GEORGETOWN — Cats — row upon row of them — are wrapped like burritos on the garage shelves.
They are feral cats, living outdoor lives that are harsh, often short and seldom embellished with a nibble of Fancy Feast or a warm indoor bed.
Before this December Saturday is over, the volunteers of Spay Our Strays will have provided spay-neuter operations, vaccinations and even a quick wash to as many as 50 feral cats from around the Bluegrass region. Over the past five years, the group has cared for an estimated 1,600 cats.
They handle dozens of cats a day, sometimes at the impromptu clinic, sometimes at a location associated with the Lexington Humane Society.
Jackie Briscoe, the director of Spay Our Strays, stands over a towel armed with barber shears as she prepares the anesthetized cats for surgery by shaving the affected area — stomach for females, further down the torso for males.
Volunteer Janet Cabaniss and Damon Snyder check in the day's cats, writing a brief description of each cat and assigning a taped number to the trap. Inside a separate room, veterinarians Elizabeth Ubelhor and Brantley Graham will sterilize the animals, which then get their left ear clipped by snipping a tiny triangle off the top of the ear — the universal sign of a neutered cat.
Graham figures it will take her 30 minutes to finish work on a female cat; Ubelhor, who performs far more sterilizations, has it down to about 10 minutes.
"You can't always predict how many feral cats people will be able to catch," Ubelhor said, adding that she will stay "until it's done."
Her all-time spay-neuter record: 78 cats in one day.
"There's a good chance these cats will never be touched by another veterinarian," Ubelhor said. "We're going to try to make them as happy as we can. ... This organization, they have nailed it."
Other volunteers scurry around the Georgetown garage and basement, cleaning traps, which are the size of an open-air jumbo safety deposit box. Others check how cats are doing and load syringes. Shaved, anesthetized cats are brought to a holding area where they are picked up by the two veterinarians for the surgery.
Think of it as an assembly line of feral cat care.
Although some feral kittens may be brought indoors and domesticated, feral cats have a different culture from the fluffy indoor cat who drinks daintily from a water glass and is often found shedding tumbleweeds of cat hair down hallways and onto white couches.
Said Madison Carey, director of development at the Lexington Humane Society: "Not all cats are suitable as pets, such are ferals or unowned community cats who have lived their entire lives outdoors. When these cats are spayed and neutered, they no longer contribute to overpopulation and when returned to their original colony, they actually prevent new cats from moving into the area with its existing food source."
The Lexington Humane Society, through a program called Spay's The Way, sterilizes more than 600 feral cats a year to prevent unwanted litters, Carey said. It is impossible to know how many feral and unowned cats there are in Fayette County, but it's estimated that there are tens of thousands, she said.
Harry Feeback of Nicholas County has brought about 40 cats to Spay Our Strays in the past year. His story is one with which many feral cat caretakers can empathize.
"I felt sorry for them," Feeback said. "I fed them. They just kept multiplying."
Stuart Switzer said there are 13 to 14 feral cats that come to his house or that of a neighbor in a north Lexington neighborhood. Today he has brought two.
Clancy Robinson and Yoshimi Hooten-Ng of Bourbon County bring in a load of six cats — Robinson has a special cat-carrying contraption on the back of his truck so that as many as eight cats don't feel the highway wind — and stay to shred newspapers and carry cats in and out.
Janie Bratcher, director of the feral cat program for the Madison County Humane Society, brought five male cats to the clinic. It was her first visit.
Bratcher said Madison County has a large feral cat population, centering around Eastern Kentucky University and the Dixie Plaza mobile home park. She estimated that Madison County alone has at least 30,000 feral and free-roaming cats.
"My waiting list alone for the feral cat program has over 400 cats on it," Bratcher said. "Our feral cats go through that as well ... but we can only do so many spays and neuters in one day, and most of that goes for the public."
After surgery, the animals are wrapped in towels and lined up on a shelf to recover. To help keep up their body temperature, volunteers microwave sweat socks packed with rice, which stay warm until the cats start to come out of anesthesia.
The cats are then returned to the traps where they were caught the previous evening. Later they will be picked up and returned to their "home" territory. The following day, they will be re-released.
All the people associated with Spay Our Strays are volunteers. They work long hours organizing the spay-neuter clinics and even longer hours at the clinics themselves.
On this clinic day, there are cats of all ages and medical conditions. A black kitten comes in from Bourbon County with two rheumy eyes.
In her makeshift operating room, Ubelhor quickly evaluates the kitten and determines that with some medicine, the cat will be able to keep both eyes and within a few days will look much better.
Another cat, trapped near a Taco Bell, is examined to see whether its tail is broken. It's not, although it has a stripe of missing fur along its black tail.
Outside, Robinson is trying to help clean out the trap of a tiny brownish cat, which is furious inside the trap and is trying to walk back into its own feces. The cat tries various openings where he thinks a kitten without opposable thumbs might be able to spring a switch to release him from confinement. When unsuccessful, he utters a cry somewhere between a wail and a kittenish hiss and tries to walk back through his discharge.
Robinson is undeterred, sticking barrier after barrier through the trap's grid to keep the kitten clean until he can be anesthetized and delivered into the line of waiting cats for his operation.
"You can't change the world, but you can change one small part of it," Robinson said.