Erin Robinson, community cat program manager from the Humane Rescue Alliance, collects her empty traps intended to hunt feral cats at a home in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

At midnight in the alley

A tom-cat comes to wail,

And he chants the hate of a million years

As he swings his snaky tail.

“The Tom-Cat,” by Don Marquis

Dilon, a young male feral cat, is neutered at the Humane Rescue Alliance & Medical Center in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

Why Erin Robinson became a trapper of urban feral cats — why she is shivering in the cold dawn just now, peering beneath a stranger’s front porch for elusive feline wildlife — is simple: “I would say, you know, I am definitely a cat person.”

That is, she adores all cats, regardless of their manners or lineage, including the lowest-born of the species: the ignoble and oft-slandered alley cat, of which there are countless thousands in the nation’s capital.

“I mean, I have never not been a cat person,” she says, standing on a Northwest Washington street corner, shoulders hunched in a chill wind.

Robinson’s mission, for the D.C. Humane Rescue Alliance, is feral-feline population control, known as TNR, for “trap-neuter-return.” She and two helpers travel the metropolis, snatching up “community cats,” as alley cats are correctly called in the 21st century, so they can be sterilized. And afterward, they are put back in their “colonies,” meaning the small clowders from whence they came.

Like precious ecosystems, these territorial clusters of homeless cats, all over the District, are protected from disruption by a city ordinance.

“So the lady who lives here called us last week,” Robinson, 30, says, gesturing toward a duplex at Seventh and Nicholson streets. “She wanted to let us know that she saw three new cats.”

Alley cats tend to hang out in gangs, four or five together, sometimes more, and they do most of their prowling around sunrise and dusk. Robinson, in her Hyundai, had pulled up in the Brightwood neighborhood in the predawn, responding to the woman’s report. The caller had said she delights in feeding the cats under her porch but was worried that the colony might be growing.

Erin Robinson prepares traps to hunt feral cats at a family’s home in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)

“I don’t think I could tell you why some people don’t like cats,” Robinson says, and that includes the uncouth alley variety. “But I know some people don’t.”

Bird-lovers, for example, see feral cats as a loathsome menace to the beauty of urban avian life. In their view, a better policy would be to euthanize undomesticated felines once they have been taken into custody, since they aren’t suited for adoption and playing cute in a family room.

Alley cats are “the Dead End Kids” of the city’s animal kingdom, accustomed to surviving by their claws and wits. You see one in a cartoon, it has a shiner and a butterfly bandage, maybe a couple of missing teeth. They would get antsy having to stay indoors, batting around some PetSmart ball of felt, and they want almost nothing to do with humans apart from handouts.

Also, anyone kept awake at night by incessant yowling and the rattling of trash cans could tell Robinson exactly why some people dislike cats.

“Well, I don’t know,” she says.

At Seventh and Nicholson, she has set out four metal cage-traps — two by the porch, two by the woman’s garage — each trap lined with newspaper, the paper slathered with spoonfuls of malodorous mush from a can of Friskies beef and gravy.

And just like that . . .

“Oh, okay, here’s one already,” she says, as a black cat appears, squeezing out through a tiny opening in the foundation of the house and pausing to stare, eyes glowing yellow in the early light. In a moment, it darts 10 feet, goes low to the ground and wiggles under the lattice below the porch, bypassing one of Robinson’s traps.

Kitty, kitty, kitty . . . ”

The TNR program, begun in 2008, has sterilized about 16,000 feral cats and returned them to the mean streets with the tips of their left ears snipped off, precisely three-eighths of an inch, marking them as fixed. Robinson was hired by the Humane Rescue Alliance in October to oversee the effort. She has been working in animal welfare since graduating from Wake Forest University in 2009 with a degree in anthropology.

Previously, she had been in charge of the “national cat help desk” at the headquarters of Alley Cat Allies, an advocacy group in Bethesda, Md., that bills itself as “the national engine of change for cats.” She says: “The majority of calls we got, it was like: ‘Hey, I have all these cats. What do I do?’ And I’d be like, ‘Trap, neuter and return,’ if they were outdoor cats. But if you have a lot of cats indoors, I would be like, ‘All right, maybe you need some resources.’ ”

Now another feral feline, this one pale gray, tiptoes into view and bolts across Nicholson Street, stopping beneath a parked car to paw at something only it can see.

