Photos by Caroline Brady

Last week, Katy Falkingham was accused of being a murderer.

It’s 7.48am on an overcast Wednesday morning, chilly for late May. Katy is sitting in the passenger seat of Ruaidhri O’Baoill’s four-door saloon in a back-street lane just off the North Circular Road.

They have set their four traps along the lane. One to the rear of the car. One just ahead to the left where an overgrown garden sprouts through gaps in a metal fence. And two more further along.

Each trap is doused with the juice from a tin of sardines. A crumbling lure of the fish is laid at the entrance, and the tin with the rest is placed in the back, just beyond the raised step that sets the trap off. What they are hoping to catch is cats, feral cats.

Feral cats, or ‘wild cats,’ can be found in just about every part of the Irish landscape, in the countryside, towns and cities, in housing estates, factories, farms, industrial estates, car parks, derelict buildings and laneways.

They live austere and often violent lives in colonies and manage to survive by living on their instincts, scavenging and the generosity of humans, known as caretakers, who feed them.

Unspayed and unneutered, they breed at a ferocious rate — one female alone can litter up to 30 kittens in one year. Feral Cats Ireland estimates the number of ferals in Ireland to be in the hundreds of thousands.

With many already struggling to survive due to lack of food, shelter and veterinary care, as well as being prone to infections and threats from humans, more kittens arriving only exacerbates the problem.

Katy, founder of Phibsboro Cat Rescue, has been trapping feral cats since last August. Her mission is part of a wider initiative to trap, neuter, and return feral cats to where they were caught.

According to Feral Cats Ireland, “Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR) offers an effective, and more importantly, a humane solution to the uncontrolled breeding of feral cats.” The cats are trapped, brought to a vet, spayed or neutered, given a health check, and returned the next day.

So far, Katy and her team have trapped 146 cats. Ruaidhri, who has been volunteering with Phibsboro Cat Rescue since Christmas, has been out with Katy for about half of those.

The last time they were trapping in this lane they caught three ferals. This morning though, the pickings are slim. They’ve been here almost an hour and have only seen a single black cat. It had loitered close to one of the traps but was reluctant to go in. Then suddenly, it looked up, stared right at Ruaidhri’s car, turned and scarpered up the lane and out of sight. It had already been caught and spayed. Its right flank was shaved from the operation and its ear had been tipped by the vet.

“They take the tip off the ear so you know it’s already been done,” Ruaidhri says. “It’s done while they’re sedated, so they don’t know any different.”

“Everything Ruaidhri has just said is absolutely correct,” Katy says. “But I think it hurts. I accept it has to be done. It doesn’t hurt during sedation but I think it does after.”

“Something tells me taking their testicles out will probably hurt more,” Ruaidhri says.

They decide to give it a little while before moving on to another laneway where they’ve been having more luck. Katy continues her “murderer” story.

The weekend before last, she was at an adoption day in Maxi Zoo in Blanchardstown. A woman approached Katy looking for help with two feral cats, a male and female, living in her garden. She wanted them spayed. The female was caught on the Tuesday morning. Katy took her to the vet and she was spayed. The male was caught the following morning, so when Katy returned the female, she picked up the male and brought him to the vet for neutering.

Katy got a call from the vet around mid-morning saying the cat had gangrene down its hind leg and it was spreading to the rest of his body. It also had abscesses all over “its boy parts” that were seeping puss. The cat was in a great deal of pain and needed to be put to sleep.

Katy tried contacting the woman to tell her what was happening, but couldn’t get through. She left texts and voicemails, and didn’t hear back until an hour later. The cat had already been put down.

The vet “was never going to resuscitate the cat, that was never an option,” Katy says. “The vet always puts the welfare of the animal first.” In the consent form you sign when bringing an animal to a veterinary clinic, you are giving the vet the last say on whether an animal is in too much pain and needs to be put down or not.

The husband of the woman, distraught and angry, got on the phone and started calling Katy and her team murderers. He put up a long post on the Phibsboro Cat Rescue Facebook page doing the same.

According to Ruaidhri, the man had promised his daughters the cat wasn’t being taken away to be killed. “He was saying ‘you’ve made me complicit in the murder of the cat and I’ve lied to my children’. He made a promise that wasn’t his to make.”

