AUBURN — When Community Cat Advocates trapped Chowder at Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp.’s transfer station, he was scared, skittish and completely blind.

How he’d survived three years at the local dump was a mystery.

There were other cats there, too: a fluffy black kitten whose mass of tangled fur disguised how life-threateningly skinny she was until a volunteer picked her up and felt only bones; a dirty, black-and-white cat that wouldn’t let anyone near him at the dump but who seemed friendly once trapped; a teenage cat that took such good care of two young kittens that everyone assumed they were mother and babies right up until volunteers trapped the older cat and realized it was a boy.     

Welcomed by MMWAC, Community Cat Advocates has spent the past month rescuing about a dozen stray cats from the transfer station, some of whom have lived there for well over a decade. Volunteers are still trying to trap those who remain — they estimate there’s a few left, but the cats can be hard to count.    

“They’re extremely intelligent,” said Rachel Bray, co-founder of Community Cat Advocates. “In order to be the cat that survived out there, you had to be the smartest, most wary, toughest cat.”

The group is working to find permanent homes for the cats they have caught, whether that’s a barn for the ferals or families for the cats that would be happy living as pets.   

Cats started showing up at MMWAC over 20 years ago. Some were strays, while others were inadvertently brought to the Auburn dump when the residential garbage bins they were digging through were emptied into MMWAC’s trucks. 

Over the years, some of those cats had kittens, which added to the population. And, judging by how friendly some of the cats were and how comfortable they were being handled, it appeared at least a few had been pets that were discarded there.

Bray had been hearing about the Auburn MMWAC cats for a while, but she thought they’d been fixed years ago by another rescue group that was managing the colony. However, if another group were ever involved with the cats, it wasn’t now.

Although MMWAC employees and members of the public fed the cats, they could provide little medical care. Even if they were able to trap the cats and bring them to a shelter, some employees worried that any feral cats in the group would be euthanized.

Bray and her volunteers decided to take a closer look at the situation in December, when someone told them a couple of sick kittens had been spotted there.

When volunteer Kaili Stalling pulled up to the transfer station, she didn’t have any trouble finding cats. 

“When you drive in, there’s a stop sign. There were, like, four or five cats just lying on the side of the fence. They’re used to people, but you couldn’t get very close to them,” Stalling said. 

Within the transfer station, she spotted not only the sick kittens but also thin cats, dirty cats, cats with obvious frostbite. With MMWAC’s blessing, the group immediately began setting out live traps.

It turned out that no ordinary bait would work.  

“For dump cats, they’re very fancy,” Stalling said. “It’s like you can’t give them sardines, you can’t give them wet food. They’re like, ‘Hmm, thanks, but, you know, I get chicken.’ So I had to buy chicken or tuna.” 

The cats also quickly learned to outsmart the traps by sliding a paw between the bars and scooping out the food from the outside.

But with a few alterations — how they placed the food, where they placed the traps, the kind of food they used — Community Cat Advocates started catching them.

To ensure that no cats got trapped and left in the cold, volunteers stayed in the area for hours to monitor the traps. When they couldn’t be nearby, MMWAC recycling attendant Tom Casey watched over them and moved any captured cats into his heated shed. 

Chowder was one of the worst cases. His eyelashes had turned inward and grown into his eyes, blinding him. It’s believed he’d been living at the dump for three years. No one knows how he found food, let alone how he safely navigated the transfer station, with its piles of debris, heavy machinery and constant traffic.  

“Cats amaze me,” said Bray, who is fostering Chowder. “He’s just a tough cat.”

This isn’t the first colony of cats that Community Cat Advocates has cared for, and some of the other colonies have been larger. But the MMWAC situation is unique because, unlike a wooded area behind someone’s house, the dump is unsafe. And it’s very public. Too public. 

“When people see that cats are being fed in that location, or even just that there are cats hanging around, they assume it will be safe to leave their unwanted house cat there. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the sad reality is the high risk of living among all of that chaos is most likely why the colony stayed small,” Bray said.

The Kennebec Valley Humane Society in Augusta is helping Community Cat Advocates spay and neuter the dozen cats that its volunteers have caught so far. Taylor Brook Animal Hospital in Auburn is helping with other medical care.

Because some cats — like Chowder — require more than neutering and a few shots, the tiny Auburn nonprofit set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for additional medical care. It raised almost $1,600 in a week, just over half of its $3,000 goal.

When money doesn’t come in, Bray pays the vet bills out of her own paycheck from working as a an assistant manager for a Portland parking garage.

She’s adamant that no cat will ever be euthanized because it needs expensive vet care or because it’s feral. 

“We are completely no-kill. No cat is too angry,” Bray said.

Five of the MMWAC cats will go to a Waterville-area farm, where they can safely live as barn cats and stay together “with friends they already knew,” Bray said. It’s unclear whether a couple of the oldest feral cats will be released back to MMWAC, where they’re beloved by staff and have made a home for the past 14 years. 

“It’s just tricky. Obviously, if they’ve been there for 14 years, they’re doing OK,” Bray said. “I don’t want people to be like, ‘Hey, they’re feeding cats.’ I want people to stop leaving cats there.”

She’d also like people to stop feeding the cats so the bait in the live traps will become more attractive and they’ll have a better chance of capturing the five or so who remain on the lam.

One large gray and white cat has been particularly elusive. Sometimes he watches volunteers from afar.

“He taunts us,” Stalling said.

Bray is looking for adoptive homes for the cats that aren’t feral or that seem like they could eventually be comfortable in homes. 

All, that is, except for her own foster.

“Chowder may already be home,” she said.

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Kaili Stalling, left, and Rachel Bray set a humane trap for the remaining stray cats at the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. transfer station in Auburn. Laura Hobbs, in back, is a regular foster home provider for cats captured by Community Cat Advocates and does much of the transporting. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

A gray and white cat is one of the few holdouts at the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. transfer station in Auburn. Community Cat Advocates has trapped about a dozen of the cats on the site and urges people to stop leaving food out so the remaining cats can be lured into their baited humane traps. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

Chowder, a blind cat rescued from the Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp. transfer station, survived outdoors for years. He now enjoys indoor life complete with central heating, food on demand and a custom cat hammock. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

A sign on the wall of Rachel Bray’s home. Her new cat, Clyde, sits on a cat tree in the living room. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

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