Once ensconced in a neighborhood, alley cats rarely venture far as long as there is ample food around, usually in rubbish barrels or in bowls left out by kindhearted residents.

“I would bet these cats here don’t go beyond the end of the block,” Robinson says of the clowder at Seventh and Nicholson. The woman who called the Humane Alliance makes sure that the cats are fed. “So they think, ‘Hey, why go anywhere else?’ ”

And if you happen to live next door and don’t like it, too bad. In 2008, after lobbying by Alley Cat Allies and other groups, the D.C. Council passed the Animal Protection Amendment Act, formally endorsing the trap-neuter-return concept. If a neighbor wants to support a colony of homeless felines, setting out open cans of StarKist every morning, the city won’t intervene.

Seeking shelter

The frosty March air feels like a thousand needles as Robinson swaddles the empty cage-traps in old bedsheets and soiled towels.

“This time of year, they’ll look for porches, for decks, anywhere they can go to be out of the wind,” she says. “If there’s no shelter, they might climb into your car engine. That’s why it’s always good, in the winter, to give a little knock on your hood before you start your car, especially if you know there are community cats around.”

Otherwise, when the motor revs, the whirring fan blade, the spinning belts . . . well, she grimaces, nodding her head ruefully. “Unfortunately, yes, it does happen.”

In certain cases, putting sterilized alley cats back where they came from wouldn’t be a good idea, because some colonies are in hazardous locations — close to heavy traffic or construction sites, for example. So in January, the Humane Alliance started a program called “Blue Collar Cats,” farming out captured feral felines to people who are having trouble with rodents at their homes or places of business.

John Uhar, who sells industrial real estate from a rowhouse office on Canal Street NW, in Georgetown, was quick to take advantage. “There’s a real big rat problem around here,” he says, meaning near the C&O Canal, with its patches of filthy standing water. “You see them everywhere.”

In the rear yard of the Uhar & Co. rowhouse, two alley cats delivered by the Humane Alliance are in their third week of being locked up 24/7 in a spacious cage equipped with insulated sleeping quarters. After about a month of round-the-clock incarceration, the felines — Uhar has named them Ivanka and Tiffany — will forget where they used to live. Thus, when they are let out, any day now, neither will wander off in search of its old home. They will colonize Uhar’s property. And woe be the canal rats.

Uhar, 58, who rents an apartment on Q Street NW, has a third blue-collar cat, named Taz, at that building. So far, eight alley cats rounded up in dangerous areas by Robinson and her staff have been put to work in the city, while three others, awaiting job openings, are housed in a Humane Alliance shelter. At the Georgetown apartment complex, Taz stalks in and out of the basement, mauling mice and the occasional giant cockroach.

“When he first came, the humane people were telling me, ‘This one’s really crazy,’ ” Uhar says. “I don’t know what his story was, but something must have happened to him — you could tell by the way he reacted to people that he was abused. So he started out rough, as a bad guy.”

Almost three months later: “He’s sweet. I mean, you do right by him, you feed him salmon by hand every day and, before you know it, he’s loving life.”

In Brightwood, Robinson has retreated to her Hyundai and turned on the heat, watching her traps from behind the wheel while holding forth on her fondness for cats. By morning’s end, there will be cats in the cages, but none that haven’t already been sterilized and ear-clipped.

“Cats can be quiet . . . independent,” she points out, choosing a milder adjective than, say, “aloof,” or, perhaps, “emotionally distant and off-puttingly self-absorbed.” Although she acknowledges that the spectrum of endearing feline personality traits can seem rather narrow to people who aren’t cat people, she says, “To people who are cat people, I think their independence is something we really appreciate about them.”

Robinson owns two house cats. “So when we do get that attention and affection from them, in my mind, I feel really good. I feel like, ‘Oh, I really earned it!’ ”

From the back seat, her boss, Lauren Lipsey, 32, says in a wondrous voice, “I think cats are fascinating.” Lipsey, who has stopped by with some cages, owns a cat named Snake, born to indoor feline privilege.

“You watch them walking around the house, and they’re just these majestic animals. I love watching them. You’re just sitting there, observing them, and you try to put yourself in their paws, so to speak. Like, what’s going on in their minds? What are they thinking?”

She and Robinson fall silent.

For they are thinking.