Katy says the man touched a lot of raw nerves in what he said. “A cat walks into the trap—don’t let me cry (her eyes well up)—and never comes out of it again. That’s effectively what he felt,” she says.

“We lost two cats under anaesthetic in the whole time we’re doing this, one had a cardiac arrest, the other had kidney failure. Neither of those cats would’ve died that day if we hadn’t put them under anaesthetic to be neutered. You spend ages enticing these cats into the trap, and you’re telling these cats ‘we’re going to help you,’ and then they die. The guilt of it is incredible. So I can understand why he was so upset, I really can. But to call us murderers…” One comment cut right to the bone: “Katy killed that cat.” “That just had me, literally… I was on the floor with that,” she says.

A woman from another cat rescue organisation liked the post. There is a fair amount of “bitchiness” and rivalry between the groups, Katy says. The post, which was deleted the next day by the individual was, and still is, the most commented on on the page.

“A scandal does that,” Ruaidhri says. “It was a good read.”

“It was a horrible read!”

The Phibsboro Stake-Out Club

At 8.10am, they reach the next lane, narrower and dirtier than the last. It is littered with bloated rubbish bags, shards of broken glass, and used needles. Katy and Ruaidhri carry the traps past a man and a young woman, cooking up in a dark porch-like hole in the right hand wall, where the sharp vinegary smell of heroin hangs in the cool morning air.

They set the four traps at twenty-metre intervals along the laneway. Katy likes to chop up the sardines and mash them onto the base of the trap to produce a stronger scent. Ruaidhri, thinking of his car, prefers to leave them as they are in the tin. Some trappers like to use chicken as bait, others tuna. But tuna is too expensive, Katy says. A tin of sardines costs only 57c.

They stand in the middle of the lane, away from the traps, and wait.

“We need to get foldout chairs,” Katy says.

“This isn’t Electric Picnic,” Ruaidhri says.

Already there are a few cats hanging around. Unlike most ferals, they are used to humans. This laneway has been a good spot for trapping. They’ve caught and neutered 15 cats here in the last two weeks here, which in their estimation is about half the colony.

Before long, the first cat, a black one, walks right into a trap and sets it off. The cat trashes and rattles around in the cage, hissing, trying to claw its way out until Ruaidhri goes over and drapes a blanket over it. The cat calms. He carries the trap with the blanket covering out to his car, transfers it to another cage and sets it in the boot, which is lined with black bags; sometimes, cats have accidents.

Ruaidhri was working in a bank for 14 years before taking voluntary redundancy at the end of last year. He was meant to give Katy a dig-out for a few days around Christmas, but he’s been helping her, practically full-time, ever since.

He met Katy through his vegan girlfriend who used eat in the vegan restaurant Katy owned in Temple Bar called Lurve. The restaurant closed down two years ago because of complications with a landlord, not from lack of demand.

Katy would love to re-open it — use the money to fund Phibsboro Cat Rescue, which relies solely on donations, fundraising, and “begging” — but finding the right premises at the right price has proved next to impossible.

Born to strong socialist parents in Lancashire, England, Katy has been involved in animal activism since she was a teenager, starting as a hunt saboteur. An accountant by trade, she moved to Dublin eight years ago from London, where she’d been living since she left home at 17.

She’d fallen in love with an Irish man she worked with in London. He moved back to Dublin, but they kept in touch online. He’d make trips back to London some weekends. She’d come to Dublin on others. This carried on for five years before he suggested Katy relocate to Dublin and buy a house here; he would move in and help pay the mortgage and rent out his own house. So, that’s what she did. She was here three months when one Sunday morning out of the blue she received a text: “I’m married with three children.”

At first she didn’t believe it. She took a taxi out to Clonee, to the house he told her he lived in. But he didn’t live there at all. She got on a bus which brought her to Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, a place she now hates.

“I was completely disorientated, completely confused. I didn’t know where I was, it wasn’t my country and everything was just wrong,” she says. “It was like one of those psychological thrillers.”

She’d seen him a couple of times after, she needed answers. His wife had a baby the first month Katy arrived. It took her more than a year to get over it. She never told his wife. Last she heard, he’d moved back to London.

Back in the lane, she’s been joined by Morgan Matthews, a 22-year-old chain-smoking, all-round animal lover. Morgan feeds the cats in this alley and is the one who got in touch with Katy to spay them. He has two cats of his own, Henry and Molly.

