In a garage just outside the City of Fitchburg, three women sized up a trailer full of Styrofoam boxes.

Soon enough, they’ll distribute those boxes around Dane County, with some slight modifications to turn them into homes for “neighborhood” or feral cats.

These retrofitted cat homes are part of the Madison Cat Project’s efforts, which started with “Spay Days” in 2002 when about 30 cats would be sterilized once a month, but have since expanded. That monthly event still occurs, but moved to the UW-Madison veterinary hospital in October, allowing for up to 120 cats per event, said Susan Krebsbach, an Oregon resident and a member of the board of directors.

That increase in the number of cats sterilized, some from homes and others not, has left them short in another area: “homes” for the free-roaming cats once they’re returned to their neighborhood.

“These cats are all going back outside,” said Betty Pankonien, a Fitchburg resident and volunteer. “Our source is not keeping up with our demand anymore.”

Krebsbach explained that the boxes “provide them with that safety, warmth and comfort” while they recover from the surgery without forcing them into a home or into regular interaction with a human, which the free-roaming cats tend to avoid.

“It’s such a critical time,” Krebsbach said of the post-surgery period.

The goal is to ultimately reduce the size of the “neighborhood cat” population Krebsbach explained they are trying to move away from the term “feral” without killing them. She told the Star in an email that the “overpopulation of pets, especially cats, is an issue that plagues our country,” leading to more than 1 million cats euthanized in animal shelters each year.

“Sterilization is 100 percent effective at preventing additional kittens from being born and is an integral component to decreasing this staggering statistic,” she wrote. “Being able to conduct our Spay Days at the UW (School of Veterinary Medicine) where we can conduct even more surgeries is truly a dream come true.”

The “trap-neuter-return” method the group uses is “a humane way of controlling cat populations,” Krebsbach wrote.

The surgery is performed by volunteer veterinary students.

The boxes, needed for the “return,” are altered to serve as homes with a small hole in the front for the cat to go in and out of. That work is also done by volunteers like Arlie Jaster, who stores the boxes, and Pankonien.

“I’ve had cats in my yard that I’ve trapped,” Jaster said. “It just drove me nuts to see those cats fending for themselves out there.”

Pankonien said it’s been exciting to watch the habitat part of the program grow from just donating a few boxes when they had them to a Spay Day, to the promoted program it is now, but that also means “we’ve got to get the boxes,” she said.

“We’re doing this for the cats, that’s what it’s about,” Pankonien said.

Contact Scott Girard at and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.