On a hot summer day in 2016, Shane Popoff was cruising along one of his favorite bike trails on the outskirts of east Eugene when he noticed a pair of small, beady eyes curiously watching him.
He was being followed by a gray house cat. While she looked healthy, her kittens appeared to be severely malnourished. Fearing for their survival, Popoff returned the following day with a bag of dry cat food and divided it evenly among the ravenous felines.
But this time he noticed that “Mama Cat,” — as he’d affectionately named her — had some friends. Tabby, black, calico, gray — the landscape was dotted with cats of all shapes and colors, though most of them shared a frail build and insatiable appetite.
Popoff went home to stock up on cat food and returned once again, determined to leave no cat hungry. This quickly became a routine; he’d carry the food with him on his rides and dole it out generously to any cat who crossed his path.
But before long the population began to explode, and feeding them became an increasingly daunting task.
“It only takes a few before they start breeding, and they multiply pretty quickly,” Popoff says. “That was when I decided to do something about the population boom.”
It was at this point, he says, that he contacted the Greenhill Humane Society.
Greenhill is the only full-service animal shelter in the Eugene-Springfield area, and is under contract as the public animal shelter for Eugene, Springfield and Lane County. In addition to adoption services, the organization offers a spay-neuter clinic for homeless community cats through a program called TNR, which stands for Trap Neuter Return.
According to Greenhill’s Events and Community Engagement Manager Megan Brezovar, caretakers like Popoff are integral to controlling the city’s feral cat numbers. They feed and monitor the populations of Lane County’s feral cat colonies and set up spay-neuter appointments with Greenhill for the cats that they care for.
“These people do not work for us,” Brezovar says. “They’re just people in our community. There’s a lot of wonderful humans out there that want to care for these cats,” she says.
After making an appointment, caretakers pick up a humane cat trap from Greenhill and return the following day with the cat in tow, she says. The cats undergo surgery and receive rabies vaccinations, flea medication and antibiotics for any infections they may have.
They stay at Greenhill for a few days while they recover from surgery, then the caretakers return them to their colonies. Greenhill veterinarians also remove a tip from one of the cats’ ears — a well-known sign indicating they’ve been spayed or neutered, Brezovar says.
While Popoff now has some volunteers helping him care for the colony, the work can still be demanding. He estimates that the colony contains a total of 40 to 45 cats, though the numbers constantly fluctuate. He’s helped spay or neuter more than 30 of them and found permanent homes for 14. In the five years he’s been caring for the colony, Popoff has adopted four of the kittens himself.
He says that the colony is mostly made up of feral cats, with a handful of strays mixed in. Feral cats are born on the streets and are not accustomed to human contact, whereas strays are pets who have been lost or abandoned, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Adult feral cats are afraid of humans and are usually unfit for adoption, Brezovar says. However, if feral kittens are socialized young enough, they can be adopted just like any other stray.
“There’s about an eight-week window where if they’re tolerant of you and you’re able to pet them, they’ll become really kind of attached to humans,” Popoff says. “Then you can just go ahead and take them home just like any other housecat.”
HSUS estimates that there are between 30 million and 40 million feral and stray cats in the U.S., 2 percent of which have been spayed or neutered. In contrast, 85 percent of the 75-80 million pet cats in the U.S. have been spayed or neutered, meaning that roughly 80 percent of all kittens born in the U.S. each year are born feral. There are approximately 40,000 stray and feral cats in Lane County, according to the Lane County government web site.
When people refuse to spay and neuter their outdoor pet cats, they are indirectly contributing to large-scale animal cruelty, Brezovar says, as cats born on the streets often face hard, short lives filled with fleas, violence and infections.
While there are a handful of different population-control methods, Brezovar says she believes that TNR is the most humane and effective approach. Extermination is ineffective and needlessly cruel, she says, while feeding bans are nearly impossible to enforce. Feral cat colonies live in a specific area because there is a reliable food source nearby, so eliminating one population would only invite another to take its place.
“A lot of these animals are born due to human fault, from us being irresponsible,” Brezovar says. “To be honest, if everyone spayed and neutered their cats, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Karen Kraus, executive director of the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon — a Portland-based nonprofit that also provides TNR services — says that the primary factor determining the number of stray and feral cats in a given area is human population.
“It’s directly related to the number of people around,” she says. “You’re going to see a higher density of cats with a higher density of people.”
However, Kraus says there are other factors at play as well, particularly in Eugene. She says that the large student population likely contributes to Lane County’s high numbers of homeless cats, with pets frequently getting lost or misplaced as students move into new homes each year.
Popoff, a Eugene native, believes that Lane County’s mild winter temperatures may also play a role, with the lack of frequent deep freezes allowing cats to thrive outdoors more easily than in other parts of the country, he says.
Kraus and Brezovar stress that the best thing people can do to help reduce the number of street cats is to get their pets spayed and neutered and to encourage their neighbors to do the same.
“Domestication says that we made you a promise — that we’re going to take care of you,” Kraus says. “And when we can’t, they suffer.”
For more information about Greenhill Humane Society’s TNR program, call 541-689-1503 or go to Green-Hill.org.