He found Molly in a black bag with her sister and brother on the bank of the Castletown River in Dundalk. Somebody had tried to toss the cats in the river and missed and just left them in the bag on the bank. Of the three, Molly was the only one to survive. Morgan is currently doing an online course on feline behaviour and nutrition. Nobody knows the cats of this lane better than he does.

Ruaidhri resets the trap and the three move up to the far end of the lane. There are more needles and broken glass up here as well the charred and rusted carcasses of two burnt-out mattresses.

Five cats are now prowling about the lane, a couple close to the traps. One of them, a long white one with black spots, is Hitler. Hitler is a female and she’s already been spayed. Hitler doesn’t resemble Adolf Hitler in the slightest (some do and are known as Kitlers) but another cat who belongs to a friend of Morgan’s. Morgan’s friend names all his cats after dictators. He has Hitler, another called Mussolini, and is on the look-out for a bald cat so he can name him Putin

A tabby cat is very close to the one of the traps, getting closer. He nibbles the sardines by the entrance, and slowly, gingerly, walks in to get at the rest. The trap goes off, the door comes down. The cat hisses and rages about inside until, again, Ruaidhri comes along with the blanket. He takes the trap down to his car, puts it in the back next to the other and drives the short distance to Botanic Veterinary Hospital. When he gets there, he realises the tabby cat has already been spayed and tipped. “Them’s the breaks,” he says.

To Spay Or Not To Spay

Back at the lane, Morgan is alone. Katy has gone to Tesco to buy more sardines. Christy, a local man who also feeds the cats, has just been here, Morgan says. He came, looked at the traps and left without a word.

As Katy tells it, two weeks ago when Christy first found her trapping in the lane, he was furious. “He didn’t want us in the alleyway,” Katy says. “He didn’t want us touching his cats.”

There was a lengthy, five-hour discussion with Christy that first day in his house, she says, during which time he relaxed his stance. He was willing to allow them to continue the trapping, but he still held firmly to his principle that feral cats should not be neutered or spayed. He believed in letting nature take her course.

Christy has a different version of the story. He just saw Katy and another woman trapping in the lane, and went over to investigate.

He wanted to know exactly what they were doing because, according to Christy, some people had been poisoning cats in the lane. He buried one of the poisoned cats out his back garden. He’s never had any problems with cats being spayed or neutered, he says.

Either way, yesterday, when Katy phoned Christy to let him know she would be trapping in the lane today, he asked if it would be possible to have his own two cats, Lucy and Susie, spayed. So at two o’clock this afternoon, she is bringing him and the two cats down to the Botanic Veterinary Clinic.

From where Katy stands, it’s a “complete turnaround”, nothing short of amazing.

Ruaidhri sees it differently. “I wouldn’t put up with it,” he says. “If you’re complaining about somebody doing something, and then they’re going to do it for you and it’s okay because you’re getting it done for free, it’s not really your principles anymore.” But, he says, Katy is doing it for the benefit of the cats, that’s her concern, the cats.

When Katy returns with the sardines, Morgan tells her Christy stopped by the lane.

“What did he do?” Katy says.

“Nothing, looked at the traps and left.” Morgan says.

According to Katy, Christy originally said that he never lets Lucy and Susie out, that no tom cat would ever get them. But then, she says, he contradicted this by telling her that Susie had had a litter of kittens before and that all the kittens died.

According to Morgan, both Lucy and Susie have had kittens and that all of them died.

“Well yesterday,” Katy says, “he actually asked me to spay Lucy and Susie. Complete and utter turn around. But he says they’re both pregnant.” Morgan said he thought Susie was, but not Lucy.

“He doesn’t like Morgan at the moment,” Katy says. “You’re in his bad books at the moment, Morgan.”

“Did he say why?” Morgan says.

“No he never said why,” Katy says. “That might have changed though. He was angry with me as well, Morgan, but he’s absolutely fine with me now, so he’s probably fine with you. That said, we have to get money, we have to go around this estate and collect money.”

Phibsboro Cat Rescue relies solely on fundraising and donations. It costs €100 to spay a female and €90 to neuter a male. Katy gets a reduced rate of €63 for a female and €52.50 for a male at the Botanic Veterinary Hospital. Anyone looking to have a feral spayed, she asks for a donation of €35 for males and €45 for females. Finding people who are willing to give anything towards the cost can be difficult.

