps cover those bases, she said.

Like most people in the fire cat rescue business, Kelsey is “in the red” comparing donations to expenses, but she never expected to break even with this effort.

Kelsey has spent about $3,500 on veterinary bills, microchips, parasite control, spay/neuter and other veterinary costs — mostly covered by fundraising. Additional out of pocket costs included cat food, trail cameras, batteries and data plans, trapping equipment, fuel and vehicle maintenance.

The greatest “expense” is time, she said. A Klamath Falls resident, Kelsey has made a trip to the fire zone at least weekly for the past year. Pulling off a targeted and strategic trapping effort involves significant preparation and organization, sorting through hundreds of trail camera images to match a cat’s unique characteristics to a photo of an identified lost cat, then monitoring to learn the cat’s patterns.

“I have had days where I’ve worked a full day, drove one-and-a-half hours to the fire zone to trap, sat and watched a trap for 11-12 hours through the night, and then made the one-and-a-half-hour drive home — sometimes successful, sometimes not,” Kelsey said. “I couldn’t tell you how much sleep I’ve lost over the last year or how much time I’ve spent behind the wheel.”

In her observations, the lost and found animals page exemplifies the capacity for a community to unify around a common goal after a tragedy, Kelsey said. Page visitors might share information that leads to a lost animal’s owner, find volunteers to put out food or donate to rescue campaigns.

Through this effort, Kelsey said, she identified a critical need for more affordable, high-volume clinics in Southern Oregon focused on sterilizing feral and community cats.

Over five months, a minimum of 34 kittens were born in an area smaller than the average grocery store, she said. Female cats can become pregnant at five months old and deliver several litters per year.

Since Kelsey placed a trail camera near the 25-cat colony in March, 21 kittens were trapped, born to five unfixed female cats, and a pregnant mother she trapped delivered six kittens. Demolition crews rescued two kittens.

While the trapping team worked as quickly as possible, at least five kittens in the colony died from natural or human causes before they could be trapped, Kelsey said. Cat No. 5 delivered a second litter of seven kittens in late July — the consequence of local resources being spread too thin to cover all needed sterilizations, she said.

“The main resource that currently exists for this, SNYP, is doing a fantastic job, but they alone can’t meet the demand,” she said.

Three cats from the burn zone colony went to SNYP for sterilization the last week of August, leaving just one cat to go. One colony cat died last month.

“If you feed it, fix it,” said Kelsey’s trapping partner, Amanda Linnehan. “[Feeding unfixed cats] continues a problem that is huge in our valley as far as ferals and the populations of kittens and cats that are in dire need of help.”

Resource scarcity makes it difficult to gain traction on the issue of feral and stray cat overpopulation, she said.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, cat TNR programs fail because “they do not operate in an enclosed system and cannot spay or neuter a sufficient number of cats to affect feral cat numbers at the population level.”

But according to the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, TNR works. The organization cites examples of successful TNR and adoption programs from the Stanford University Cat Network, where a feral population was reduced from about 1,500 cats to 300 over ten years, and the Southern Animal Foundation in Louisiana, which reduced a New Orleans population from 500 cats to 65 over three years.

Kelsey said though her work with the one colony may be a “drop in the bucket” for the overall regional feral cat population, and some lost cats may never be found, knowing the kittens she and Linnehan trapped have found homes and won’t suffer to bear litters on the street keeps her going.

Still, the experience can feel endlessly exhausting — sitting through nights without a successful trap, monitoring a camera for months looking for one cat that never appears, or feeling the sorrow when a cat doesn’t survive.

Neighborhood approach

The primary challenge with running feeding stations, Kelsey said, is public concern about attracting wildlife. A few raccoons, skunks and opossums have been caught on camera, but residents of the house nearest the burn zone colony appreciate the rodent control the cats provide, she said. She found success with a feeding platform at the colony site constructed with climbing barriers, too high for wildlife other than cats to jump onto.

“Many property owners were resistant to the idea of feeding stations and trail cameras, so there were some areas that were not monitored after the fire,” she said.

Kelsey remains optimistic that some lost cats are still out there, waiting to be reunited with their humans or settled into communities with food resources.

Only one cat from the colony was trapped and transferred to the Jackson County Animal Shelter to wait through a 72-hour “stray hold” before going up for adoption, then another three months with no adoption interest. He was transferred to a Northern California facility where he found a permanent home.

Kelsey receives sighting reports close to the fire zone about once or twice per month, but many cats transitioned into “survival mode” after the fire and are mostly nocturnal now, she said, making it difficult to determine how many survivors remain.

While she doesn’t house cats, Kelsey has witnessed four reunions she can only describe as highly “rewarding.”

“These families have had their entire lives turned upside down, and sometimes the only thing that they have left is the hope that their furry family member somehow escaped the flames,” Kelsey said. “To be able to reunite them with their cat — there’s nothing quite like it. It’s not just a cat, it’s a piece of their life that existed before the fire and it’s a family member.”

When the team traps feral cats, the animals are sterilized, given vaccines, flea medication and dewormer, then released back to the colony once healed from surgery. Linnehan adopted out some of the colony’s kittens to forever homes. If a cat isn’t “truly feral,” they look for a better situation, Linnehan said.

“Even the ferals, it’s hard to put them back into that kind of an environment, but it is what they know and understand, so it’s best for them,” Linnehan said. “The ones that we don’t have to, it’s great to not have to think about them there and to think about them with humans in a house and comfortable, not battling for food and warmth and shelter.”

The Almeda fire barely spared Linnehan’s house in Talent — the next street over was consumed by fire. Many cats fleeing the blaze found their way to a small park in her neighborhood, where Linnehan still provides food and water three times per week as she watches neighbors rebuild. The cats are all fixed.

“I definitely feel quite a bit of survivor’s guilt,” Linnehan said. “This is one way to help make me feel like I can do something positive for our community.”

In addition to her own four cats, Linnehan had 12 foster cats at home early this month, including nine kittens. After learning about the need for services through her work with Kelsey, Linnehan took a job at SNYP in August. About 90 cats come through for sterilization per week — not nearly enough to meet the demand, she said.

Kelsey encouraged residents rebuilding in fire zones to submit photos of sighted cats, especially in pockets of standing homes where cats may have relocated due to resource availability.