Feral cat problem: Trap, neuter and return
FINGER LAKES--Many area villages and municipal areas have what is commonly called a "cat problem." Homeless cats roam through towns, looking for food and sheltered places to hide from people and the weather. They may be ill; they're killing birds and other wildlife; they're almost certainly creating kittens. Some kind people feed them. Some unkind people add to their numbers by abandoning unwanted pets. In New York state, among other places, abandoning a cat or dog is against the law. It happens anyway.
Animal shelter directors and volunteers who come into regular contact with stray, abandoned and feral cats say the problem is actually something else. "Logic is it's more a human problem than a cat problem. It's getting humans to be more responsible," says Terry Donahue, a volunteer at the Humane Society of Yates County.
And in wanting the problem to be solved, many people often ask their local SPCA, Humane Society or other animal rescue agency to step up and do something--anything--to take unwanted cats, like delinquent, destructive teens off the street. Why don't they?
Most say they don't have room or resources. Spring is kitten season, swamping staff with nursery duties. Kittens are fuzzy, cuddly, adoptable sweetness. But feral cats are something else. They avoid human contact, and almost certainly will never be able to acclimate to living in a house with people. Marilyn Hill, a volunteer at the Yates County shelter, says she felt very sorry for two long-term feral residents. "Their possibility of getting adopted was probably nil," she says. So about nine months ago, she took the pair home. "I thought they deserved at least a try, but they're still untouchable even though they see me every day and I feed them. They're not pets like adopting regular cats." Hill made a home for the ferals in her barn, resigned to the unlikelihood of ever being able to pet them or hear them purr.
Some lost or abandoned cats can look forward to a happier outcome. Lost animals can be reunited with the families who want them back. Shelter personnel advise photographing them and posting their picture on Facebook and flyers in the community. A rare few might have microchips, detectable at a shelter or by a veterinarian. Ask around--someone may know who's missing a friendly cat. Abandoned animals, whose trust in humans may be tarnished by poor treatment, may respond to kindness, food and socialization with people, eventually becoming rewarding pets.
However, feral cats are disinclined to interact with people for anything other than food hand-outs, which they'll accept only when humans retreat. Even feral kittens, if captured and socialized, may take years to domesticate, never completely losing their distrust of people.
Because this problem exists in virtually every urban area around the world, the population explosion of feral cats has been studied and pondered. Few people want to see surplus cats slaughtered. The alternative is to trap the wild cats, neuter them, vaccinate against rabies and return them to their original environment--"TNR" for short.
"Euthanasia is old-school thought," says Vicki Mosgrove, director of the Finger Lakes SPCA in Bath. "It's not cost effective and not humane. But studies show if you can spay and neuter about 70 percent of cats you can stabilize that population."
It's expensive and labor intensive, depending on a lot of volunteer input through the whole process, including returning the animals to the environment from which they came. Volunteer "colony managers"--community members who feed the wild cats and keep track of their numbers, including watching for new colony members who may also need TNR care, are key.
In Watkins Glen in Schuyler County, a group of concerned villagers have been managing a colony on Third Street. "About three years ago, they worked together for a TNR, and the number of cats in the colony is gradually diminishing," says Ginny Yeager, Spay-Neuter Coordinator for the Schuyler County Humane Society. "They have not had many newcomers. And when they do see a new cat, they act immediately to try to reunite that cat with its owner. When that is not possible, they'll trap the cat and bring it in for neutering and vaccination."
Where TNR is practiced, the Humane Society or SPCA has the financial burden of paying for the traps they loan out and veterinary services, unless residents and colony managers are able to help with the cost. "That's really appreciated," Yeager says. "We don't receive government assistance of any kind, we depend on Wags to Riches [the Humane Society's resale shop], grants and donations.
"It's a two-pronged effort," she notes. So if someone finds a stray, the first thing to do is to communicate with the Humane Society. The help a community member is seeking may not be immediate. "We operate from a wait list so if this cat turns out to be friendly and the people can pick it up and care for it, when we have room at the shelter we'll call the people back. If it's friendly, it comes through our adoption program. Of course, the biggest thing is the TNR and we help people financially with that. Some people say if the cat is spayed or neutered, I'll keep it. We're willing to help anyone who says this is what happened to them and we try to help when we can. But we don't have the legal right to come in and trap cats and relocate them."
There are many online resources, like alleycat.org, and the humanesociety.org offering information on how to help feral cats and how they may be distinguished from stray or abandoned animals. One "take-away" is this thought, echoed by all shelter personnel. "Remember this is a very large community problem that requires a community solution and individuals to get involved. Area cat populations are so large, no one shelter can be expected to solve all homeless cat concerns. Don't wait for a resource that can provide everything for you..." Because, unfortunately, there isn't one. It may not be a problem anyone asked for, but it requires everyone's cooperation to achieve at least a partial solution.
If you're a homeowner whose outdoor plantings are suffering from the unwanted attention of stray or feral cats, spraying a vinegar-and-water solution on the plantings may help. So can keeping your garbage inaccessible to animals. Talk to your neighbors. Work with your local animal shelter's TNR program--several are expanding this year--and be observant about neighborhood animals, particularly any new ones. TNR programs and neutering pets have already had an effect, enabling more shelters to adopt "no-kill" policies. With time and continued TNR activities, the cat population will gradually decrease.
"It has to be a team effort," Yeager says.
"It's an important program and a good program," Cosgrove says, while noting that the logistics of TNR are not always easy. "And it's definitely having an impact."