When she feeds the cats, Kristen Gasnow Brown looks for all the world like a typical animal lover on her way out the door—carefully made up, wearing sandals and springy clothes. She even sounds like one: "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty."
But as she sloshes canned cat food into a glass pie pan and croons to the kitties ("Come on, it's okay."), she's not what she seems. Brown doesn't own these cats; feeding them is part of her role as president of the Feral Felines of East Tennessee, an organization begun with her sister about eight years ago. The cats that creep carefully from the brush and a drainage ditch behind a suburban shopping center cul-de-sac—a calico, a petite tabby named Mama Cat, a jumbo-size sleek gray—look like they could belong to a suburban home. But they live outdoors—all the time.
She calls them "my animals" and feeds dozens in a given day, but Brown and the other FFET volunteers never touch the cats—they're not pets. "Sometimes they run their head along my hand, but that's at their initiative, not mine," she says cheerfully.
At the same time, these agile, ambling, shy beasts aren't really what they might appear to be, either. They do live in the wild, but the colonies are made up entirely of cats who have been TNR'ed: trapped, neutered, and then released where they can live healthily but not reproduce. They live under the radar, their locations carefully protected from those who might torture or tease them, but as recognized entities, part of the non-profit's mission. "If a colony is on a business owner's land, we always obtain the owner's permission," says Brown. "Sometimes we've had to encourage a colony to move a bit to keep everyone okay with the arrangement."
The group has at least 4,000 TNRs to its credit, many performed with the help of the University of Tennessee Vet School's quarterly "feral fixin'" events, and has grown to 50 or more volunteers.
Some of the colonies the group has worked so hard to establish have been maintained for as many as 10 years; Brown has tended one for eight years. "We call a colony maintained when all of the cats have been TNR'ed," says Brown. "We make sure they have fresh water, shelters, and make sure the cats are healthy. We always look for any new unaltered cats." (A TNR'ed cat will have a nick out of one ear, a fairly painless way to assure the group doesn't duplicate services.)
An even bigger service offered may be education. "We get many calls a day from people needing help or guidance," she says. "We really try to help educate people and walk them through the process of what to do if they encounter a feral cat colony."
Not, she hopes, immediately trap and take the animals to the animal shelter where they'll be destroyed more likely than not. That's unbearable to the animal-loving souls at FFET, naturally, but Brown also offers an argument that has nothing to do with a soft heart: trapping and destroying cats costs more—in general, and to the county tax payer—than trapping, fixing, and releasing them. Not that FFET thinks feral colonies are swell and cozy—just the best option thus far. Their ideal would still be all pet owners in Knoxville fixing their cats so that the unwanted kittens aren't being born in the first place. And even though Brown dreads cats being euthanized, she says that's preferable to a lingering death after a family pet or neighborhood stray is "dumped" at a remote location.
People rationalize that cats are independent, able to fend for themselves, but most likely, they'll just die a slow death by starvation, says Brown. Those that survive will reproduce, no doubt about that. "Some people will say, ‘The cat is still young, it couldn't possibly have kittens.' But young adult cats can start producing as early as four months old," she says, noting that two unaltered cats can produce thousands of kittens over the course of seven years. "Unless a caring person takes care of these cats, a staggering number of them will end up in the Knox County animal shelter where they will most likely be euthanized because they are considered unsuitable for adoption. TNR prevents so many unwanted kittens from being born."
Brown clucks about a woman who feeds ferals milk, which makes them sick, and people who dump takeout Chinese food near the colonies to decay, but she has a certain sympathy about misguided, well-meaning animal lovers. And she remembers how easy it is to believe myths about animal control locally, like that someone else will take charge of finding new homes for stray cats a person discovers. "My sister and I moved back to Tennessee some years back and noticed a colony behind a local restaurant. We were naive enough to think that we could just take them to a shelter and they would find them homes. When we learned they'd probably be euthanized, we did some research and got involved."
Part of her abiding interest in caring for the cats comes from her faith. "I want to do what I can to help all of God's creatures," she explains. "Proverbs 12:10: ‘The godly care for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel.'"
A new ripple for the group involves the tragedy of animal hoarding. "We took in some of the cats from the recent hoarding case from Murphy Road and they are being rehabilitated in our foster homes and are available for adoption," says Brown. "It was a very sad situation and not all the cats will be adopted. The cats that did make it were very sick and many died and suffered in that home."
Brown is distraught that such animal cruelty goes unchecked. "I think if we had more strict animal cruelty laws in Tennessee, we would not have as many animal cruelty cases. Most just give the person a slap on the wrist and no actual punishment."
But such anguish doesn't keep her from enjoying the success stories that the group encounters. "Very recently, a small black lab puppy was dumped in one of our cat colonies. One of our volunteers stopped at her normal feeding time and noticed her—so scared and cold. We took her in and she recovered and now she is living with a loving family."
For most feral animals, adoption is not an option. "The cats and kittens that we have at our adoption center are not feral cats," says Brown. "We use it for the tame cats that are dumped into our colony or for the kittens that we are able to rescue just in time from the feral colonies, before they become too feral. We usually have to get the kittens before they are about 8 weeks old to be able to tame them enough for adoption. After they are older than 8 weeks it is best to just trap, neuter, and return." m
To learn more about volunteering with FFET as part of its TNR program, tending colonies, or answering phones: feralfelinefriends.org