Enter Jenny Schlueter’s house in Humboldt Park and the first thing people notice is Sita, a small black-and-white tuxedo cat with a personality bigger than her diminutive size.
She prances around newcomers, sniffing shoes and watching people come and go with her bright green eyes.
Looking at her healthy coat and sweet disposition, most visitors would never know that Sita was a feral cat that Schlueter rescued from the streets of Madrid.
“I’ve always loved animals my entire life,” said Schlueter, the Director of Development at Tree House Humane Society in Edgewater. “I always felt that I was destined to help animals.”
Schlueter, who worked for seven years as a journalist for Reuters in Spain, saw stray and feral cats everywhere in Madrid. At the time, Spain was developing an animal control infrastructure, but it did not yet really include a way to control the feral cat population.
“When a lot of people refer to ‘animal control,’ they refer to it as ‘the dog pound,’” Schlueter added. “They [shelters] were created to help dogs…cats were kind of the afterthought.”
Cats like Sita, who Schlueter saw sitting on a park bench one day while she was jogging through the Campo del Muro, a public garden behind the royal palace in Madrid.
“Every time a couple would stroll by she [Sita] would follow them until the end of the bench, and would meow at them,” Schlueter said. “Once they got to the end of the bench she would go back to the other side … and continue to go back and forth.”
Schlueter saw that the little cat was friendly, but very skinny and hungry.
“So I went home and got a carrier, and went and got her,” Schleuter said, smiling.
Schlueter ended up returning to the United States with both Sita and another rehabilitated feral cat, named Mali, and was determined to work out a solution for Chicago’s own feral cat population.
She discovered Tree House Humane Society, a non-profit cat shelter based in Edgewater. Tree House started in 1971 specifically to address the concern of abandoned and stray cats.
Schlueter began volunteering there. She discovered that while Tree House worked hard to give a voice for the strays, there was no formal policy in Chicago to control their population outside of the old “trap and kill method” used by the city.
So Schlueter developed Trap-Neuter-Return, called TNR, as a way to address that problem.
The focus of TNR, Schlueter said, is to control and gradually reduce the feral cat population through neutering, vaccinating, and monitoring colonies of feral cats.
Any friendly cats—like Sita—are put into foster homes until they can come to Tree House to be adopted.
The un-socialized “alley” cats, though, are where Schlueter’s program differs from the old model. Rather than euthanize the “unadoptable” cats, the program returns them—neutered, vaccinated and treated for any illness or injury—to their territories where they can continue to live without the risk of spreading infection or reproducing.
These groups of cats, called “colonies” are monitored by caretakers, neighbors who live in the area and who put out food, monitor the cats’ health, and bring in un-fixed newcomers to be vaccinated and sterilized.
Before the program could really gain traction, though, Schlueter first had to get Cook County officials on board. There was no legislation that said a program like TNR was illegal in Cook County, but no legislation said it was legal, either.
Schlueter and Tree House played a big role in getting the Managed Care of Feral Cats ordinance passed in Cook County in 2007. The ordinance recognizes TNR as a method to safely and humanely control colonies of feral cats.
Under the ordinance, feral colonies are made of stray cats that are fixed, vaccinated for rabies and other diseases. The cats are implanted with a microchip, so that if a feral cat is picked up, they can be identified and returned to their colony caretaker, rather than euthanized.
The ordinance also specifies that feral cats are not property, and colony caretakers are not the same as owners of domesticated cats, who could face charges of abandonment if they leave their cat outside.
Douglas Stoltzfus, office manager at Tree House’s Bucktown spay/neuter clinic, says that the program has had an impact already on the feral cat population.
Since the clinic opened in May of 2009, it has operated on 3,027 cats. In 2011 alone, the clinic has operated on 1,165 cats.
“The part that has been important to me has been the advocacy and helping get a good policy in place in Cook County,” Stoltzfus said.
“If a feral cat is found, Animal Care and Control will actually now scan for a microchip and call the caretaker before euthanizing. And that is progress.”
Much of the progress the program has seen, Stoltzfus believes, is due in part to Schlueter’s tenacity.
“She’s driven,” Stoltzfus said. “You need somebody who’s like that in the position she’s in…to advocate for the animals and for a policy that’s appropriate for the animal’s wellbeing.”
On a cold, blustery night in early November, Schlueter and a fellow “colony captain”, Heather Weidmann, were out in the alleys behind Weidmann’s apartment on Rockwell Avenue in Humboldt Park. Weidmann was setting up traps to catch several untagged strays she had seen; including what appeared to be an injured male, and a heavily pregnant female.
“TNR is a waiting game,” Weidmann said as she laid out traps, using a pungent mix of wet food as bait. “It once took me two years to catch a cat.”
Weidmann has been managing feral cat colonies for about ten years, by her estimation, and has known and worked with Schlueter for roughly five of those ten.
“She is great. I like that she’s so into TNR,” said Weidmann. “Whenever I have frustrations, I can talk to her. Whenever I need stats…she’s like a book. It’s good to have someone else who is passionate.”
Trapping is a long, sometimes frustrating process. Weidmann and Schlueter checked on the traps throughout the evening. They never leave the traps unattended for too long, for fear that someone will damage or steal them. Sometimes they are successful, and manage to trap several cats. Other nights, the traps remain empty.
About halfway through the night, one of the traps was sprung, catching a young gray-and-white male who was an unregistered stray. The cat pushed on the trap door, but otherwise did not seem too angry at his confinement. Schlueter and Weidmann spoke to him gently as they wrapped a white sheet around the cage and carried it to Schlueter’s car.
“If they can’t see you, then you can’t see them,” Schlueter said as she set the cage down in the back of the car. “They feel safer.”
The cat will be taken to the clinic where he will be fixed, treated for any infections and vaccinated.
The night’s trapping yielded more good results: after the gray cat Schlueter and Weidmann caught the injured male, and they were able to network with some neighbors about putting a trap on private property to more easily catch the female, whom Schlueter suspected had given birth to her litter. Schlueter explained to them that a feral female can have up to three litters a year, with anywhere between three and six kittens per litter.
By the end of the conversation, one neighbor agreed to put a trap on his property to catch the female cat, and another took an information pamphlet about Tree House and the TNR program
“What I love is when you can talk to the neighbors,” Schlueter said afterwards. “Blindly setting traps doesn’t always work.”
This year, Tree House received a grant of more than $75,000 from PetSmart Charities to fix and vaccinate 1,500 feral cats. The shelter is focusing on the cats in the 60651 zip code, which has a large feral and abandoned cat population.
Schlueter hopes that by focusing on one neighborhood at a time and stabilizing their stray cat population, Tree House can then expand outward to other neighborhoods until—hopefully—all of Chicago’s feral cat population is sterilized and monitored.
“Our goal is to finish the entire city,” Schlueter said. “It will probably take fifteen to twenty years to finish–” she said, laughing, “—but we’re getting there.”