Two volunteers gave us an inside look at a decades-long quest to humanely rein in (and care for) the Bay’s homeless felines

OJ peers up at an elevated feeding platform at Coyote Point. He is one of 13 feral cats that calls the San Mateo park home. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

The Baylands of the Peninsula used to have a cat problem.

That’s how Dave George — a longtime volunteer with the Homeless Cat Network — explained it to me at Coyote Point in San Mateo. George first got involved as a volunteer about 13 years ago. He said he simply responded to an ad in the paper asking for volunteers to help feed the feral cat population, which back then numbered about 50 or 60. George had always loved animals, and as a tennis, racquetball and PE teacher at a private school and athletic clubs, his schedule was flexible enough to permit it.

The organization he joined, the Homeless Cat Network, has spent the better part of the last two decades working to reduce the feral cat population in San Mateo County. It began with an initiative called Project Bay Cat back in 2004 through a partnership with the city of Foster City and the Sequoia Audubon Society, according to the San Mateo Daily Journal.

The large cat population at the time — which numbered 175 cats in 2004 in the Foster City location — was generating concerns from the community about how to protect local birds and manage “debris” along that city’s Bay Trail path, the Daily Journal reported. The eventual success of the program had not just to do with altering the cats to manage their numbers, but the regular feedings, which deterred the cats from hunting birds.

Back when he started as a volunteer, George said, the former Castaway Restaurant at Coyote Point—a once-popular nautical themed restaurant that sat shuttered for years before it was razed in 2008—had attracted the untamed felines with its food scraps. Here is the restaurant on July 16, 1965. (Photo by Norton Pearl. Courtesy San Mateo County Historical Association Collection)

Through an aggressive trap-neuter-return protocol, adoption and natural attrition, the initiative is now winding down its Foster City colony in advance of levee work planned there, explained Board Chair Melissa Riofrio. Currently, the colony’s only remaining resident is a large cat named Shamu. (He earned the name, she said, because “he is black and white and about as big as a killer whale.”)

The network manages other feral cat colonies within the county, and San Mateo’s Coyote Point location is now more active than the Foster City one, she explained in an email.

More than a decade after trapping and altering all those kittens, George is now retired, but with the aid of his wife Vera (also a longtime volunteer) he continues to care for the feral feline communities in San Mateo. On a recent Monday morning, this dedicated couple invited me along to see their work and introduced me to the cats of Coyote Point.

Vera George offers OJ, the cat, a bowl of canned cat food at Coyote Point in San Mateo on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

“Sunday Service”

Feral cats are simply those that were not born in a domestic environment and weren’t socialized as kittens to be comfortable around people, the network explains in a video on its website. As a result, many are skittish and not prepared for (or remotely interested in) domestic life as house cats.

For cats who live in industrial or open space areas, one humane way to manage the population is to give them the outdoor lives they want while monitoring their population and feeding them regularly, so they don’t hunt the local wildlife. The idea is that over time, the colony size dwindles due to natural attrition.

“The key is not having mamas producing litters,” George explained. Female cats can have up to three litters per year, so they can reproduce rapidly without intervention, he noted. One summer, about 10 years ago, the cats at the park produced 22 new kittens. He spent much of the summer locating the kittens, trapping all but one, and ensuring they were spayed or neutered.

The Homeless Cat Network, which operates throughout San Mateo County, is focused on reducing the population of homeless cats by following this strategy, also known as “TNR” — short for trap, neuter and return.

Clockwise from top: Dave George leaves a hidden spot where feral cats are fed at Coyote Point in San Mateo; Mr. Jones (top) struts around the canned food and water left for him by volunteers of the Homeless Cat Network as Whitey looks around; Vera George puts canned cat food in a bowl at Coyote Point in San Mateo on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photos by Magali Gauthier)

At the first stop, the couple approached an unobtrusive elevated shelter and platform where the cats’ food bowls reside. As soon as the Georges popped open the tins of Friskies and Fancy Feast, the spot’s resident feline duo appeared: Whitey and Mr. Jones. The two cats have become friends over the years, George said. Whitey is a shy cat who showed up six or seven years ago, and together, Mr. Jones has brought Whitey out of his shell, he explained.

Dave asked not to disclose the location of the platform shelter, for the cats’ protection. According to Riofrio, “When people spot a kitty colony it can become the target for dumping unwanted cats, or worse, people may try to harass the cats or the feeders.”

Together, Dave and Vera cleaned out the bowls and filled them with bottled water and food. Sometimes, if they’re in an area known for marauding raccoons, they’ll stay nearby and observe the feeding to make sure the cats enjoy their full meal.

While the network does provide some reimbursements for the food costs, he said, the San Bruno couple usually just pays for the cat food themselves. They’re not churchgoers, but they think of their weekly cat feedings as their “Sunday Service,” George said.

Shamu is the sole remaining cat at the Project Bay Cat colony in Foster City, which once numbered 175 felines. He earned his name due to his large size and black-and-white coloring, like his killer whale namesake. (Photo courtesy Melissa Riofrio/Homeless Cat Network. )

Wild lives

There are about a dozen volunteers who take care of the 13 or so cats at Coyote Point, Dave explained. Each has a day or two, and they write a report afterward that is shared among the volunteers.

The end goal of the network is to give the cats a humane life and ultimately put themselves out of a job. Kittens are socialized while young and adopted out, and as they age, older cats that need more attention that have been socialized may also be adopted out.

OJ (front) indulges in a daily meal. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

While life at Coyote Point may seem charmed for these tough cats, there are some dangers and health threats the animals face. Coyotes have on occasion visited, which may be unsurprising given the park’s name, and while it’s not confirmed that the latest coyote visit affected the population, some older cats did go missing around the time the last one was at the park, George said.

Other older cats have developed dental problems that required expensive dental surgeries to address. The Homeless Cat Network has relied on donations to GoFundMe campaigns to pay for those, Dave said.

As the Georges eventually moved on to their next feeding site, three cats eagerly came out of the woodwork when the couple appeared: OJ, Scout and Missy. And as soon as the three cats finished their kitty food, they disappeared into the underbrush. At least, until their next meal.

Dave George wears his Homeless Cat Network hat while feeding feral cats at Coyote Point in San Mateo on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Want to get involved? The Homeless Cat Network states on its website that “volunteers and donations of cat food, cat toys and supplies, as well as cash, are welcome and always needed.” Learn more here.

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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