A 'force of good,' volunteer cat trapper Daria Weber has helped thousands of stray and feral felines

STUART — After nearly a dozen years spent on a mission to stop the cycle of unwanted kittens, Daria Weber is recognized as a “cat trapper extraordinaire,” whose dedication to sterilizing stray and feral cats in Martin County and beyond is unmatched.

Now, with a record of trapping at least 5,000 cats as a volunteer with Caring Fields Felines, a no-kill sanctuary in Palm City, Weber, 61, is contemplating retiring from her “remarkable” work that’s greatly reduced the number of cats without homes having kittens, and more kittens.

Daria Weber, a Martin County resident, brings several trapped feral cats to the Animal Medical Hospital on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Stuart, where the cats can be spayed or neutered, as part of the county-approved trap and release program. Weber has been trapping feral cats for more than a dozen years, working with Caring Fields Felines, and is now getting ready to retire from her cat trapping days. "Visiting a shelter once I realized just how out of control it is and how much help was needed and people didn't know what their resources were," Weber said.

What triggered her quest, said Weber, of Stuart, was witnessing what happens when there aren’t enough affordable options to get stray and feral cats sterilized.

“Kittens were being dropped off at shelters in just high, high numbers — stacks and stacks of carriers,” she recalled. “And that has not happened in a long time now. That's what broke my heart — that this just doesn't need to happen, we can fix this. There's a way.”

The solution, she said, has been a consistent effort to trap, neuter, vaccinate and return cats living outdoors, also called a TNVR program.

Thanks in part to her trappings in 10 cat colonies Weber identified during a five-year pilot program, Martin County in 2017 adopted a TNVR ordinance, which has reduced the number of cats able to breed unchecked by as much as 42%, records show.

“Daria was instrumental in the successful effort to adopt the Martin County TNVR ordinance and Daria's experiences and data were critical,” Virginia Sherlock, a Caring Fields board member, said via email. “Martin was among the first counties in Florida to enact a TNVR ordinance.”

Caring Fields Executive Director Pauline Glover said cats as young as 4 months old can have a litter of up to six kittens and can have up to three litters a year.

“It's just this vicious cycle of trying to stop it and Daria does have a good part of Martin County under control thanks to getting the (TNVR) ordinance passed,” Glover said.

Weber has captured an average of 450 cats a year to be fixed and vaccinated.

“This is not done by a multitude of people, she just puts the traps in her car and goes,” Glover said. “I use the word remarkable for her because there is an inner strength that's needed for this job; she cannot save them all, you just can’t. But she's relentless.”

Echoing Glover, longtime Caring Fields volunteer Katherine Goodman said Weber is so effective because she focuses on an area as a grid, trapping in one section at a time.

“She knows which cats haven’t been spayed or neutered and which ones are untrappable,” Goodman said. “She approaches neighborhoods in a very analytical way and that’s what it takes. You have to clean up the whole area or you’re going to have kittens.”

Curbing kitten births, Weber stressed, is “the root of the problem.”

“If you don't address that, you could build a shelter every other month and it would be filled to capacity almost immediately,” she said. “You have to take the next step and get them fixed so you don't end up where a male and a female cat turn into 20 cats within a couple of years.”

Capturing cats

When Weber traps in a neighborhood, she posts fliers around so residents can alert her to any nearby strays that need to be fixed. If a caregiver is feeding the cats, Weber asks that they hold off for at least 12 hours before she sets out a trap.

“They need to be hungry,” she said, adding that colonies with more than 10 cats are the biggest challenge.

“Once you start trapping, they're very smart and if other cats are watching, they become trap-shy,” she said. “They're not going to go in that trap if they see other cats being trapped.”

The key, she said, is to cover a caged cat with a towel, which calms the animal and keeps the others from watching it get loaded into her car.

“You have to stay right there with the traps; we don't leave them unattended, that's why it's time consuming,” she noted. “We don't leave them overnight, ever. Because if one cat goes in a trap and the others see that, they're not going to go in the other traps.”

It also helps to have the right bait, she said.

While trapping cats living behind a Sonny’s restaurant, Weber saw she couldn’t lure them with her usual Friskies cat food.

“They sniffed the trap, looked at it and were like that's disgusting and jumped up in the Sonny's dumpster. I saw one jump back out with a big piece of garlic bread in her mouth,” she said. “So I walked over to the Sonny’s … and ask for some pulled pork, put it in the trap, and I had all three of them.”

Her record is trapping 33 cats in one location, which took a couple of weeks to accomplish. After they’re returned to an area, Weber monitors the colony to see if any new cats or kittens show up.

‘If you're not seeing kittens bouncing around with a mama somewhere, then we've done our job,” she said. “If kittens show up, that means we missed somebody so we go back in and stay on it.”

Cats that have been trapped and returned have a “tipped” left ear, meaning it’s been snipped, Weber said, which is an international symbol “it’s been taken care of and someone cares about me.”

Fixed felines

In Martin County, Weber works with three veterinarians, including Drs. Lynnly Miller, in Stuart, Laura Fourquet at Animal Care Extraordinaire and Patricia Ries at Savanna Animal Hospital, in Jensen Beach.

Each volunteer surgery space for the cats and have treated as many as 10 a day.

Ries, who’s worked with Caring Fields for more than 15 years, called Weber “a force of good.”

“She has done the animal community in our tri-county area an incredible service and she does it well,” Ries said. “She traps them, we do surgery, she keeps them for another night and releases them.”

Ries said while more people like Weber are needed to decrease the stray population, it’s crucial to know what you’re doing.

“She does it the right way … she'll tell the community what she's doing,” Ries said. “She watches the cats and if they're sick, sometimes they'll stay here for a couple of days before they're safe enough to be released.”

If the kittens are really sweet, Ries added, “we don't release them, we find homes for them.”

Lately, Weber has been working to trap cats in Okeechobee County, which she said doesn’t have a TNVR program.

“It's a good feeling knowing that in a small corner of the world here, we're making a difference. You add enough of those together and it can make a big difference all over,” Weber said. “The difference you make is worth any of those days where you wish you hadn't seen that super sick cat or things like that.

“It's all worth it in the end because you know the legacy stops here. This has been taken care of and that's a good thing.”

Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. She can be reached at melissa.holsman@tcpalm.com.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Volunteer cat trapper Daria Weber helps curb cycle of unwanted kittens