VICKI FARRETTA SITS silently in her gear-cluttered Jeep Liberty, her senses tingling. Like a cat stalking a sparrow, she scans the territory—the bushes, the parking lot, the steps to the back door. “Did you see that?” she whispers, reaching for her binoculars.

Farretta is on a stakeout. Papers litter the Jeep’s floor, and the hardware of her vocation—cages, tarps, tin bowls—fills the truck bed behind her. Two jumbo fountain drinks perch half-drunk on the hump behind the hand brake. Through the windshield, she watches for signs of movement around the backside of the Lynnwood Elks Lodge, an anonymous low-slung building on Southwest 196th Street. An aged red Miata rolls past between Farretta and the building. The driver, with slicked-back hair and a dark mustache, looks nothing like an Elk. If he notices her, he gives no sign.

Farretta looks like she can take care of herself. She’s a stocky 50-ish woman with iron-straight dun-colored hair, a husky voice, and a lot of patience. Suddenly her patience is rewarded: “There’s the little black one I’m trying to get!” Farretta exclaims under her breath. “He’s walking kind of stiffly. I wonder if he’s got an upper respiratory condition.” She lifts her binoculars and smiles. “Well, the kitty’s pooping. That means he’s eating.” A half-grown black cat slinks from the bushes, edges warily toward a metal cage trap placed beneath the lodge’s rear steps, cranes forward to sniff the food inside, then pulls back and glances around the lot.

The bushes rustle again; another small cat peers out—and then a large male tiger shoulders it aside and strides toward the cage. “I don’t want you!” Farretta hisses. Too late. The little black cat has already scrambled back into the thicket, as though warned off by his elder.

Such are the vicissitudes of trapping. Male cats are easiest to catch, Farretta explains, swinging her shoulders in a mock macho swagger: “They just wander in.” Females are wary, especially after they’ve seen others trapped. “It’s so much like fishing. You do a lot of waiting and anticipating. You prepare for it like a crazy fisherman, dress warmly, and spend a lot of quality time. I love it. It relaxes me. That and hunting for agates are my best destressers from work.”

For years, “work” meant “animals” for Vicki Farretta; she was a veterinarian technician until the lousy pay and physical and emotional strain got to be too much. She retrained (for half as long as she’d trained to become a vet’s helper) and now makes twice as much money managing the billing for a gastroenterology clinic. Animals—cats—remain her passion; she loves them in a way that other cat lovers immediately understand and that makes the rest of us marvel, and maybe squirm.

Some cat people love their cats to death with fussing and fattening. They take in every plaintive, unfixed stray they see, abetting the breeding of new generations of strays. Or, at the sociopathic end of the spectrum, they cut their children off and leave millions to their little fur balls. Vicki Farretta is not one of those cat people. She’s a mensch, someone determined to be part of the solution, not the problem. Stalking cats is more than just a sport or therapy. She is a trapper on a mission.

Farretta and about 15 other women—they are all women, all middle-aged, all fired with a youthlike zeal—form a local cell in a loose-knit nationwide network of cat trappers. Or, to use their preferred term, rescuers. They devote weekends, evenings, retirements, and disposable incomes to unending rounds of visits to feral cat colonies. They’ve undertaken a controversial mission, one they hope will relieve the misery of millions of abandoned cats—and save billions more unborn animals from the same fate.

TNR, they all call it, short for Trap, Neuter, Return. They trap feral and homeless cats, get them neutered and vaccinated and treated for whatever may ail them, and, if possible, find loving homes for them. When that’s not an option (i.e., in the vast majority of cases), the rescuers ear-tip the cats (clipping their left ears, the international sign of a neutered, unhoused cat) and return them to the wild, there to live out their natural lives, with aid from their human helpers, in celibate dignity.