It’s early on a Wednesday, and Alison Lord can’t wait to begin castrating. 

A veterinarian in private practice in the Pearl District, Lord typically deals with ailments of the pampered house pet: dental cleanings, tummy aches, ear infections.

But today, she'll spay and neuter 33 cats at the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, with the help of volunteers and a comfy pair of sneakers.

Inside the clinic, located in North Portland next to a Maaco Auto Parts store and a vacant lot, furnishings are sparse: a few surgical tables and steel racks stacked 6 feet high with metal cages. Inside the cages, giant toms and tiny kittens crouch, waiting their turn. An oil painting of an orange cat and Chinese lettering hangs on the wall.

Morning talk-show banter from a boom box competes with a few stray mews.

A number of felines are splayed out on operating tables on their backs. They look dead—or as if they had an epic party the night before.

They've been dosed with anesthesia and painkiller. Their mouths hang open, tongues lolling.

"I remember the first time I came: It was exhausting and exhilarating. And I couldn't wait to come again," says Lord, 41, who says this is one of the highlights of her month. 

The procedure, which takes place three days a week and once a month on Sunday, operates with precision: A young volunteer runs masking tape up the spine of a tabby tomcat asleep on the table. With a Sharpie, the tech writes the cat's ID number (9), his color and where he was caught. She shaves his groin and squeezes a stream of urine from his bladder into a drain in the table. Next, the cat's right ear tip is sliced off, and the tech uses a mini torch to cauterize the wound.  

Then, the main event. Lord slices open the cat's scrotum with a scalpel, her fingers working deftly on the delicate task in front of her. Lord has repeated this action thousands of times.

"Really nothing can prepare you for the depth and breadth of these kinds of clinics," says Lord, a string of pearls under the neck of her scrubs offsetting the gore on her latex gloves. "But over and over again for years I've been able to help these animals."

Strangely, there's very little blood from such a life-altering event. The cat is out cold, but his back paws start working frantically as Lord slides out his testicles, the size and color of a white Great Northern bean, ties off the long line of connective tissue and cuts his balls off. 

It's all over in about 90 seconds. Female surgeries are more complicated and take up to 15 minutes. 

This tabby is now among the more than 61,000 cats the Feral Cat Coalition has put through the process of "trap-neuter-return." They don't return to the couch, but to backyards, forests, barns and alleyways all over Portland. These cats are not domestic, and have no owners in the traditional sense. They are wild, or feral, and their shorn right ears are a mark they have been branded by one of the oldest, most organized nonprofits that caters to untamed cats in the United States.

"Most programs across the country are not helping anywhere near the number of stray and feral cats we are," boasts Karen Kraus, a slender woman who keeps her hair in a ponytail as she tours the operating room of the clinic she's run full time since 2002. "We do it well."

The Feral Cat Coalition employs eight people and more than 500 volunteers. On its latest tax return, it reported $730,000 in donations and grants, and more than $2.4 million in reserves. Each year, it consistently ranks in the top 10 highest-earning of the 100-plus nonprofits listed in WW's Give!Guide, and raised $43,500 last December.

It has such a reputation that a film crew from Japan flew to Portland in June to follow the Feral Cat Coalition.

No one knows exactly how many feral cats are scattered across Portland, but to critics they are wild animals that spread disease, decimate bird populations and wreak havoc in neighborhoods. 

In much of the country, a war simmers in what The New York Times calls a "strange Sylvester-and-Tweety feud between birders and cat fanciers.” But in Portland, the factions have formed a rare détente. 

Conservation director Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Oregon says it comes down to the fact that both sides care deeply for animals.

"Everywhere else, there's constant bickering, fighting, vilifying each other," Sallinger says. "At the end of the day, trap-neuter-return is an experiment. But what I tell my friends in the bird community is, it may not work, but we already have 100 years of failure behind us."

Charmaine Ripton is mixing an ambrosial concoction of salmon and shrimp varieties of Fancy Feast cat food.

She slides the mush into small tubs and carries them past her thriving tomato and garlic beds to four small cages waiting behind her modest 1950 bungalow in Northeast Portland.

Ripton has been baiting the cages for four days, luring cats in for meals without trapping them. But at 6 am on a recent Tuesday, the traps went live.

Ripton, 49, with the help of her husband, Garth, sets the traps and rushes back inside to wait. It's not long before a black cat slinks out of the alley behind her lot, ears periscoping, alert as a deer. 

The smell of seafood is too much. The cat noses into the cage, and bam! the door slams shut behind him.

