Question: Why do you recommend trapping feral kittens even when one can chase them down and grab them?
Answer: Chasing down feral kittens is always a bad idea even when successful. The stress and anxiety for the kittens usually takes weeks to overcome. I imagine their instinct must convince the kittens that the person chasing them is set upon eating them. When that same person tries to pet them, and hold them, and nurture then, I'll take that bet as to how successful they will be.
Trapping removes a human presence
from the terrifying experience of being separated from their mother and the home they know. The human can then actually take a positive role when we offer food and reunite them with their siblings. The less they associate humans with their trauma, the faster we can gain their trust and tame them for adoption.
Here's my ideal scenario for a successful trapping of mom and kittens. BEFORE STARTING ANY TRAPPING, I feed the mom and kittens for several days from a trap I secure open with a cable-tie to make sure no one gets trapped before I'm ready. I put a big bowl of food in the back of the trap and a trail of food from front to back. The objective is to make sure even the shyest kittens and mom are not afraid to go into the trap BEFORE you start trapping. Trust me, doing this will save you hours and days of trap-watching. If you can't leave a trap out safely, try it even for the short time you are there feeding each day. Pad-lock the trap open and to a fence if there is any risk of the trap being stolen or tampered with. Hide it under a bush if you can safely leave it for all the cats to get confident going into it without hesitation.
Normally, moms trot out their litters to the feeding station at about 6 weeks old. If you saw when mom got skinny you can set up the trap (tied open) about six weeks later and start "training" mom to go into it even before she brings the kittens along too. Nursing moms are extremely hungry and sometimes, it is only when nursing that you can hope to trap a very wary female.
You probably won't see all the kittens the first day or two. There are usually a couple very shy ones that won't dare to follow mom the first day or two. Once mom and ALL the kittens have been seen going into the trap to eat without hesitation, ONLY THEN are you ready to start the trapping project.
I always try to trap mom first and get her safely out of the picture with no kitten witnesses. Moms usually leave the den in mid-afternoon to look for food while the litter is still sleeping. This is the perfect time to set the trap for her and whisk her away to a basement or garage, covering the trap with a sheet to keep her as calm as possible. (read blog # 17 about making sure the vet is experienced enough in spaying a lactating female)
I trap Mom in the conventional way, setting the trip plate but with the kittens, I switch to the bottle and string technique shown in the 2nd picture below. This way I can be sure a second or third kitten is not in the way of the door or gets caught when the door comes down. You may even get lucky and get 2 or 3 kittens at a time as they crowd into the back of the trap around the dish of food.
GET THE SHYEST KITTENS FIRST. Don't be in a hurry and greedily trap the first and bravest kittens to go into the trap. Learn how many there are before you start trapping and keep track of which ones are the last to come to the party. Dusk is the usual time for kittens to leave the den and come to the feeding station where you've "trained" them to go into the trap. The shy ones will "freak" if they witness the braver ones getting trapped. When you start to trap the kittens, let the brave ones eat and go if necessary to wait for the shy ones. You'll always get another chance with the brave ones. The shy ones are the smart ones and they won't give you a second chance for some time if you blow it the first time. They are used to mom being away for periods of time without worrying so don't worry about that. Wait until the shyest one, or hopefully two are in the trap eating together to pull the string for the first time. Even if a couple of the braver ones witness this, they'll come back soon enough but not vice versa. The shy/smart ones will high-tail it back to the den and not come out for a day or more. Get them first and you'll be done with everyone in short order. Even if the brave ones have eaten and gone, they won't hesitate coming back the next day and eagerly loading into the
trap. Don't be in a hurry. Wait until you get the shy one(s) first with no other shy witnesses if at all possible.
Even when I've given this advice, I often get the call asking, "what do I do now, I trapped all except but the shyest kitten and she won't go near the trap for 3 days now?
In that case, I put mom in a trap and put that trap inside a larger trap or under a drop trap. (A small cat trap fits inside the bigger raccoon traps) The kitten will often come out to see the mom and can be trapped using the bottle and string shown in the other photo, or the pull string shown for the drop trap.Notice that the string is taught and ready to be pulled. This way it will not distract the cat in the trap as the string is pulled. They can be out and gone before you even get the string straight and taught. You can order this drop trap from Ashot Karamian at email@example.com
(he also has several winter shelter designs on the shelter page of urbancatleague.org)
In the reverse situation, when mom isn't trapped first and won't go near the trap, here is what I do. Again the bottle and string are necessary because putting another trap inside a trap renders the trip plate unusable. Tie off the string taught for the same reason described below. Some people tie the string to the bottom of the bottle for less of a visual distraction. Hopefully the kitten will call out to mom. For the photos, the trap is out in the open, but trapping may work better in a secluded area orwith the end of the trap covered so mom will need to go into the trap to approach the kitten. Pictured here is a way to use the Pull-String Technique without the bottle. Set the trap door open with a pin tied to a string instead of the bottle. This is a top view for "techies," if you want to get fancy.
As with all things feral some adaptation to the individual cats temperament may be necessary.
Six weeks old is ok to separate mom and kittens. Start the kittens right away with socialization for adoption and TNR mom and return her for continued outdoor care. Don't forget to have her ear-tipped!