Their numbers have been tamed but not their natures though these feral cats will not bite the hand that feeds them.
Each night they emerge in groups of two or three, sometimes a skunk or possum among them. A few of the cats have paired with wild animals for companionship in their neighborhood near the Swampscott Train Station.
The hand that feeds the colony and their friends belongs to Kai Breen of Swampscott.
She arrives late at night, every night, with $7 to $10 worth of wet and dry cat food.
Out of the darkness come the adult cats, like children to an ice cream truck, she says. Some of the cats get so excited they roll around and rub against each other.
Most of the 21 adult cats share a family resemblance, as do their offspring, black splotches on white.
This year's kittens have been captured.
That's where this story starts.
It starts with a reproducing colony of cats that first came to the attention of Swampscott Animal Control officer Diane Treadwell about three years ago.
The cats were loud. Screaming in the night as they fought.
An elderly lady, who has since passed away, fed the cats. Neighbors complained about the noise and worried about the cats clawing children.
Local officials worried about the feral colony population exploding into a public health problem.
This past spring the animal control officer came up with a plan.
She volunteered her time, as did other volunteers, Marblehead Animal Control Officer Betsy Cruger and Kai Breen.
The Swampscott Board of Health agreed to pay for the spaying and neutering of the animals.
Atlantic Veterinary Hospital did the spaying and neutering and volunteered services including housing the animals and caring for them.
Meanwhile, the four volunteers were on the train station scene nightly over the spring and summer, counting and trapping and returning and feeding the animals.
They got permission from neighbors to locate homemade feral cat houses and feeding stations on their properties.
The cat houses are plastic tubs with holes cut in them, the lids and insides lined with insulation and carpet remnants.
The goal is to let the animals live their short lives and not reproduce.
First, in April, the four women did a head count. They lured the cats into an alley with food and took their pictures.
The volunteers named the 21 adult cats.
There is Pepe, and the professor — who hangs out with the possum. There is carjacker, who runs low to the ground.
There are Big Benjamin, Lil' Benjamin and Willow and Mickey and Rosie
and Phantom and Pretty Pretty Prince and Pretty Pretty Princess II.
There are others, too.
And the kittens. There are 14 or so. All have been trapped and most of have been adopted.
Feral kittens will take to humans, and give and receive affection. Adult ferals will keep their distance from humans, though a few have ventured close to Kai.
Diane Treadwell said it took some creativity to trap the adults — in one instance attaching a trap to a kittie carrier, with kittens inside.
The volunteers brought the adult cats to temporary adoption houses and then the vets to get them spayed and neutered and checked out.
The kittens went to the Marblehead Animal Shelter.
Two of the remaining handfull of kittens were adopted on Saturday. Tidbit and Lil'Bit. Lil'Bit was originally found under a Dunkin' Donuts bag. Hungry and dehydrated.
The feral project took time and energy.
"It's not an easy fix, it's a commitment," said the Swampscott animal control officer.
Volunteer Kai Breen continues to work nightly in the last stage of the project. Making sure the animals are fed and have water.
It is a financial hardship — she maxes out her credit card buying cat food each month — but she has made a commitment and can't help but follow through with it.
"I hate seeing them when they are cold and scared," she said.
She also worries about the animals.
Here is a snippet from a recent email from Kai: "Well, Pretty Pretty Prince, the happy cat who ALWAYS greets my arrival with joy has been missing since the night before the new neighbor moved in."
To help defray the cost of feeding the feral cats, the group of volunteers have placed a feral cat food donation box at Swampscott Town Hall.
It is against the wall, straight ahead, as you walk toward the Town Clerk's Office.
Food has ben a key to the project.
Sometimes, the skunks come over and eat the food, too.
The skunks do not spray the feral cats and they do not spray Kai.
The wild animals and ferals apparently appreciate the hand that feeds them. And maybe the mind that named them.
Here is a comprehensive list of the cat's names:
Pretty Pretty Prince
Pretty Pretty Princess II
Kahuna (neighbor's cat, eats the feral's food but not feral)real name is Sammy.
5 unnamed skunks