HOUSTON (AP) — The Feral Feline Retreat in northeast Houston wouldn't be heaven to you, but it's heaven to Butterfinger. And Socks. And Bell Springs I, and Bell Springs II. And, at present, 33 of their dearest friends. (As well as a fair number of dogs, the "feline" thing being largely aspirational.)
The double-lot yard ringed by a solid metal fence is dotted with cat amusements: big pipes to hide in, soft places to lounge, logs to scratch on, ladders to climb, a wooded spot to retreat to, even a plastic wastebasket, which one cat has clearly claimed as its domain.
Tom O'Keefe is the full-time caretaker. He manages the yard and the house. "This is their house," he says of the cats, and it, too, is fitted out for felines: bunk-bedlike structures to sleep on, toys, full feeders.
No cat wants for anything. All are fixed and have their shots.
O'Keefe looks like a tough guy, but he has a creamy center. He'll point to a cat and declare it a favorite, then to another and claim the same thing, and pretty soon you realize: They're all favorites.
Sharon R. Smith, who lives in the Heights, runs this relatively fledgling nonprofit. This day, she is inseparable from a 3-week-old black kitten named Scooter. You'd think breaking into the animal-rescue community would be easy, but she says it's not. Though she says she has met every test, she still is told she's not qualified for free pet food or spay-neuter programs. "It's political in this town," Sharon says.
Nevertheless, she soldiers on because the feral-cat situation in Houston is so dire. The life of a typical feral is Hobbesian: poor, nasty, brutish and short.
The females, she says, just give birth to litter after litter. "It's almost worse for the males out there," she says. They spend their life in an endless round of fights with other males. The average feral cat lives only three years. "I see them at every apartment complex, every Dumpster," she told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/17sYqYf).
The only halfway good life for a feral, she says, is if it is trapped and spayed or neutered and then returned to a cat colony fed by humans.
I came across Sharon via a flier she posted at Wabash Antiques & Feed Store on Washington, advertising the feral cat retreat's program placing ferals in new careers as mousers.
Under Tom and Sharon's ministrations, a feral cat in stable circumstances such as the retreat can "mellow out" in about three months. The cat will never sit in a lap, but it will have some trust. And it will catch mice.
She got a call this week from a woman in Katy who would like 14 mousers, please.
But there's a little bit of finesse to it," Sharon says. The mouser cat must be kept confined or in a crate for two weeks, with a litter box, at its new location, or it will just take off. (She also insists each cat be placed somewhere with heat and air conditioning.)
Please don't take your local ferals to Sharon's place. She will, however, lend you traps and tell you where to get the cats fixed free or at a reduced rate. "A lot of people have taken my advice," she says.
Last year at the PetSmart on South Shepherd at Alabama, she placed more than 600 animals, many the tame kittens of ferals, with loving families.
Sometimes her work with ferals gets dangerous. One day, she was visiting five young female ferals in the Heights when a man toting a rifle with a scope on it approached her. "I'm going to kill you and the cats," he declared.
"You're willing to go to jail for the rest of your life over five cats?" she asked. Police intervened. For their safety, Sharon moved the cats.
Just recently, Sharon came across a mother dog with 10 puppies in a culvert. A heavy rain would drown the pups. After three or four hours of work, her team extracted the mother and puppies, who are now bouncing around in a dog run at the retreat and about to reach maximum cuteness quotient.
But it's hard. The retreat needs so much: donations of money, food, cat litter. Volunteers, too. Email onionskinss(at)comcast.net or check out bit.ly/14c7MLY.
"Just the ferals could take my whole time," Sharon says. "Just the rescue could take my whole time. Just adoptions could take my whole time."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
Eds: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle.