By Jeannie Howard
Starting with a desire to lessen the suffering of kittens in her community, Linda McCormick founded Fix Our Ferals, a community-based, non-profit organization with the goal to humanely reduce the cat population in the East Bay region.
“Linda got into working with cats accidentally, like most of us do,” said Dairne Ryan, long-time volunteer and board member with Fix Our Ferals. “She was taking walks in one of our East Bay regional parks and saw some kittens eating out of dumpsters. She felt really bad about it and started feeding them.”
Ryan described how this simple action led to McCormick connecting with a few local organizations in the East Bay who were working with feral cats, and began learning about their efforts to help the cat population. McCormick began trapping cats to take them to her veterinarian to be spayed and neutered, a practice known as trap-neuter-return (TNR), and would then adopt out any kittens she could socialize.
TNR is a practice that simply involves trapping cats from a colony and bringing them in to be spayed or neutered and then, once they have recovered, they are released back to their colony. When done in mass volume, Ryan said that this is how to reduce the feral cat population humanely.
“Linda paid for a lot of spays and neuters out of her own pocket, but she wanted to find a way to help the rescue community who were doing this and paying for all of it with their own money,” Ryan described.
After connecting with the Feral Cat Coalition, an organization in San Diego doing high volume clinics to spay and neuter cats, McCormick started Fix Our Ferals in Berkeley in 1998 with a dedicated group of volunteers and a $10,000 grant from the city of Berkeley.
“The mayor and a couple of city council members in Berkeley were really in favor of finding humane and effective approaches to the feral cat population.” Ryan described how, with that initial grant from the city, McCormick was able to establish clinics run entirely by volunteers, including the veterinarians. While the city of Berkeley had put a restriction on the start-up grant that she could only service the feral cats from within Berkeley during the first year, McCormick was not only able to get the residences of Berkeley active in the cause but word of what she was doing quickly spread to surrounding areas.
“For about eleven years we ran bi-monthly high volume clinics. We had to hold the clinics on Sundays because that’s the day the vet offices we would borrow were closed,” Ryan recalled.
McCormick also set up an externship program with the vet school students at the University of California, Davis. For several years the bi-monthly clinics had veterinarian school students helping as surgery assistants and doing anesthesia. “They loved it because they were getting hands-on experience they weren’t getting on campus in those days and we loved it because we were exposing the young students to the issues of community cats,” Ryan said. “They came and saw that these cats were like any other cat. Today], many of the vets who are in practice in our community developed sensibilities about compassion for these feral cats by volunteering at our clinic.”
The clinics grew from fixing 32 cats at their first clinic to more than 200 per clinic. And demand for Fix Our Ferals went beyond what the roaming clinics could sustain. After moving from location to location, the organization found their permanent home in 2012 with the help of generous donations from community members who believed in their work and a $75,000 PetSmart Charities grant, Ryan said.
“The cats are getting wonderful high-quality care. We want that for our pets, but for those of us who work with free roaming cats and know that after surgery they are going back out on the streets to their colonies we believe it is essential they receive the best care possible,” Ryan said.
The free roaming cats are not only fixed, but they are also vaccinated, micro chipped and treated for fleas. “We do everything that we can in that one sitting to make sure they get the best treatment possible,” said Ryan.
The clinic also provides veterinary services to pet cats at a slightly higher fee than for the free-roaming cats.
Fix Our Ferals has since become a model for other organizations looking to provide similar services throughout the Bay Area. With a website full of useful information, they serve as a resource to citizens wanting to help the cause.
“We lend out traps to people and provide detailed instructions how to trap the cats,” Ryan said. “I think we really are a unique community resource in West Contra Costa that just wasn’t available before.”
Increasing the number of spays and neuters to reduce effectively reduce the free roaming cat population, and continuing to educate residents throughout the the East Bay is a main focus for those at Fix Our Ferals, according to Ryan.
“We want to change the community standard so that our community understands that a fixed animal, whether you care about animals or not, is the best thing for animals and for reducing the population, to reduce suffering and end euthanasia at our shelters” she said. “Feeding a stray cat isn’t enough. If you really care, fixing the cat is critically important because that is how to prevent more little kittens from living out on the streets and suffering.”