WASHINGTON -- Louise Holton often jokes that she never tells people how many cats she has. Because, in truth, the number is impossible to count.
In the United States, there are the more than 60 million feral cats (semi-wild felines that have grown up without human contact), and Holton has taken responsibility for each one of them.
The 58-year-old is the co-founder of Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington. Working out of offices in the city's funky Adams-Morgan neighborhood, the 13-member staff answers some 500 calls a month, gives out advice on handling feral cats, and cares for some decidedly non-ferals that sleep on whatever lap is available.
The group's goal is to control the feral cat population by sterilization. Killing a group or colony of ferals doesn't work in the long term, the Allies say, because others move in to fill the void left behind and begin the breeding process all over again. Only if a cat is suffering and beyond medical treatment should it be euthanized.
"We're trying to teach people that feral cats are feral cats," Holton said. "They've been living this way for thousands of years. They're part of the urban ecology. They're such survivors, and part of that is to scavenge around humans. They haven't changed all that much in 4,000 years."
She and co-founder Becky Robinson, 42, believe in the concept of "trap, neuter and return" -- or TNR. They catch ferals in metal cages, take them to vets for spaying or neutering, and then return them to their colonies.
TNR has been used for more than 20 years in Great Britain and South Africa, where Holton first learned about it. The Johannesburg native had been caring for a colony of about 15 ferals and took her charges to be neutered and vaccinated at a clinic run by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
Frustrated by South Africa's apartheid system and tired of her job with the Johannesburg stock exchange, Holton moved to Connecticut in 1986 to work on animal issues. Three years later, she moved to Washington and became reacquainted with Robinson, whom she'd met at an animal rights conference. After dining out one summer night in 1990, the women walked into an alley in Adams-Morgan inhabited by a colony of feral cats and kittens. Holton remarked that this would be good place for a little TNR and was surprised to learn that the practice had not caught on in the United States.
So Alley Cat Allies was born. Initially the allies were part-time volunteers who, in their spare time, trapped feral cats and took them to obliging vets. Like the animals themselves, the allies' ranks multiplied, and they now have about 60,000 members -- professors and government officials, mail carriers and fashion models, vets and philosophers. Annual dues of $25 make up most of the group's budget, which is slightly more than $1 million. Other donations come from foundations and companies, such as the manufacturer of the metal traps used to catch cats.
The staff no longer spends much time trapping. Most of its energy goes into explaining -- and defending -- TNR. Some organizations question the practice of returning feral cats to the urban wilds.
"Feral cats are just tame cats let go outdoors," said Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in an e-mail from her office in Norfolk, Va. "They are cats who have needs that aren't being met and who have been booted outside to fare for themselves in a world of concrete, traffic, and dangerous youths who often torture them.
"We believe spay and release is better than ignore, but we believe it is sometimes necessary -- in a world which does not offer ferals a decent chance to die a peaceful, quiet death -- to trap and let them never wake up again."
Robinson said that some of the resistance to TNR is rooted in public health concerns of the past, a fear that animal rights groups decided to address by euthanization. "Our society is so throw-away," she said. "We anthropomorphize, too. We think all cats should be sitting on laps before the fire."
Another battle the Allies often fight is their constituents' image problem. Cats, Robinson said, generally are misunderstood. The old stereotype that they're aloof, baby-smothering critters has been tough to shake.
"The ignorance out there is pretty rampant," she said. "Children and adults don't know some basic things about cats. So, it was our plan to start educating. People wanted to know how to do the right thing, and we wanted to give them answers."
A part of that education process has been addressing the belief that feral cats are responsible for the decline in the native songbird population. The Allies maintain that cats are better adapted for killing prey moving on the ground, like mice or insects, than they are for birds.
The real culprit is habitat loss due to human population growth, Holten said. "Humans have taken over most of the Earth, and we're going to make scapegoats out of cats?"