The lowly alley cat has long been considered a hissing, stinking, brawling fur ball of trouble — something to round up and send to the pound before it fights with your house cat, leaves droppings in your flowers or tears apart your trash.

But a change has come to Washington and cities across the nation that might surprise anyone who has been kept awake by the yowling of an alley cat: A small army of volunteers is trapping feral felines, sterilizing them and returning them to the very alleys they came from.

The “Trap-Neuter-Return” (TNR) approach has gone from an underground movement in the 1990s to an increasingly popular method of managing the nation’s feral cat population. Those who support it say it’s more humane than taking strays to shelters where most will be euthanized.

And that has touched off a cat fight.

Feline lover is pitted against feline lover. Veterinarians are divided. At least one major donor to animal welfare groups is withholding money. And this being Washington, the feral cats have a high-powered advocacy group spending millions to argue for TNR on their behalf.

The disagreement turns on a slippery question: Does the alley cat live a good life?

The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and other supporters say the nation’s estimated 50 million to 150 million feral felines often live healthy lives. They also say TNR has added benefits: After a cat colony is sterilized, nuisance behaviors such as fighting and yowling are reduced, and the feral population stabilizes. Feral cats can keep rats in check, too.

Skeptics, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some veterinarians, argue the life of an alley cat is rarely pleasant. In many cases, they say it’s actually more humane to euthanize cats, rather than condemn them to a harsh life on the streets.

To make matters more complicated, TNR is the latest flashpoint in a long-running dispute between bird people and cat folks. Many wild bird groups blame feral cats for killing huge numbers of birds. A researcher at the National Zoo’s Migratory Bird Center was charged with animal cruelty for allegedly poisoning stray cats in Columbia Heights this month.

The D.C. government formally supports TNR as a policy and the Washington Humane Society runs a TNR clinic in the city. The Maryland SPCA and groups in Fairfax County and Arlington have similar efforts. Across the country, there are about 260 such programs, advocates say.

‘Super trapper’

Marc Selinger, a resident of Kensington, spent a recent weekend literally herding cats. He trapped the feral felines at an industrial park in suburban Maryland and then stacked 15 cages like Tetris blocks in his Subaru Legacy.

Selinger, a volunteer who runs the cat-rescue group Rock Creek Cats, drove into the District for the monthly TNR clinic sponsored by the Washington Humane Society.

The clinic is free for feral felines trapped in Washington. For non-D.C. cats, Selinger pays the $45 sterilization fee with donations and with money out of his own pocket.

“Trapping feral cats is not exactly glamorous work,” said Selinger, who says he’s trapped about 400 cats in five years. “But when you do it, you can really improve their lives. ... When I see their faces, I can’t not help them.”

Selinger refused to say exactly where his recent catch came from — he feared someone might poison the cats or they might end up in a shelter.

As the clinic bustled around him, veterinary technicians, some clad in paw-print T-shirts, prepped the cats for surgeries at two stations. In a separate, glass-enclosed theater, three veterinarians in full scrubs bent over cat-size operating tables performing sterilizations.

A technician jabbed two of Selinger’s cats — a gray male with tiger stripes and a black female — with syringes full of anesthetic. The cats were then vaccinated for rabies and distemper.

“He’s scrappy — he’s only got a half a tail,” a tech said of the gray cat.

Once in the operating room, a clothespin-like sensor was clipped onto the female cat’s tongue, which measured her oxygen intake and heart rate. She was stretched out on a gurney and her splayed legs were restrained as if she was on a medieval rack.

As the sensor beeped, a veterinarian finished surgery in about 10 minutes. The male cat’s surgery was less involved — it only took two minutes. Both were a success; the cats’ ears were notched to show they had been sterilized.

The process was repeated again and again throughout the day — a total of 35 cats were neutered in a matter of hours. Last year, the clinic sterilized about 1,300 cats; 5,300 cats have been neutered since the program opened in 2007, officials said.

The clinic might not have come about if it were not for Becky Robinson of Arlington and the feral colony she stumbled upon in an Adams Morgan alley on her way to dinner one night in 1990.

“They were these three, beautiful black-and-white tuxedos,” Robinson recalled. “I wanted to help them.”

Robinson, who was aware of trap-neuter-return programs in Europe, trapped the cats, got a veterinarian to sterilize them and then returned them to the alley. Her name got around and she began helping other people trap and sterilize feral cats, locally and nationally.

Her efforts grew into Bethesda-based Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit organization that has been instrumental in pushing TNR. Allies has a $5.2 million budget and high-profile celebrity supporters including actress Portia de Rossi and comedian Paula Poundstone.

Robinson said simply trapping feral cats and removing them creates a “vacuum effect.” Once the old feral population is gone, new cats move in to take advantage of food and shelter. She said TNR allows the colony to keep its turf but also shrinks its population.

‘What’s right for them, not for the cats’

Like Selinger and Robinson, Dana Madalon has a long record of working on cat-related causes, but she’s no supporter of TNR.

The Georgetown resident and animal rights activist has spent 15 years volunteering in local shelters, organizing charity balls for animal causes, fostering cats and conducting pet-adoption counseling. She is also the president of the board of directors of the Sauk County Humane Society in Wisconsin, where her home town is located.

Madalon, who sold a government contracting firm two years ago, said she has donated $50,000 to $80,000 a year to animal organizations. But she said she’s curtailed her giving to Washington Humane Society and the Animal Welfare League of Arlington. She said they do great work, but their support of TNR caused her to close her checkbook.

“The TNR folks are doing what’s right for them, not for the cats,” Madalon said. “If you really love an animal, you will do everything you can to ease suffering in its life. The life of a feral cat is a slow kill.”

Madalon said she’s seen feral cats poisoned with antifreeze, used for target practice, hit by cars and plagued with painful urinary tract infections.

She is supported by some veterinarians and what might seem an unlikely ally: PETA. PETA describes the life of a feral cat as harsh and supports TNR only under extremely limited circumstances: A cat colony must be is isolated from roads, people, wildlife and be in a temperate climate. PETA president and co-founder Ingrid Newkirk said practicing TNR in Washington amounts to “trap-neuter-abandonment.”

She said TNR activists often miss an important point: Many people don’t want feral cats around, because they can carry diseases and parasites such as rabies and toxoplasmosis, and can be pests. This makes the animals targets for abuse.

“They don’t die peacefully out there in the wild wonderland of D.C.,” Newkirk said.

Back to the wild

After the cats’ surgeries, Selinger said he took some of them back to the industrial site in suburban Maryland. It was about 11 p.m. and no one was around. Selinger lifted the doors on the cages and most of the cats shot out “like cannonballs.”

Selinger declined to let a reporter ride along with him to the site — careful, as always, to protect his cats. He said most skittered out in a green, wooded area.

“They can live a pretty good life out there,” he said.