A local man in the area by the name of Eddie recently bought a BMW from a friend of Katy’s who was trapping in the lane with her last week. He knows everybody in the area, Katy says. Katy wondered what Eddie thought about her plan to go round door to door looking for €35 from people to go towards the vet bill. An eyebrow was raised. Even a fiver, she said. If everyone gave a fiver or a tenner.

“So he gave me a fiver,” she says. “And I’ll bring that to the vet later, but he’s just bought a BMW for €3,000; he could have… I’m going to go back to him and say, ‘Eddie, come on, I need some dosh.’”

At 11am it starts to rain and Katy is getting close to calling it a day; she has a livestock export protest to go to outside the Department of Agriculture at mid-day.

Another cat, Ziggy, had been trapped a short while ago. But Ziggy has already been done, so he was released. Hitler keeps knocking around the traps, but never ventures inside.

As they’re about leave for the day a slim, black cat scales down a nearby wall and makes its way over to the nearest trap. It stops at the door to nibble at the offerings. It takes a step into the trap but hesitates in going further. “Please God,” Katy says. “I’m not religious, but please, God.” Her prayers are answered. The trap goes off and the cat is in.

Ruaidhri drops off the black cat at the vets before going back to collect Katy and Morgan and then drive them into the protest. While he’s there, the vet tells him that the black cat he brought in earlier this morning is pregnant, has about a week to go. This is the third pregnant cat they’ve caught since trapping in Christy’s lane, the fifth overall.

This mother, like the others, will go to Anna-Marie Jordan. Anna-Marie has sheds at the back of her garden in Lucan where she takes care of the mothers during pregnancy. After the kittens have been weaned, the mothers are spayed and returned. Anna-Marie fosters the kittens until, hopefully, they are adopted or fostered by someone else.

So far the system has been working fine, but the season of heat and kittens is in full swing and Anna-Marie’s capacity to foster more is shrinking; given that a single colony with just three females can birth between them up to 90 kittens in one year, it is inevitable this capacity will be breached. Without her, though, Katy says, she “would be fucked.”

Katy attributes her swearing, which is as infrequent as it is inoffensive, to her time spent growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lived with her parents, her younger sister Helen, her golden Labrador Silver and her pet tortoise. Something happened in that house in Edinburgh that most likely started Katy down the path of animal welfare activist she still treads today. She remembers it was the last time she ate bacon.

She was 11 or 12, and the family were eating breakfast at the kitchen table. They heard this gnawing sound. They all just assumed Silver was chewing on a bone. They carried on eating and the gnawing sound continued. It was louder than usual, though. The family turned around and saw that the dog was gnawing its way through the shell of the tortoise.

“I just remember this overwhelming sense that this tortoise couldn’t make a single sound. It was there next to us in the room being chewed and gnawed through by a dog, and it couldn’t cry out. It couldn’t do anything,” she says.

The tortoise later died of its injuries. This horrific incident would have a profound effect on any child, and it certainly had on Katy. It made her believe that without a voice of their own, animals are utterly defenceless, “they have no chance in the system” and need to be protected.

It’s just after 2pm and Katy, Ruaidhri, Christy and his two cats Lucy and Susie are in the waiting room of Botanic Veterinary Hospital. Christy, a short, slim man of about 65, donning a paddy cap, is anxious, can’t sit easy, his knee bounces up and down like a piston.

Neither Susie, who is in a carrier bag resting on his lap and Lucy, in a pink plastic cage in the seat next to him, has ever been to a vet, Christy says. “It’s alright Suzu,” he fingers the little grill through which Susie can look out. “It’s alright Suzu.” He turns the bag around so Susie and Lucy can look at each other. “Now ‘Luco’ you can see your sister.”

In the small veterinary room, Zara the vet examines Susie who is being held and rubbed by Christy. Katy looks on. Susie has poor, almost no vision in one eye, but Zara says it’s not causing her any discomfort so she’ll be able to keep it. She also has ear mites, for which she gets a quick cleaning and is giving some drops and antibiotics.

“What makes you think she’s pregnant?” Zara asks, as she feels for signs of growth.

“Ah, I just know. She got out for a few hours and a tom got her.”

