OAKLAND -- Ellen Lynch's passion is fixing feral cats. Her burden is keeping them fed.
Lynch is a leading volunteer in the movement to humanely reduce feral cat populations, having trapped, neutered and released more than 1,800 cats. Over time -- and occasionally against her better judgment -- she also has become one of the most prolific cat feeders in Oakland, nourishing 24 colonies of neutered cats that span from Chinatown out past the Oakland coliseum.
Feeding so many cats is an expensive three-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job that takes Lynch, a 57-year-old real estate agent, through some of Oakland's roughest neighborhoods. Because most of the cats only come out at night, that's when she drives around town with two giant bags of dry food, a case of wet food, two jugs of water and a couple cans of dog food, just in case she encounters a lost dog along the way.
"There is a chore element to it," she said. "Sometimes it's just depressing."
But it also can be satisfying and joyful even though most of 100 or so cats she feeds won't let her touch them.
Lynch dedicates nearly all her free time to needy felines. Three days a week she traps unfixed homeless cats called to her attention from various sources including Alameda County Vector Control Services. She brings the cats to a clinic for surgery. Then, for the roughly two-thirds of cats not tame enough for adoption, she returns them to their territory.
Lynch can't provide a lifetime of free food to all the untamed cats she traps, but every night she makes the rounds to those colonies that she has committed to feeding.
The cats have learned to recognize the sound of Lynch's small truck. As it chugs toward a colony, furry faces appear from behind bushes and under parked cars. The cats trot to the feeding location, their tails pointed high in the air.
At one colony that she reluctantly took on two years ago near 77th Avenue, the cats were pretty much fur and bone. "You can see they're not starving now," she said.
There is no reliable estimate on how many homeless cats there are in Oakland or how many of them are being fed or left to scrounge for themselves. Without regular feedings, the cats struggle to scrape together enough nourishment, Lynch said. "It's hard for more than a few to make it in one location if they're not getting fed."
Many of the feeders like Lynch are members of the trap-neuter-release movement that has worked to stop the growth of feral cat colonies while keeping the cats out of shelter euthanasia rooms.
Retired Oakland police Sgt. Dave Cronin, who until recently was interim director of Oakland's animal shelter, says the city gets fewer complaints about feral cats and that Lynch and other leading volunteers deserve the credit. "I think if she didn't do what she does, we would have a lot more feral cats living horrible, horrible lives," he said.
Lynch, a member of the nonprofit Fix Our Ferals, still considers herself "a trapper," even though she now spends more time feeding. She doesn't pull punches with feeders who don't get neighborhood cats fixed. "They're creating population growth," she said. "We want zero population growth."
Lynch's foray into feeding is partly connected to her job. As a real estate agent, especially during the foreclosure crisis, Lynch would find out when people were forced from their homes and had to leave their cats behind. About five years ago, she also agreed to take on several East Oakland colonies from a feeder that wasn't neutering the cats. When Lynch decides to help an untended cat colony, she first gets the cats neutered and then talks to neighbors. Sometimes she can recruit nearby residents to feed the cats that aren't well socialized enough to be adopted out of shelters. If Lynch thinks the cats might be in danger, she works to quickly ferry them to barn and winery rescue programs outside the city.
Lynch, who lives near Lake Merritt, said she has rarely had reason to feel unsafe during her nightly trips through East Oakland. One man told Lynch he was going to "pop her," as she tended to a colony, but he apologized the next day.
"We joke and call ourselves crazy cat ladies, but people don't treat us that way," she said. "They say, 'thank you for helping.' It distresses people to see hungry cats."
William Melgar, who lives near a feeding location along Foothill Boulevard, said there were a lot of hungry, sick cats around before Lynch started caring for them. "Now the cat issue has gotten a lot better," he said.
Lynch feeds the colonies and also works to socialize the cats, some of whom were once pets but have become too traumatized to trust people. If the cats become open to being handled, she'll take them to Oakland Animal Services or to cat fostering groups for adoption.
Cat Town, a foster network that takes in cats that can't handle life at the Oakland shelter, gets nearly one-third of its cats through Lynch. "I did a (ride-along) with her," the group's president and founder Ann Dunn said. "I was so overwhelmed just to think about her doing that every day. It's unbelievable."
Lynch would like to cut back on feeding. The food costs her several hundred dollars a month, although an Oakland nonprofit called Hungry Kitty gives her some food free of charge. Also, the daily grind puts a major dent in her social life.
"I do have a job, and I do have a personal life, not much of one, but I'd like to get back to that," she said.
These days, Lynch finds herself driving past scrawny cats she doesn't have the time or energy to add to her route and ignoring some of the calls for help that get posted to the Fix Our Ferals Listserv. She almost didn't take on her latest colony, the victims of a foreclosure around 79th Avenue, but the cats were in too bad of shape to be ignored.
"I was really mad at myself," she said. "I was like, 'You cannot take on another colony. Stop it.'"
After getting those cats fixed and fed, Lynch noticed a new cat in the area with a severely infected tail that was practically decomposing. When she and a friend trapped it to take it to a veterinarian, they realized the cat was tame and got it adopted to a home in Benicia.
"As much as I curse that colony, I feel like I really saved that cat's life," Lynch said. "I'm doing more than I want to do, but I do feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction in seeing the cats and knowing that they're eating. When I think about them out there hungry every day, it's too much for me."
To donate to Hungry Kitty, the nonprofit that provides food to select high-volume cat feeders, go to www.hungrykitty.org.
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.