Stephanie Ward shields her eyes from the sun as she inspects about 15 cats stretched out in the shade at the corner of Rush Street and an alleyway Tuesday morning.
She is studying each cat to see if a tip of one of their ears is missing — an indication she has previously trapped them and had them spayed or neutered before returning them to their home on the streets of Lodi.
Ward is one of a half-dozen volunteers tackling the feral cat problem in Lodi. She spends about 25 hours a week setting traps at night, checking them in the morning and then taking the cats to a spay and neuter clinic. She then returns them to where she found them and releases them.
The result is fewer cats streaming into the Lodi Animal Shelter that have to be euthanised, and fewer litters of kittens being born every year.
"I'm saving our city a ton of money. If we had more volunteers and strong support from the city, we could be saving our city hundreds of thousands of dollars," she said.
The Lodi City Council received a report on the status of the Lodi Animal Shelter on Tuesday morning and were able to see how the federal dollars the council has provided for spay and neuter vouchers is paying off.
Shelter staff started to notice a significant shift this spring and summer, which is when the number of cats arriving at the shelter starts to rise because females go into heat.
In June 2010, 179 cats ended up in the shelter, compared to 121 this year. In July, only 106 cats were brought to the shelter, which was 82 fewer than last year.
Earlier this year, the council allocated $30,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to continue the spay and neuter program.
Because of federal requirements, the vouchers are limited to cats trapped on the Eastside. Residents who trap feral cats can go to the shelter and receive a voucher to fix the cat and get it a rabies shot at a clinic or a veterinarian office.
Low-income residents who want to get a cat, a pit bull or a pit bull mix fixed can also use the vouchers.
Ward became interested in the program about four years ago while driving her three kids to Lodi Academy. She often noticed groups of cats in yards or dodging cars in the street.
Since then, she has driven around Lodi, finding cat colonies and trapping for weeks, months or even a year, until she gets all of the cats spayed or neutered.
In one year, she trapped at least 100 cats.
"It saves the cats' lives. Most of these cats have been abandoned or just born out in the alleys homeless, and it just seems unfair to me that they are killed because of that. I mean, can you imagine if we did that with humans? Oh, their parents abandon and leave them, so we kill them?" Ward said.
Pockets of cats often grow because residents see one cat and start feeding them, and then the cat has kittens or more cats show up.
"Sometimes, when people start feeding, they just naturally develop a feeling of responsibility for those animals," she said.
That happened with a man on Stockton Street who constantly had cats overrunning his yard. After seeing the number of cats grow, Ward stopped by the man's house and asked if she could help.
The man, named Ken, said that for the past 15 years the number of cats grew each year, until he got fed up and took some to the shelter.
Ward spent a year trapping between 15 to 18 cats around his house. As a result, the man said he now can just feed the cats he has in the area without worrying about new litters of kittens.
"He said, 'You know, Stephanie, this is just unbelievable to me. For the first time in 15 years, it's manageable now. I don't have the cats screaming, trying to find mates and spraying, and fighting,'" Ward said.
As the program gets more attention, Ward hopes to see an increase in the number of volunteers trapping the cats. She can provide the long, metal traps and training on how to set them.
Ward sets them out in the evening, lining them with newspaper and a small amount of tuna at the back of the cage. The cat goes in and the door closes behind them, trapping them until morning.
She often asks one of the people familiar with the cats in the area to check and make sure the cat in the trap has not been spayed or neutered.
"Do something about your problem, because you know, no one benefits when the (kittens) keep being born into homelessness. It's not fair for the cats, it's not fair for the person feeding and it's not fair for the neighbors," Ward said.
The spay and neuter program for feral cats has been in full force for two years now, Animal Commission chair Linda Castelanelli said.
In her report, she recommended the city adopt a Trap-Neuter-Return official policy, as a way to place emphasis and advertise the program.
"It would bring to the forefront of people's minds that that is what needs to be done. ... If they would trap, neuter and release it, that would solve the problem," Castelanelli said.
Castelanelli also requested the city sign up for a web-based grant network, so volunteers would be able to apply for grants that could expand the spay and neuter program to the entire city, instead of only the Eastside.
She is working with the Abandoned Cat Team, Animal Friends Connection and the shelter to develop a more structured Trap-Neuter-Return program that nonprofits could eventually manage.
As a result of these meetings, when tipped-ear feral cats are brought in, the shelter staff is no longer euthanising them, according to Castelanelli's report. Instead, they are housed for three days and then released to a caregiver, who returns them to where they were found.
When residents see cats with tipped ears, Ward hopes they will just leave them instead of bringing them into the shelter. She also hopes more people will start trapping cats to continue the reduction in population.
"I tell people, even if you don't love cats, that's OK. You don't have to love cats, but you should respect them. They have the right to live just as you do. And to torture them and kill them, I find that to be not a good way to deal with the problem," Ward said.