MARTINEZ -- The meticulously planned operation gets under way Sunday morning at an hour when most people are still under the covers.

Dozens of double-stacked cages line the pathway in front of the county Animals Services Department in Martinez and more are arriving by the minute.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," says Tammy Bryant of the 16 feral cats that she and a friend had captured on Bethel Island.

Loud meows come from under some of the towels and quilts draping the crates as volunteers armed with clip boards check the animals in, jotting down physical descriptions and assigning each an identification number.

A domestic short hair calico. A gray tabby. A tortoise shell.

A blanket is used to keep a feral cat calm as it awaits surgery during the 2013 SNIP (Spay Neuter Impact Program) Spay Day at the Contra Costa Animal
A blanket is used to keep a feral cat calm as it awaits surgery during the 2013 SNIP (Spay Neuter Impact Program) Spay Day at the Contra Costa Animal Services Department in Martinez, Calif., on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

It's the first event of the year for the Spay/Neuter Impact Program, an Antioch-based nonprofit that has been working to reduce the county's feral cat population since 2006.

Founder Karen Kops felt compelled to form the all-volunteer organization after watching 27 feral kittens at the county animal shelter being put into carriers for transport to the place where they would be euthanized.

"It was right in my face. I was just so upset about it," she said.

SNIP, as Kops' group is known, is dedicated to sparing other homeless cats from a similar fate. Some are unadoptable because they've been fending for themselves since they were born and are too wild to handle; others were abandoned by their owners and, although they could be a family pet once again, are less likely to find a home because they no longer have a kitten's appeal.

In an effort to spare future generations of cats from a life of neglect, people trap as many as they can and bring them to SNIP's clinics.

The 58 volunteers who have turned out for this snip-a-thon all know exactly what their role is in the production-line process; the day's details have been worked out right down to the specialized heating pads that await post-surgery patients whose body temperatures have dropped below normal.

Each cat is weighed and checked for abscesses, ear mites, eye injuries and broken or loose teeth, ailments that are more common among animals defending their territory and fighting for mating rights.

Next comes the anesthesia, after which the tip of one ear is snipped off, a way of identifying cats once they're released back into the wild to avoid recapturing them.

Over here, gentle, practiced hands shave females' bellies and express their bladders so they don't get in the way during surgery. Nearby, other volunteers deftly squeeze a dab of artificial tears into the open eyes of each unconscious cat to prevent them from drying out during surgery.

Space is at a premium in the operating room, where five veterinarians are spaying cats as their assistants hover nearby.

Tom Hansen carefully slices into the belly of a young cat.

"I think she might be pregnant," he says as he probes her uterus with a forefinger.

Sure enough -- he teases out three sacs the size of large marbles, kittens in the early stages of gestation. Anesthetized like their mother, the embryos feel nothing, Hansen says as he ties off the ovaries before removing them.

Apart from helping him stay at the top of his game, he considers the work he does here a public service.

"It's helping the community a little bit," Hansen says.

A cat typically has three litters of four to eight kittens each in a year, and those one to two dozen youngsters can start having babies of their own by the time they're five months old.

"Their reproductive capability is impressive," says Berkeley veterinarian Mike Barlia, who volunteers for SNIP along with his wife. "It's this horrible cycle."

Factor in the Bay Area's temperate climate and people who put out bowls of food for feral cats -- the nutrition they need to reproduce -- and the math problem becomes even more troublesome.

"It's an exponential rate," Barlia acknowledged. "There's a huge need to spay and neuter to break this vicious cycle.

"If not us, who's going to take care of these guys?"

Charged with overseeing the entire operation, Barlia keeps a bead on the activity swirling around him as he neuters the male cats that come his way.

The procedure is much faster than the invasive surgery on the females: Barlia makes two incisions, squeezes the testes from the scrotum, pulls out the spermatic cord, ties it in a knot, and cuts off the testicles -- all in under five minutes.

Meanwhile, cats coming out of surgery receive rabies shots along with a 3-in-1 vaccine before they're returned to their cages.

In all, 103 cats are fixed that day, bringing SNIP's total over the past seven years to 1,810.

And the group does it on a shoestring budget; the $7,321 it received in donations last year wasn't enough to prevent it from going into the red.

Nearly all the money comes from those who care for the feral cats and bring them to the clinics; SNIP requests a $15 donation for each cat to defray the cost of the operation, which runs approximately $30 per animal.

Although there are no hard numbers showing whether feral colonies around the county are shrinking, Kops has no doubt that SNIP is making a difference.

She notes the dramatic decline over the past four decades in the number of cats the county shelter euthanizes, and says SNIP has played a part in that trend since it appeared on the scene.

"It's a project that has a lasting impact on the lives of cats, the people involved and the community," Kops said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

HOW YOU CAN HELP
SNIP will hold additional clinics on April 14, June 23, Aug. 25 and Nov. 3.
Those who want to volunteer at the clinics must be at least 16. Needs range from help setting up tables the day before an event to trucking supplies back to SNIP's storage unit on Bethel Island afterward. The group also could use extra hands to wash dirty towels and garage space for storing traps.
In addition, SNIP is looking for storage space -- including the use of a trailer -- in the Martinez area, as well as humane traps, specialized pet heating pads, vaccines, and gift cards to office supply and home improvement stores.
Monetary donations can be sent to SNIP at P.O. Box 4746, Antioch CA 94531.
For more information, contact Karen Kops at 925-783-3790 or karenkops@yahoo.com.