But for Hirschmiller, it was only the beginning. “I started helping other people who needed these cats caught and fixed. Someone needed to do it. Nobody from Fish and Game is supposed to catch cats unless they’re sick or injured, and most extermination companies that do cat removal are charging $200 to $300 an animal.”
The doing got more involved. “I talked to other people who trap ferals, found out their techniques, and developed my own. I’ve got three different sorts of traps, and in certain situations, we’ll use fishing nets, or even welding gloves if the cat is confined or injured. I did it off and on until about seven years ago, when it got to be too much. I was working at a piano store, and it was taking work time.” But when he became self-employed as a piano tuner three years ago, he returned to trapping and redoubled his efforts. “I’m on the board of East County Animal Rescue, and last year, we spayed or neutered over 1000 animals: 550 feral cats, and another 520 adoptable animals.” (“Adoptable” here means a kitten captured while young enough to be domesticated and adopted out, sometimes through a local Petco. Ordinarily, a mature feral cat will seek to return to its colony.)
Hirschmiller estimates that he spends over 40 hours a week on the work. He does not get paid for it. He does, however, get to spend a lot of time with his children: 12-year-old Brendan and 10-year-old Andrea. “They love doing it. At this point, it’s part of who they are. Brendan has always been into animals, since he was two or three. Now he wants to be a herpetologist. I could send him with anybody and he could catch cats.”
When Doolittle called the FCC, it wasn’t long before Hirschmiller was involved. “Honestly, I think I’m the only one in San Diego County who does what I do in terms of large trappings. Karen Paulson [not her real name] does something like it, but she doesn’t have the vehicle to transport that many cats, and she doesn’t have time to go and trap train” — that is, teaching folks how to acclimate the cats to traps over time so that actual trapping is more easily accomplished. “So, that’s why she got me involved.”
The Feral Cat Coalition runs a floating clinic — different locations throughout the county — on the second Sunday of every month. And clinic is where Hirschmiller needs to go. “County prices are $40 for males to be fixed, and $50 for females. We don’t have money for that. The clinic needs about $15 per cat for equipment and medication, and they get everything donated.” But the schedule makes timing the trapping an issue. Hirschmiller stores the cats he traps in his garage, each in its individual cage. “I give them food and water, but I don’t want to keep them caged for more than three or four days. That means I try to trap late on the Friday before the clinic, and release on Monday after.” And that means that on the previous Monday, he’s headed out to Barrett Junction for a trap training session with Mrs. Doolittle.
“Other people don’t think it’s possible to trap train,” says Hirschmiller. “They’ll see some cats behind a store, and they’ll think, ‘I don’t have time to put food in a trap every day, get the cats so they’ll go into a trap. I’ll just try to catch them.’ And they catch a couple of them and get them fixed, but they don’t fix the problem. What I do is I make the time.”
He pulls up to Doolittle’s house in his Scion XB just after sunset, with his kids in tow and five traps in the trunk: wire cages equipped with trigger plates and drop-down gates. The kids help him unload and then drift off to watch Doolittle’s son Andrew practice his skateboard tricks in the driveway. Hirschmiller ties the gates in the open position and sets the trap down on the covered concrete patio slab where the cats usually feed. Then he loads up a bunch of oversized french-fry trays with Doolittle’s dry cat food and starts placing the trays at the backs of the traps.
“A lot of people, when you start this, will think, ‘They’re not going to eat out of there. My cats will starve.’ Then they put food outside of the trap.” This, of course, defeats the purpose, which is getting the cats comfortable with the idea of entering a cage to eat. “But if all the food goes into the traps between now and Friday, we won’t have any trouble catching them.” He lays out the pattern of events. “They have a hierarchy. A couple of them will go in, and sometimes, two or three will go in at once. But some will wait for the others to be done eating. And a couple will go in only a little way at the beginning, so I’m going to do a couple of traps with the food at the front tonight. Eventually, they’ll see everybody else going to the back and they’ll get comfortable. Oh, and please line the bottom of the trap with newspaper to cover the trigger plate.” Cats are long enough that if they pay attention to where they’re standing, they might be able to straddle the plate and so avoid dropping the gate.
While he speaks, five or six cats appear from behind the folded ping-pong table and points elsewhere. They make no sound. Hirschmiller’s daughter Andrea takes pictures. One gray tabby hops up onto Doolittle’s food bin and inspects the empty metal bowl. I heard food. What’s going on? “This is one of the nicest ones,” says Andrew of a particular black cat, one of the few who allows herself to be petted. “There’s another with big yellow eyes that I call Spook, because when you come outside, he just freaks out.” Another rolls over onto her back whenever Doolittle comes near.