When Maggie McCain, a University of California, San Francisco, operating room nurse, moved to Potrero Hill in 1993, she found a feral mother cat and four kittens living in the backyard of her Missouri Street home. Initially she wasn’t sure what to do. Then she heard about the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which recommended that she buy a Havahart trap and bait it with tuna to attract the mother, which could then be taken to the SPCA to be spayed.
Adult feral cats typically aren’t suited for pet adoption, but their kittens, if they’re young enough, can be socialized as housecats. According to McCain, the process happens “really slowly. You have them in a crate or a cage; you have to ‘burrito’ them, which means wrap them in a towel so they can’t move, but they’re hissy, and they’ll try to bite.”
McCain has more than “twenty years’ worth” of scars on her cat-scratched forearms to show for her efforts. The socialization process involves “lots of sitting. You play with them, and with the feeding and the play, you start to imprint on them, and you see them gradually getting tame, and at that point, when they start to come up to you, it’s like: okay, they’re ready to go back to the shelter and go up for adoption.”
It took McCain two years to catch the mother cat in her backyard. In the meantime, she had two more litters of kittens. A cat-loving neighbor on Connecticut Street lent McCain her partner’s leather motorbike gloves for protection and taught her socialization techniques. McCain discovered she was able to “turn around” her backyard kittens “pretty easily.” She even kept one for herself, which became her pet for 16 years.
The plight of the Missouri Street cats alerted McCain to the broader issue of homeless cats in Potrero Hill. She took up trapping around the neighborhood. In 1996, she volunteered for the SPCA’s Feral Fix program and joined a team of trappers dedicated to finding feral cats and bringing them to the SPCA, which spays and neuters them free of charge, in addition to providing vaccinations, microchips, and basic medical care before release. McCain recalled that, two decades ago, the Hill’s south slope was overrun by feral cats. The area behind Potrero Annex Terrace, near the Recreation Center, was a favorite point of congregation. Over the course of one three-day weekend, 12 or 15 years ago, her SPCA team trapped between 60 and 80 cats. All of them were spayed.
While many of the Hill’s homeless cats were truly feral, others had been abandoned by their owners. The latter could be re-homed. The feral ones, which couldn’t be socialized, had to be released to the neighborhood after capture and treatment, a more humane alternative to euthanasia. To care for these permanently free-roaming cats, McCain set up “colonies” on the Hill, distributing food and water daily and monitoring health problems.
In one case, skin cancer had engulfed the ears of a pure white cat. McCain brought her to a veterinarian, who snipped the tops of her ears off. The cat lived another five or six years after that. In more dire situations, she’s had to bring sick cats to the SPCA for euthanasia.
Occasionally, McCain’s feral cats have needed dental work, requiring treatment from a private veterinarian, for which she pays out of her own pocket, just as she does for the cat food and monthly Advantage flea treatments she gives the cats. Feral or not, the animals have become friends. McCain has names for them all: Dalmatian, Poncho, Radish, Jean-Paul.
Over time, the homeless cat population on the Hill, and elsewhere in San Francisco, declined dramatically. McCain speculates that new construction has driven the Hill’s cats away from some of the open spaces where they used to gather, but primarily credits the attrition to the trap-neuter-return program, which “has been a huge success. The SPCA doesn’t have nearly as many kittens and cats brought in every year,” McCain said. “And that’s the whole purpose of it: no more homeless cats.”
McCain continues to maintain two colonies on the Hill, with the help of a friendly Sierra Heights resident, but they receive fewer cats now than ever. McCain visits one of them four days a week, the other twice weekly. Her Missouri Street colony has two habitués that make daily appearances. However, the other, in Potrero Annex Terrace, barely sees any activity these days. McCain still enjoys the daily chore.
“Actually, that’s my nice time of the day,” she said. “I love going up. I put their food down; I sit with them, wait until they’ve eaten, play with Dalmatian for a while, watch the building going on.” She always serves the cat food in the morning, rather than in the evening, so as not to attract the skunks and racoons that roam the Hill at night.
Since retiring from nursing in 2008, McCain has volunteered four days a week at the SPCA. One of her duties is to care for cats suffering from ringworm, which can require three or four months of treatment. McCain and her ringworm team ensure that each of the cats gets visited daily. She also responds to calls to the SPCA for help from pet owners whose cats have given birth to litters too large for them to care for. McCain serves as a community liaison, persuading cat owners to allow the SPCA to fix their cats in exchange for assistance with the new kittens, for which the SPCA will subsequently try to find homes. And McCain still fosters stray kittens, though she mostly gets them from San Francisco Animal Care and Control, rather than finding them herself. She then tries her best to arrange adoptions through friends or social media.
“I didn’t start out saying, ‘I’m going to do this.’ It all sort of evolved,” McCain remarked.
Although primarily a cat lover, and an owner of four, McCain also gives afternoon walks to two dogs owned by busy friends who live nearby. Like her work with the cats, this activity gives her cause to get out into the neighborhood and enjoy its sights and people, as she strolls past the now fully grown trees she planted years ago, with Friends of the Urban Forest, on Missouri Street; up to the Recreation Center; and over to McKinley Square on Vermont Street before looping back.
British by birth, McCain moved to San Francisco from Portland, Oregon, a couple years after her American husband passed away. “I knew I could not live in the Avenues, in that fog. Growing up in England, I hate the cold, wind, fog, rain. That’s one of the reasons I ended up in Potrero Hill,” she said. “I do this walk probably every day, one way or another, around here, and I never get sick of it. Never. I love it. And now, walking the dogs and whatnot, I get to know people. For years, I’d just see them, but now they stop and chat. Nice people on the Hill.”