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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.

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Comments

NatBe Feb. 24, 2011 @ 8:36 p.m.

this article made me cry. So many years volunteering for the cats and wishing the word would get out. My thanks to those of you involved in this article... Very positive article and realistic... I am a volunteer and a trapper myself. I work at the clinics as a groomer. If people need to trap a cat FCC will provide instructions and lend traps... Josh is a rare gem, most people calling in must have the moxy to trap themselves and bring the cats in to the clinics... You have to call ahead of time to get reservations.. Anyway, great article...

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NatBe Feb. 24, 2011 @ 9:16 p.m.

oops!I don't mean to say Josh is the only one... there are others. I think I know who Sarah Paulson is... There have been other die-hards too that just don't it anymore... One wonderful lady that will drive out to places in the desert to help people with their ferals... But people have to get on with their lives, as will Josh, I am predicting ... Can't see anyone being able to do it indefinitely... That's why the word needs to get out; to get more people willing to help ...

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mtucker90 Feb. 25, 2011 @ 11:42 a.m.

The article itself is great. Wonderful that people are trying to control cat population. I do have a problem with the cover picture. It is disturbing. Especially when you have a child that wants to know why the lady is carrying a tied up dead kitty . At first glance it looks like it.

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William Howell Feb. 25, 2011 @ 12:09 p.m.

One issue not covered is cat owners allowing their pets to wander the neighborhood, defecating on everyone else's property. We have an issue on our street where several owners let their pets out in the morning and those of us with no pets end up with piles of feces, smell and flies. There is truth to the old maxim "don't crap in your own yard" and the cats follow it.

It's gotten to the point where two of us are having to trap the cats and transport them from Santee all the way to the county shelter in Bonita. This has caused an increase in neighborhood tension because those which are 'chipped' are identified and the owners then have to drive to Bonita to pay the costs involved in getting their pet back.

The products to sprinkle around the yard are expensive and wash away with the first rain. It looks like expensive and questionably effective audio emitters may be our only hope.

Cat owners in residential areas, please, please, please, keep your cats indoors or screen in your patio and provide a litter box there.

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Radical Uterus Feb. 26, 2011 @ 5:14 p.m.

Beautiful article addressing many issues in a balanced straight forward way. I have been labeled cat lady a few times in my life while trapping, spaying and neutering feral cats who went on to become great mousers and more than paid their debt.

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NatBe Feb. 27, 2011 @ 6:07 p.m.

Want to respond the comment about the disturbing photo... At least I hope I have a good response that is felt to be understanding. I was blown away and so happy when I saw the photo of the female on the spay board, directly because it is the most disturbing and provocative sight we see at the clinics. I believe the disturbing effect can be mitigated if you realize the good and caring that is happening at the clinics. I believe that the disturbing photo is realistic, too, (though the cat is definitely not dead) symbolizing the unacceptable yet real killing that we do to deal with homeless cat overpopulation. I believe that that disturbing reality--the killing that goes on every year in the 10's of thousands at our shelters county-wide (I don't know the number, but I believe it is at least 10,000 a year, a huge percentage of which are healthy animals)--that's what our tax dollars pay for. Those of us that do this work are unable to sit comfortably with that reality. That's why we give our time freely to spay/neuter. But we need more people. I HOPE that the disturbing photo will get more people to read the article, become inspired by this solution to the plight of homeless cats, and help us ... Perhaps the parents of the kids that are disturbed by that photo can explain this ...

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sandiegopalms March 19, 2011 @ 5:18 p.m.

I suggest to the woman who's child commented on the cover picture that she go to the Feral Cat Coalition website and educate not only herself but also her child on the realities of the situation of the cat surgeries, and also of the cat populations. There are good pictures of great volunteer cat-care on the website.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa July 6, 2011 @ 3:48 p.m.

Why don't these cat catchers carry mobile euthanasia kits? Get them before they become a big old burden to tax payers.

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Radical Uterus July 7, 2011 @ 7:24 a.m.

Mobile euthanasia kits. When that begins, Our old people, our disabled and our poor will not be far behind. When we take out the step where we try to educate and rescue our abandoned pets because of the expense to taxpayers can our attention help but center on humans next, a population former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the "useless eaters?"

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