One evening a month, a small group of people sets traps around Bartholomew County.

They are live traps, lined with newspaper and baited with enticing food. Regan Wellman, along with several other volunteers with Hope for Ferals, will leave the traps set and waiting.

Overnight, it is hoped, feral cats will sniff out the food and wander into the traps.

A new beginning

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In the moment the trap door shuts behind them, another door opens for the feral cats. They will be picked up by Wellman, Hope for Ferals co-founder Ashleigh Kuhl and a small cadre of volunteers. From there, the cats will be ferried to FACE Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Clinic in Indianapolis, where Wellman works as a medical care coordinator, or to Pets Alive in Bloomington.

In either clinic, they will be neutered and spend a day in recovery. Then the cats are returned to the site at which they were trapped.

It’s a process known as trap-neuter-return.

Wellman said it’s a process that will save the cats’ lives.

“It’s the only way to manage the feral cat population,” she said.

Feral cats, Wellman said, are wild domestic cats — that is, a house cat that has never been socialized to live with humans.

“People confuse them with stray cats,” Wellman said. “A stray will be quicker to warm up to a person. Ferals try to stay hidden.”

Where there’s Hope

The Columbus-based Hope for Ferals began with a cat named Hope.

“She is the reason I do what I do, and she gave Hope For Ferals its name,” Wellman said.

Hope came to the Bartholomew County Humane Society and quickly escaped her cage. She stayed in the general area, and became Wellman’s companion.

“I dubbed her ‘garage cat.’” Wellman said. “I talked to her, enjoyed her company, and even got her to trust me enough to pet her, but never ever to pick her up.”

One day, Wellman found out that the un-adoptable Hope was scheduled to be put down.

“I immediately contacted my boss and told her not to do it, that I would have her spayed and I would take her home,” Wellman said.

“The next day when I came into work I picked up a Sharpie and tape and labeled her cage ‘Hope.’ And that was her name. By saving her, she gave me hope that I could do the same for other cats. So that day I went home and started, on May 26, 2014, a Facebook page simply titled ‘Hope For Ferals’ and it just kinda went from there.”

Wellman took Hope home to her parents’ farm, where she became the alpha cat in a colony of feral cats scooped up from shelters by Wellman and Kuhl.

A growing colony

The group progressed.

Wellman and Kuhn distributed fliers in the spring of 2014, asking for people with feral cat colonies to contact them if they needed to have the cats altered. In 2014, they had about 50 cats neutered and released. The group’s collection of live traps — traps typically used to confine racoons — grew, as did the collection of volunteers.

Julie Robbins, a metrology technician at Cummins by day, saw a HFF collection jar at Dairy Queen. She knew Wellman from volunteering at the Bartholomew County Humane Society.

“I hated seeing (feral cats) in cages,” Robbins said of her days volunteering at the shelter. “The trap-neuter-return thing was a way of preventing that in a humane way.”

Robbins, who serves as the HFF treasurer, also traps cats in the organization’s continuing group efforts.

“I went to one lady’s house, and I set seven traps,” she said. “We hope that we get all of them. In this lady’s case, we got all but one.”

Kuhl agrees the feral cats belong in the relative wild.

“(Feral cats) deserve to live naturally, outdoors, where they belong,” she said. “If it is truly a feral cat, that’s their life. They’re wild animals. If the population gets out of control, if they just breed and breed, people don’t like them. They don’t have to be a nuisance.”

Nine lives

Wellman said she hopes that her fledgling group, which in a couple of weeks will celebrate its first anniversary, will grow and thrive. Despite a move to Indianapolis (for Wellman) and Greenwood (for Kuhl), HFF remains rooted in the Columbus community. The group, which includes a five-member board, is working toward a 501(c)3 status by creating bylaws. Such a status would allow the group to expand by applying for grants, Wellman said.

Each cat’s surgery is $30; HFF representatives like to provide cat food, where possible, to encourage property owners to care for the cats. Feral cats are considered unowned. Because of this, the organization undertakes the neutering the cats — a cost that adds up, Wellman said.

“We have so many people who call for help,” she said. “What we have now is not enough to meet the needs of all of the colonies.”

But, Wellman said, bringing peace to feral cats will be a continuing effort for HFF.

Feral cats, Wellman said, are at peace when they are living outside.

“A lot of people believe that cats belong inside,” she said. “But they don’t understand what a feral is. Being outside is where (a feral cat is) happy. It’s their home. Being inside for a truly feral cat is torture. Not every cat belongs inside. Not every cat wants to be inside. I want people to know that feral cats do not belong in shelters.”

Hope for Ferals
  • Hope for Ferals (HFF) was founded in 2014 by Regan Wellman and Ashleigh Kuhl, both of whom worked at the Bartholomew County Humane Society
  • You’ll find more information about HFF at the organization’s Facebook page, facebook.com/HopeForTheFerals.
  • In addition to monetary donations, the group welcomes donations of live traps, newspapers, old sheets (to cover traps) and cat food. 
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Jenny Elig is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at jelig@therepublic.com or 812-379-5671.