Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

'I've got another one!' said the voice at the end of the phone.

It was Mrs Jay, who lived in a converted farmhouse in a nearby village; nearby being a bit of a misnomer really, because the village wasn't particularly nearby anywhere. With the converted redundant farmhouse had come a thriving colony of redundant farm cats which were being converted, one by one, into a colony of neutered ferals.

'I've already taken her into John and I've got the kittens here - they're about 6 weeks and very spitty, but I should be able to bring them round in a few days,' Mrs Jay continued enthusiastically.

Bless her. Mrs Jay was a real cat lover - though we were subsidising the snipping, she was feeding the cats, transporting them to and from the vet and taming the almost interminable procession of kittens they produced. She knew every kitten-sized hiding place on her property and the inexorable furry tide was finally showing signs of coming to an end after three years of hard work.

'Which one was it?' I asked.

'That pretty tortie we've been having trouble catching, she must have had nine litters in the last three years - but not any more!'

I could almost hear her rubbing her hands in glee. Naughty tortie had been evading the traps from day one.

'Still no luck with Feral Fred?' I asked hesitantly.

Mrs Jay let out a stream of unprintables describing Feral Fred with 'bloody rampant sex-maniac tomcat' being the mildest of her comments. This big grey-and-white tom was the wiliest, most trap-shy cat in the Northern Hemisphere. A huge battle-scarred creature, his personal harem stretched from one end of the village to the other and every kitten born within a five mile radius of Lavender Lane was grey-and-white with thick ruglike fur and a hereditary squint.

'Won't go near the automatic traps,' she admitted, 'maybe it's time for one of your string-pull efforts. Tell you what - why don't you come over Tuesday evening and you can see the girls as well?' the 'girls' being naughty tortie and all her sisters.

I didn't relish the idea of sitting holding the trigger of a manual trap all night, but sometimes it is the only way to catch a cunning kitty. It involves shivering in a car or outbuilding, or halfway up a nearby tree, holding a piece of string which springs the trap when the target cat enter in pursuit of pilchards. Pre-requisites for the job are patience, a large Thermos of soup and Antarctic-grade thermals plus a Tupperware full of refills for the trap should any other cat enter, pilfer the bait and leg it. The automatic traps, on the other hand, only require setting and periodic checking; the drawback being that they can be sprung by any creature of suitable weight. In addition to numerous felines, Mrs Jay had so far trapped a hedgehog (same one, six times), a small flock of starlings, an errant rooster and next-door's Pekingese dog (next door being half a mile distant and though the owners should have been grateful that stray Poochie-Poo had been captured they threatened legal action for unnecessary distress caused to their corpulent canine). At least you only had to free the incumbent and rebait and reset an automatic trap. Manual traps may let you choose when to spring the trap, but they need constant watching.

Another problem with feral-trapping is the mere mention of the word 'trap'.

'Hello Liz, what are you doing tonight?'

'Oh I'm spending the evening trapping cats up Lavender Lane.'

Suddenly half the animal activists in the county have formed a picket on your front lawn and have posted up pictures of fur-bearing mammals in leghold traps, with your own face (from a newspaper interview on reuniting stray Suki with tearful owner) pasted over the animal's face. Sometimes they apologise profusely and leave when you explain about trap-neuter-release programmes, but inevitably the kitty pro-life minority remain behind to protest about enforced sterlization being an infringement of feline rights and compare it to Nazi activities whereby only Aryan pedigree cats are permitted to procreate.

A quick flick through the diary; it's either trapping or a dinner-date with the other half's work colleagues. Easy decision. 'I can manage next Tuesday ...'

'Good, good,' interrupted Mrs Jay, brooking no argument. I can look forward to spending Tuesday night sitting in her conifer hedge, holding out for Feral Fred.

As it turns out, it's not that bad. I can man the trap from Mrs Jay's conservatory (a lean-to greenhouse with an old armchair in it), a huge pile of Dagwood-style sarnies at my elbow and a magically replenishing coffee mug. By 10 o'clock my tally included any number of already-neutered cats, distinguishable by missing eartips (the vet's way of marking them as 'done'), Spike the hedgehog who views traps as a convenient hedgehog-snackbar, a curious fox-cub and a darn cat-food-loving rooster suffering an idenity crisis. By then my bladder can no longer hold up under the strain of a gallon of Mellow Birds and I have to make a dash to the bathroom.

This of course is the other end of the house in a converted stable loft, reached via several corridors and three sets of stairs. Mrs Jay has to do service as a local guide. I get lost on the solo return journey. Whoever it was who took a ball of string into a Minotaur's labyrinth had a sensible idea.

'I don't know how to tell you this, but Fred was just leaving the trap as I got back to the conservatory,' my hostess tells me apologetically, 'can you come back tomorrow?'

