Dan Crownover made a habit of feeding the cats that wandered around Epic Plastics on Turner Road — with his superiors' permission — before and after each eight-hour shift he worked. It's a 5-acre property, with lots of pipe storage and a car part junkyard next door. That makes for plenty of nooks and crannies for feral cats to find shelter.
One day, a scrawny cat less than a year old walked up to Crownover. He backed away, an instinctive reaction around wild cats, but the furry fellow reared up on Crownover's shin and begged to be petted.
"He's what you call a hugger. Puts his arms right around you," said Crownover.
He kept a special eye out for that cat on his feeding rounds, and the animal showed up every day for two months.
That's when Crownover saw the infected wound in his eye.
"It dawned on me I'd been feeding him twice a day, and he didn't have a home," said Crownover.
A trip to the vet fixed up his eye, and showed Crownover that the cat wasn't feral.
Now the scrawny cat has found a home with Crownover, and a new name: Miele.
Crownover has used his passion to care for cats to fuel his work with Cats of All Colors, a nonprofit organization formed to find healthy homes for friendly and feral cats. A dozen volunteers dedicate their free time to the group.
They have scratches on their arms. Their cars are filled with cat food and metal traps. Spare cash goes to gas money to transport cats to the vet. And despite their efforts, they get no cuddles from the colonies they save.
There are three aspects to their work: the trap, neuter, release program; fostering cats; and adopting them out to new homes. The work can be heartbreaking when volunteers see the myriad ways cats are mistreated, but they say its worth it when they find a happy home for a feline.
The Humane Society of the Unites States estimates that there are 50 million feral and stray cats across the country. They live in alleys, abandoned homes and Dumpsters, or anywhere else they can find a stable source of food and water.
Homeowners often see them as a nuisance in the neighborhood and try to get rid of them. Trapping the cats and dumping them somewhere else just confuses the animals, and they are often killed.
"It's terribly cruel. These animals have a home. They know that place, and where to find water and food," COAC volunteer Stephanie Ward said.
Feeding bans don't work. Some cats will go father afield for food, but many will stay in the area they know as home and die of starvation.
And killing the cats, through euthanasia or other means, is not ideal, Ward said.
Trap, neuter and release is the humane solution, she said.
TNR focuses on stabilizing the population in feral cat colonies. It's designed to do exactly what it says: Trap feral cats, fix them to prevent future kittens, and return them to their familiar territory, where they can continue living their lives.
"So many times, I saw people walk into the shelter with kittens that need to be bottle-fed because they were taken from their mother cat," said Ward, who says those kittens often must be euthanized. "The core problem is that mama cat is (still) out there, making more babies."
Ward started trapping and neutering feral cats in Lodi about 10 years ago, when she was volunteering for the Lodi Shelter. The city offers a grant to spay and neuter pets, but it is only available to people who live on the Eastside of Lodi.
Ward wanted to help anyone with a feral cat problem near their home, so she connected with the Abandoned Cat Team and the Lodi Animal Advisory Commission, and gathered a team of volunteers from these groups who also wanted to help find cats a safe place to live.
Today, when people come to the shelter for help with a feral cat problem, staff refer them to Ward and her group.
Cats of All Colors was born last year when Ward realized she and her team needed more money to keep going. The group fosters the friendly cats they find and adopts them out to new homes for $60, fixed and with all their shots.
Their adoption center is at the PetSmart on Florin Road in Sacramento, though they rescue cats from throughout San Joaquin County.
Ward made it clear that her team is not a collection agency for feral cats.
"We are not interested in hauling cats away," she said. "We are not a disposal service for a problem you want off your hands."
One side effect of the work, Ward said, is learning to restrain her temper. It is frustrating for her to see cats have litter after litter with no intervention, or to see cats abandoned, euthanized or left for dead when TNR or adoption are options.
"These cats did not choose to be born as ferals. They would choose a warm home if they could. They have no voice, and are dependent on people like me for help," she said.
Ken Wilson, who lives on Stockton Street, calls Ward an angel.
"Those people are lifesavers to me," he said.
When Wilson moved in 30 years ago, he had rats running along the fence near the house. He adopted one cat to take care of the pests, but feral cats in the area figured out where the food was and began coming around.
At one point, Wilson had 27 animals living on his porch, going through a bag and a half of cat food a week, but he couldn't bear to have them euthanized.
So he got in touch with Ward through the Lodi Animal Shelter, and told her his problem.
Ward asked Wilson to set cat traps in his yard, and call her when cats were caught. She picked up the animals, got them neutered, and brought them back. The cost was minimal, thanks to vouchers provided by the shelter.
Wilson still feeds the cats every day, but now there are only three or four. They're fixed. There are no more kittens turning up every few months. The rest of the adults lived out their lives as healthy cats.
"I just can't believe the dedication they have to these cats," he said.
Feral cat colonies need a feeder, someone dedicated to giving them food, water and medical care if needed.
Crownover has adopted several colonies around Lodi since his retirement four years ago. He spends an hour and a half, morning and evening, doling out food and water in bowls.
"They're typical ferals. It's ingrained in them to keep away from people, even the ones who feed them," he said.
Crownover cares for five cats in an alley off the south end of Russ Street.
Four neighborhood cats haunt the campus of Seventh Day Adventist Elementary school on Poplar Street.
Crownover stops by a building on the corner of Lockeford and Locust Streets to check on a black and white cat that runs when she sees his truck pull up.
A woman on Avena Avenue is fostering three cats until they can be adopted, and lets two ferals live in her basement. Crownover tends to them, too.
"You just can't turn your back on that stuff. Once you realize how great the need is, it's hard to walk away," he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.