The cage shudders as the wild cat whirls in circles, yellow eyes wide and ears pinned back, trying to free himself. Ripton walks outdoors and snatches up the cage, taking care to avoid the claws hooking through the wire bars. She puts him in the garage and covers the cage with a pink sheet—tomorrow he will be neutered and given shots at the Feral Cat Coalition clinic, then returned to Ripton's backyard.

“It really gets my adrenaline going,” Ripton explains, before returning to her window. 

The only way the great gamble of trap-neuter-return will work is if there are enough people like Ripton who will leave food for animals that will never come within 10 feet of them. In doing so, the hope is, feral cats will prefer Friskies to finches, and bird populations will be saved. Sterilize enough of them, they believe, and feral cats will become a thing of the past.

As such, Ripton is part of an underground legion of Portlanders called, in the vernacular of the Feral Cat Coalition, "colony keepers."

And, just like the number of wild cats in the city, no one knows exactly how many of her kind are out there. Kraus says it's in the thousands.

Ripton acknowledges no one in her right mind starts out looking to care for 16 feral cats. In her case, it happened slowly. The first, a lone black cat, appeared last August, lapping cautiously at her dog's outdoor water bowl.

"I thought, oh my gosh, I wonder about this cat!" says Ripton, a buoyant woman who favors floral dresses and frequently swears to gosh. "So I put out food."

Soon, in the middle of a densely populated Concordia neighborhood street, more than a dozen cats materialized to accept her charity.

Feral cats can't fend for themselves. Large colonies that aren't fed or fixed overpopulate and are often starving and prone to disease, Kraus says. Healthy colonies, she adds, have keepers.

Most mornings, Ripton is up at dawn, depositing breakfast at a custom-built feeding station in her backyard, a small wooden platform with a sharply sloped roof about 3 feet high. She has names for most of her regulars.

"Hi! That looks like Nibbles! Hi, sweetie!" Ripton singsongs at the large black cat already waiting for his chow.

Ripton's medical, food and other bills for all her animals topped $20,000 last year. And Ripton says she doesn't take vacations, because the cats need their food. That was OK while Garth, a software engineer with a local wind-turbine company, was finishing graduate school. But now that he's graduated, she concedes she'll need to find a housesitter who can handle her brood.

Ripton asked that her specific address not be made public. Even in Portland, those who tend to feral cats are as skittish as the wild felines they care for, keeping their colonies cloaked in secrecy.

Their concerns are twofold: A known colony could become a dumping ground for more unwanted cats. Or worse, a flock could fall in the cross hairs of target hunters or be poisoned.

"I don't think most of the neighbors know," Ripton says, fearing disapproval. "I like to keep it to myself."

Someone in her neighborhood may have a bead on feral cats, however. This spring, Ripton says she and her husband found a convulsing cat in the alley and rushed it to an emergency vet clinic. It died there. 

"My suspicion is poisoning," she says. "Another neighbor said she found two dead cats in her yard."

It's illegal to torture or kill feral cats. Multnomah County Animal Services prosecutes suspected crimes against the animals, but doesn't track crimes against feral cats specifically.

Kraus says some arrivals at the Feral Cat Coalition are clearly victims of target practice. "I've had cats come in with pellets," she says. "I know cats get shot."

Either way, feral cats face a tough life. Even if they are being fed and watched over, they still face death by coyote, cars and other hazards.

But in most communities, a feral cat's biggest foes are not predators.

They're birders.

The American Bird Conservancy lobbies against trap-neuter-return. The nonprofit, which has its headquarters in Virginia but also has an office in Washington, D.C., maintains a Web page devoted to the dangers of feral cats and argues that wild cats should be "kept in enclosures…or euthanized."

Spokesman Grant Sizemore points to a study done in Rome from 2006 that found trap-neuter-return to be a "waste of time" and says another study shows the number of cats in the U.S. has tripled in the past 40 years.

"From our perspective, it's important you remove the cats from the landscape," Sizemore says. "What you do with them after that is up to you."

In 2007, the director of the Galveston, Texas, ornithological society was charged with shooting feral cats in the name of aviary justice. 

A recent study by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased the tension. The study, published in Nature in January 2013, painted what Smithsonian magazine called a "grim picture for wildlife": Each year, 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds in the U.S. lose their lives to cats.

The flame wars in the story's comment section ignited the moment the study was posted online. 

"Typical sociopathic and psychopathic cat-lickers," a commenter wrote on the Smithsonian's website. "Cat hater bird lover crazy," retorted a feline fan.

Becky Robinson, president and co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says the study should never have been published.

"What's threatening birds are human activities: development, pollution, pesticides," Robinson says. “We’re being scapegoated—cats are not the problem.” 

Birders point out that cats are the No. 1 carriers of rabies and they spread diseases like toxoplasmosis and even plague. Kraus of the Feral Cat Coalition counters that disease is no more prevalent in managed colonies than in domestic cats. 

