A few weeks ago, Gail Churchill, a volunteer with Island Cat Resources & Adoption, which serves Oakland and Alameda, got a phone call saying there were five kittens in an abandoned couch in someone's backyard.

As soon as she got there, she realized the kittens were only four weeks old -- too young to trap safely. When they spotted her, they scurried up into the couch's innards.

"There were teeny little legs sticking out in all directions," she says. "And they were all screaming bloody murder." The screaming attracted a neighbor, who helped her pry the couch open and catch the terrified little ones by hand.

"They were untouchable for a couple of days, but day by day they started to purr. Within a week they were pretty much people-friendly. And absolutely adorable."

The kittens -- two longhair orange-and-whites, two white and tabby mixes, and a breathtakingly gorgeous longhair Maine coon -- are four boys and a girl, temporarily named Fred, Ted, Ned, Jed and Mildred until somebody adopts them and gives them their real names. Now they're nine weeks old, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and thoroughly socialized. Ted and Ned, especially, never stop purring, but all of them are extremely affectionate.

"But as adorable as they are, they should never have been born," says Gail. "Now that they have been born, it's up to us humans to take care of them, but we have to stop others from being born."

The Humane Society of the United States says three to four million unwanted cats and dogs are euthanized every year. And countless others live out lives on the street filled with cold, terror and a never-ending search for enough food to live another day.

Some people say the solution is to round them all up and kill them. But the numbers tell a different story. A single pair of unaltered cats and their offspring can produce 65,000 cats in just five years. You can't kill them fast enough to keep up. The smart way is to prevent them from being born in the first place. That's ICRA's mission: trap them humanely, then whisk them to the vet for checkups, vaccinations and -- above all -- spay/neuter surgery.

If they're young enough to be socialized, they get the TLC the couch kittens got. If not, they're returned to their feral colonies, where their feeders will continue to care for them. But they won't turn out kittens any more. The couch kittens are now ready for adoption, and you can see their pictures on ICRA's website, icraeastbay.org. That's also where to make a tax-deductible donation or sign up to be an ICRA volunteer.

You can also send a check to ICRA, P.O. Box 1093, Alameda CA 94501. Or -- and I saved the best for last -- you can go to ICRA's annual Holiday Boutique from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Alameda Elks Lodge, 2255 Santa Clara Ave., where thousands of holiday-related items will be featured -- decorations, gift wrap, Christmas cards, centerpieces, hostess gifts, etc. -- with prices well below retail.

And if you're feeding any backyard cats, God bless you, but that's only half the battle. Get those kitties fixed right away! (By the way, all the nice things I said about ICRA also go for the Berkeley-based group Fix Our Ferals.)

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.

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