PARIS (Reuters) - In the early hours of the morning, shadowy figures crouch behind the concrete blocks, bulldozers and rubble of one of the biggest building sites in central Paris to set their traps.
The lights from the nearby St. Eustache church cast a yellow glow over the ravaged landscape as the silent trappers place tuna and raw beef inside the wire cages and then step away to wait for the stealthy approach of their prey: feral black cats.
An 800 million euro ($1.01 billion) building project to modernize the ancient Paris market-turned subterranean shopping mall Les Halles has become a breeding colony for unwanted cats, spurring some Parisians into a humane effort to rescue them.
Since 2007, Valerie Massia, founder of the group Chadhal (an abbreviation of "Cats of Les Halles"), has humanely trapped over 100 abandoned and feral cats who prowl behind the overturned earth and "keep out" signs of the project.
Most Parisians don't realize pets are dumped in their city, where the unsterilized continue to breed, and most have no concept of the work involved in rescuing them, said Massia, 49.
A local politician once exclaimed to her that it was "scandalous" that kittens could be found at Les Halles.
"But I told him, it's not me who had the kittens! It's not me who got knocked up by a big black cat!" said Massia, frustrated by those who assume she is a public service.
"But if there's no help coming from the city, when the cats are roaming, they're taken to the pound, and if the benevolent groups don't take them..." she said, her voice trailing off.
Massia and her small but dedicated group of volunteers arrive in the wee hours of the night to try their luck at key points inside the over 7-acre site where cats hide.
Lured by the smell of tuna, the hungriest sometimes venture into the traps, after which they are brought to a veterinarian, sterilized and given medical care.
Then begins the arduous process of finding homes. The luckiest are adopted by individuals, while rescue groups in the provinces sometimes take the shyer cats harder to adopt out.
But others, more wary, are harder to catch.
Massia, who has trapped about 40 cats this year alone, estimates that a few dozen more remain in the vast urban worksite where construction began early this year.
First it was the market sellers kicked out of Les Halles -- dubbed "the belly of Paris" by Emile Zola -- where a market has stood since the beginning of the 12th century.
Now, with the renovation designed to update the tacky underground mall and open space above it, its four-legged inhabitants are no longer welcome, an irony that's not lost on the volunteers.
"There were always cats here," said Massia, who has lobbied unsuccessfully for a government-sanctioned space for the cats. "There is no more room for animals in the city anymore."
Similar small groups of cat lovers take care of cats at the cemeteries of Montmartre and Pere Lachaise, Paris' largest.
Volunteers lament the lack of green space in Paris, especially biodiversity zones where sterilized wild cats could live and be cared for by caregivers, as is done in Rome.
Trap, neuter and return (TNR) is an effective and commonly used method of managing feral, or wild, cat colonies in Anglo-Saxon countries as a viable alternative to euthanasia.
"There's an utter disinterest in the problem," said Massia, who laments France's track record in humane issues.
Chadhal is still awaiting a promised donation of 10,000 euros ($13,795.958) from city hall, where no one is expressly charged with animal issues. City hall did not respond to a request from Reuters for an interview.
"There should be a city budget and a politician in charge," said Massia, adding, "It's the Parisians who are turning these cats out."
Massia has even received hate mail. A recent anonymous letter contained an ad for bullets from a hunting magazine: "The solution to your budget problems," someone wrote.
Trapping cats at Les Halles is a labor of love, time-consuming, tiring and costly. Nine times out of ten, the volunteers go home empty-handed.
A soft rain fell over Les Halles on a recent Sunday morning, as Massia and four volunteers again tried their luck.
Complicating the task have been elderly do-gooders who continue to feed the cats, frustrating the group's efforts.
"It's never finished," said Massia. "The ones we don't trap, they'll have kittens, so it's never done." ($1 = 0.730 Euros)
Reporting By Alexandria Sage, editing by Paul Casciato