The next night, by dint of forgoing the bottomless coffee-mug, Fred's reign was finally ended. I had half a mind to pose with my trophy, one foot on the trap and a neutering form in my hand in the style of big game hunters of old. Despite having a face with more perforations than a Tetley teabag, Fred was a magnificent specimen. A permanent squint made his baleful glare even more evil, if such a thing was possible, and one ear had a permanent droop where somebody had obviously attempted to chew it off without first obtaining the owner's permission. His personal body fragrance could only be described as 'ripe', in the way that a three day dead corpse in midsummer is ripe (the corpse in question being that of a rook discovered -after much searching - behind a stereo speaker, investigations are proceeding but none of my cats are owning up to anything and a conviction seems unlikely at this point). Appearances notwithstanding, in terms of size and malice, he was a magnificent specimen - potent tomcat at its best.

Fred's surgery went ahead the following day. Unfortunately the vet had a brainstorm that day or had been surreptitiously inhaling anaesthetic gas inbetween patients. Feral Fred was processed at the end of a stream of spays. By then operating on autopilot, the vet shaved Fred's flank, made an incision, found nothing of interest and closed up before tackling a more appropriate area of anatomy for a tomcat and snipping off half an inch of ear to mark Fred as 'done'. Both vet and cat looked a little sheepish when I went to collect Fred that evening.

A few days after Fred's return to his harem, now as resident eunuch rather than harem-owner, I had another call from Mrs Jay.

'I bumped into Mrs Dell in the Post Office - apparently some of my girls have taken up residence in her garden further along the lane,' she explained, further along the lane being at least half a mile distant where two farm cottages stood, 'I asked if we could trap them there and she seemed quite agreeable.'

So it was that I found myself in the cramped front room of Mrs Dell's farm cottage. Slouched in overstuffed armchairs that had been out of fashion for at least a decade were the lout-like Mr Dell and three thuggish-looking adult sons staring glassy-eyed at the TV. Numerous car parts in various stages of deconstruction were strewn around the floor. One of the thugs was idly picking his nose with a small spanner.

'Geoff, Barry - why dontcha get on with fixin' that car!' ordered Mrs Dell and two glowering neanderthal thugs slunk out the back door, 'an' you two must've somethin' better to do than watch TV at this time a-day.' The other two thugs gave her a baleful glare and slunk off after their father. I gained a sudden respect for Mrs Dell who evidently ruled her hulking husband and sons with a rod of iron.

'Barry fahnd a litter of kittens in the back of a Cortina he an' his dad was wrecking,' explained Mrs Dell, 'He's in the car spares business,' she elaborated in case I got the wrong idea, 'He gave 'em to his girlfriend's family - they like cats - but we kept on seein' this ginger 'n' black cat bringin' stuff back to the car. Well I knewed Mrs Jay was sortin' out a loada cats so I asked her if these was any of hers what had strayed.'

Having obtained permission to place automatic traps in her garden (which doubled as the local automotive scrapyard) I noticed a very familiar figure, and a faint whiff of eau-de-tomcat, in the only armchair which had been vacant when I first walked in. A very familiar grey-and-white figure with a truncated ear and a distinctly nasty squint blinked evilly at me. For a moment I just stared at Feral Fred. He stared back as if wondering how many meals he could make out of me.

Noticing my gaze Mrs Dell asked, 'I wonder if you c'n give me some advice on our Raz since you know abaht these things?'

'Raz?' I asked rather weakly.

'Rasputin - he's a real monsta, but he does keep the rats dahn' she said, 'I dunno what could've 'appened, but the other day he come back with arf 'is ear gone and all the fur missin' off one side. I was wonderin' if he needed the vetnary.'

Rasputin, aka Feral Fred, glared at me - he had seen enough of the 'vetnary' to last both of us a lifetime - and with a departing hiss he too slunk off through the back door and into the maze of decaying vehicular carcasses, presumably looking for something of more manageable size to kill.

'Aaah, yes' I said brain working overtime and increasingly aware of the four heavies in the back yard who might decide to dismantle me as a pleasant diversion from wrecking Ford Cortinas, 'I was collecting some cats along Lavender Lane for vet treatment and I noticed your grey-and-white cat, Rasputin you say, had been injured in a fight; looked very nasty, needed quite urgent attention. Since I was going to the vet I took him in as well, after all, we help if we can and ...' nervous laugh, 'I could hardly ignore a cat in distress could I? You can see where he lost part of his ear in a fight with something and the vet had to clean and stitch a wound on his side.'

Mrs Dell brightened, 'Aah, that was nice of you to take the trouble. 'E's a real rascal, I'm surprised 'e let you pick him up - 'e must've been feeling real poorly.'

'It was no trouble, honestly, I thought it best to, err, get that nasty gash cleaned and stitched before it got infected. I see now that he might have caught himself on a piece of scrap metal - risk of tetanus infection, so it was a good job I took him,' I said, hoping to end this line of inquiry.

'Well I must reimburse you for your trouble ....' Mrs Dell said, drawing a wad of used notes from an sideboard drawer stuffed with MOT certificates, DVLC forms, out-of-date road tax discs and notes of various denominations. She pressed 50 in used notes into my hand. The car spares business and any associated sidelines obviously paid very well.

And for the record, when I trapped the remaining girls from Dell's automotive enterprises, I was treated as a hero by the whole family - the lady who got Raz to the vet promptly and saved his life!

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