The American Veterinary Medical Association, citing inconclusive studies on the effectiveness of managed cat colonies and the schism in the veterinary community, takes no position on trap-neuter-return. 

In Oregon and in Portland, feral cat supporters and birders have laid down their fur and feathers.

The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, for one thing, endorses trap-neuter-return.

And Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Oregon has worked with the Feral Cat Coalition to promote trap-neuter-return—and has taken heat from the National Audubon Society for doing so.

Sallinger acknowledges that of the 3,000 injured birds his sanctuary takes in each year, about 40 percent are caught by cats. But, he points out, Multnomah County Animal Services can't keep feral cats in its shelter. So if a feral cat is brought there, it's euthanized.

He says that's not always the right way to go. Sallinger supports a multistep approach of keeping domestic cats indoors, targeting problem areas, selective euthanasia and using trap-neuter-return. Working with the Feral Cat Coalition will get that job done better than railing against them, he says.

"These animals have value, these cats that have been abandoned and neglected," he says. "We have to find solutions."

Yet as the summer kitten season dawns and the next generation of killers is born, Sallinger acknowledges that even a progressive city like Portland needs to pick up the pace.

"We're a long way away, and, frankly, we're not having a whole hell of a lot of success right now," he says. "I don't want to oversell this, because we do have a long way to go, but we're putting a lot of effort into it."

To borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, that effort takes a village.

Rescuing feral cats has engendered a cottage industry of volunteers and nonprofits who do what the Feral Cat Coalition can't: help people trap feral cats, socialize kittens and even find them new places to live.

It's something Ann Fore has given her whole heart to—almost literally. The 64-year-old had heart surgery in April and was told to remain mostly in bed until August. "I know there's cats out there suffering," she says, shaking her short gray hair. "Every day I don't get them, they're all suffering."

Instead, Fore stands in front of Meow Village, her feral cat sanctuary and nonprofit in Aurora, 30 miles southwest of Portland.

The village is something to see—but only if you know where to look. It's behind a blackberry bramble off a busy road near town but completely invisible from almost every vantage point.

The blackberries reveal a warren below the thorns. Humans who want access must crawl on the fresh straw laid down among a dozen cat igloos—hand-insulated cat carriers with bedding inside. Traffic whizzes by as volunteers replenish food once a day. 

A former acclaimed line-dancing choreographer and state corrections worker, Fore is now retired, and devotes herself full time to Meow Village. She has 10 cats at home and keeps photos of them tucked in her billfold, along with a 1992 high-school basketball photo of her son, Richard.

Almost all of Meow Village's 70-plus feral cats have been neutered or spayed. Along with feeding, Fore and a handful of volunteers work to find new locations for feral colonies and teach people to trap. She's got a list of at least 100 cats in Vernonia, Molalla and Carlton that need to be caught and fixed.

In early June, she was headed to the home of a hoarder with countless cats on his land. Clackamas County officials threatened to trap and kill the nuisance cats—Fore wants to catch them and find them vineyards, barns or any spots that could use low-maintenance pest control.

But a week later, the hoarder went back on his promise to let her on his property to trap. Before then, she'd scooped up 19 kittens. This, she explains, was crucial because wild kittens caught before about 10 weeks old can be domesticated.

"I'm worried about the cats, if you want to know the truth," says Fore, who sports a Tigger sweatshirt with a few errant cat hairs on it and sandals. "I need to know they are safe."

The work is more than full time—and Meow Village runs up a $600-a-month food bill and keeps a running tab at the vet that's in the four figures. Fore uses grants, donations and her personal savings to make do.

No matter the health or financial costs, Fore says she knows she'll be doing this till the day she dies. Fore's doctors told her in 2009 she wouldn't live more than a year. But her dedication to these felines—although they'll never return her love—compels her.

"Meow Village gave me a reason to live," Fore says. "I'm not going to let them tell me I have a year to live. I've got cats to save."


On June 22, Ripton stood in front of her feral cat feeding station, the lens of a Japanese filmmaker a few feet from her face.

The three-woman Japanese delegation—the director, a veterinarian and an interpreter—will feature Ripton in their full-length documentary on trap-neuter-return. Japan also has a feral cat problem, and is about a decade behind the United States in addressing it, says Kraus of the Feral Cat Coalition.  

During the filming, they asked Ripton why she loves cats. Why she does what she does. Why she cares.

"It was a really pleasant experience," Ripton says. "They're sending me the film when they're finished."

When they left, they gave her a set of chopsticks.

“Cultures aside,” Kraus says, “we’re really not all that different from each other.”