Pam Duey sat on the steps of her green-shuttered mobile home next to a bag of cat food.
“Here, kitties!” she said. “Good kitties, good kitties!”
A white string ran from the porch to a metal drop trap next to her. A plate of tuna waited inside the house. Eleven cats watched warily from the street.
“We’re looking for a female tortoiseshell and this big, white semi-fluffy calico,” said Molly McCann, an Operation Catnip volunteer cat-trapper. “Look – there she comes.”
Duey, 63, pulled the trap. The calico meowed in protest, but she was caught.
McCann, 66, and Duey are volunteers with Operation Catnip, a Gainesville nonprofit that operates a free trap-neuter-release (TNR) program for unowned, free-roaming cats.
Operation Catnip has sterilized and vaccinated over 44,000 community cats since its founding in 1998.
Now, Operation Catnip is expanding their reach even more with the launch of their information website in March.
“PetSmart Charities approached us and asked us to put our operations manual on the web,” said Operation Catnip founder Julie Levy. “It’s easier to copy something that someone else is doing well than to make all of the mistakes that we made along the way to develop a really strong program.”
PetSmart Charities granted them $50,000 to build the website, a two-year process of developing content, budgets, training materials and more. The website launched mid-March.
Catnip receives frequent calls from other communities trying to start their own TNR programs or spay days.
In January, they partnered with a group in the panhandle, St. George Island Cat Allies, that was trying to set up a spay day but didn’t have equipment. Operation Catnip traveled with their materials for a weekend and trapped, neutered and released 102 cats. The group is applying what they learned with another spay day in November.
Now, instead of having to rely on conferences and in-person meetings, people can ask questions online. The site includes detailed information on Operation Catnip’s clinic model, which works like an assembly line. Each volunteer vet or vet student is trained to do one thing very efficiently.
Down the line, cats get cleaned, given anesthetic, neutered and vaccinated. The whole process only takes about 20 minutes for tomcats and 45 minutes for females, Levy said.
“A lot of communities don’t know how to go about starting a clinic,” said Audrey Garrison, executive director of Catnip. “But most can put together spay days. You get your local vet community behind it, and if you do it right, you can drastically reduce impound rates. These are animals that would otherwise not see the inside of a vet clinic, ever.”
Operation Catnip also hosts a monthly spay day with the goal of neutering as many cats as possible. As many as 90 volunteers – cat lovers, vets, vet students, staff – can help hundreds of cats in just one day. During April’s clinic, the team worked on 159 cats.
Vets, trappers and administrative staff make up some of the diverse group of volunteers. There are also “caretakers” like Duey, people who feed and care for the community cats out of pocket.
Duey said she spends $60 a month on cat food for animals that aren’t even hers.
McCann has been working with Duey’s colony for some time now. Since the calico was caught on Sunday, there’s just one cat left to catch. Catnip clips the cats’ left ears to let other trappers know the cat has already been sterilized.
Slowly, the cats in Gainesville are being cared for. Sterilizing and vaccinating stray cats makes their lives healthier and curbs population growth, said Vernon Sawyer, director of Alachua County Animal Services.
Sterilizing cats lowers the amount of cats sent to animal shelters, which in turn lowers euthanasia rates, Sawyer said. Alachua County Animal Services is approaching no-kill status largely because of Operation Catnip.
“This is what I do,” said McCann, touching her blue cat cameo necklace. “It’ll be 20 years Memorial Day. Some people help the homeless or disadvantaged children. This is the way I make a difference in the world.”