Zara brings Susie into an adjacent room to give her a scan. While they wait, Katy offers Christy a seat. But he can never sit still, he says. Even when having a pint, he has to stand. Zara returns a moment later and confirms that Christy was right. Susie is pregnant; she’s about a week or two to go. Christy knew it. “A tom got her.”

Zara checks Lucy next. She has gingivitis and cat flu, which can be passed on to offspring. Zara encourages Christy to bring her back tomorrow morning to be spayed.

Whatever Christy’s stance on spaying in the past, it’s now nuanced: “I’m old fashioned. I like them to have kittens first, at least one litter, and then spay them.” So he is hesitant now about spaying Lucy. He also thinks she might be pregnant as well.

She got out on him last Saturday and didn’t return until Sunday morning with the fur on her back roughed up; he’s sure another tom or the same tom that got Susie “got her.” Nothing shows up on a scan. Zara says it would be too early to tell if Lucy was pregnant. She pushes for Christy to have her spayed.

“It’s safer for her. There are only benefits,” she says. As of now, Lucy in heat is susceptible to sexually transmitted infections such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), basically HIV for cats. Spayed, this will no longer be a concern for her; no tom will bother with her again.

Christy, looking at Lucy, nods but is unsure. Katy proposes they book an appointment for Lucy to be spayed tomorrow morning and if Christy changes his mind they can cancel it. Christy agrees to this. He is happy now and begins to tell Zara a story about a cat he’d found that’d been hit and killed by a car. Katy leaves the room for fear of hearing something horrible.

Outside in the waiting area, she fills Ruaidhri in on the situation, that Susie is pregnant and that Christy has sort-of agreed to come back to have Lucy spayed tomorrow.

“Do you think he will?” Ruaidhri says.

“I don’t know,” Katy says. “I hope so. I really do hope so.”

The following morning, Katy is drinking coffee at her kitchen table, waiting for Ruaidhri to arrive. A cool breeze blows through the French doors which open onto a small, colourful garden of flowers and plants.

A couple of her eight cats come in and out and seem to have the run of the place, as does Grace, her black and brown one-eyed hound. Originally bred for hunting and deemed unfit for purpose when she was a year old, her owners bashed Grace over the head with some blunt object and left her for dead in a forest. Luckily, she was found a few hours later, but she lost the eye.

Katy has already phoned Christy and he’s still on for having Lucy spayed. He is even willing to let Katy take her to the vet without him. His turnaround as she calls it, “is just amazing,” she says. “Just amazing.”

Shortly after, Ruaidhri is at the hall door. They load up the car with the traps, and head off to collect Lucy from Christy’s to bring her to the vet. They arrive back at the lane later that morning with the black cat that was neutered yesterday.

Ruaidhri sets the cage down and opens the trap. The cat shoots out, darts up a wall and disappears. Katy wishes there was somewhere other than a dirty laneway full of broken glass and used needles to bring it back to. But she’s in good spirits today because the pregnant cat they brought to the vet yesterday had three kittens overnight.

Ruaidhri will drive them out to Lucan to Anna-Marie’s later today. Katy’s surprised the cat had come out looking for something to eat yesterday. Normally in the last couple of days of pregnancy, cats don’t venture out for food. “She must have been really hungry,” she says.

With the traps set, they make their way down to the far end of the lane. It’s as cold as a winter’s morning today, too cold it seems for people, and too cold for the cats.

Only Hitler is out and about, perched on top of a wall like a sentry watching over the lane. She jumps down and makes her way over to one of the traps. Looks keen to go in this time, which would be the third time she has.

Soon after, Morgan joins them. He lights a smoke and asks about Christy and his cats. Katy tells him that Susie is pregnant with about a week to go, and that she’s just come back from the vet, having dropped Lucy off to be spayed.

“How was he about that?” Morgan asks.

Katy sighs, “He was very upset, crying,” Morgan nods. Their talk is interrupted by the sound of one of the traps being set off. They turn to see who it is.

“It’s not Hitler again, is it?’ Katy says.

Morgan says that it’s Hitler alright.

“Stupid cat,” Ruaidhri says.

“At least she’s teaching the others that the traps aren’t a bad thing,” Katy says.

They walk toward the trap to release her for the third time.

[This article was updated on 7 July 2018 at 16.57]

Damien Murphy is Dublin Inquirer's Northside city reporter.

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