COLUMBIA — Three years ago, Christina McCullen and her husband, Atish Sen, were driving through a Wendy's drive-through when they noticed a cluster of kittens near the trash containers in the parking lot.
The couple fed chicken nuggets to the cats, but they were skittish, keeping the couple at a distance.
E-mail SNAP at email@example.com. Do not bother the animals.
Use the same e-mail address to learn how to volunteer with SNAP.
Intrigued with what they assumed were wild, abandoned animals, they went home and did some research. Soon, they were drawn into the underground world of feral cats.
"The difference between a feral cat and a domestic cat is that feral cats are afraid of humans, so generally they flee," McCullen said.
Today, McCullen and Sen are animal caretakers for a regional organization with a branch in Columbia called Spay, Neuter & Protect, or SNAP.
The group was founded by Columbia Second Chance volunteers to work with veterinarians and other programs for the humane control of feral cat colonies.
McCullen and Sen care for four feral cat colonies in the city of Columbia, but they say they help only a fraction of the estimated 33,270 feral cats in the area.
According to the Best Friends Animal Society, a national organization that tracks these cats, among other services, there are 87 million free-roaming, homeless cats in the United States.
Few of these cats have any chance to be adopted because of their undomesticated behavior. The large population of cats at the Central Missouri Humane Society shelter means feral cats are almost always euthanized, McCullen said.
Feral cats colonies in Columbia are typically established from strays left behind by owners who move without taking animals. That creates the first generation of a colony, which leads to exponential reproduction.
The cats live in colonies that average in size from a few cats to about 10, McCullen said.
She began caring for the colony she discovered at Wendy's, which increased to 41 cats before she could capture, spay and neuter them all.
Ultimately, she did find homes for many of the colony's residents and was able to shrink the colony to six cats.
The way she cares for the colony illustrates the interaction between a colony, its caretaker and SNAP.
SNAP provides the support and the funding for volunteers who agree to monitor a feral cat colony. Donations pay for spaying and neutering of the animals.
SNAP also can train volunteers to capture the cats to be spayed or neutered.
At Peach Tree Animal Hospital, 208 Peach Way, it costs an average of $60 to neuter and vaccinate a feral cat. SNAP pays for the veterinary services, but volunteers buy food and pay transportation costs.
Once they are spayed or neutered, they will be placed back into the colony. If a cat shows signs of socialization, it can be a candidate for adoption.
McCullen says there are colonies throughout the community, but exact figures are unavailable.
For SNAP and its volunteers, supporting a feral colony rather than euthanizing it has certain benefits.
A "vacuum" effect occurs where there is an available food source, such as a trash container. If the cats are removed or euthanized, other feral cats will move in and fill the void.
The trap, neuter and release method is intended to combat this by returning spayed or neutered cats back into the same area where they were removed.
The cats will protect their territory from any new cats, McCullen said, and after time, the population will dwindle from attrition.
"For every cat that we can neuter or spay, there are that many fewer kittens born," she said.