Help from the heart, with heart ache
SCHUYLER COUNTY—On a recent cold Sunday evening, a mother cat and her kittens were abandoned on the edge of Catharine Marsh.
A Watkins Glen Village Police patrolman spotted the cardboard box, investigated and called Georgie Taylor, president of the Humane Society of Schuyler County. Taylor spent several cold hours capturing the terrified and shivering cats. The homeless animals were taken to the humane society’s clinic office in Alpine for treatment and care.
The facility has room for only a limited number of cats. So the small family is currently housed in a cage in a hall between the rooms where they’re recovering with food, warmth and quiet attention.
Formerly someone’s pets, the animals were not equipped to survive outdoors on their own. Abandoning a cat or dog is against the law, punishable by fines and jail time. However, as law enforcement and humane society personnel readily admit, catching culprits and enforcing that law is difficult.
Schuyler County Animal Control Officer Renee Hatch works eight towns in Schuyler County. Hatch explains the difference between stray and feral cats. Strays are abandoned pets, often intentionally left behind when a transient family moves. Feral cats may be the offspring of formerly domesticated strays. Untouched by people, left to fend for themselves, they become wild and wary of people – though still dependent on humans for feeding and survival.
Both become a nuisance as their numbers multiply and they tear into garbage in search of food, kill birds, defecate on lawns and spread illnesses to family pets. Unvaccinated animals are at risk for rabies – as are other people and animals who encounter them.
Hatch does not work in the village of Watkins Glen, but she works closely with the humane society. In addition to helping trap stray and feral cats in other parts of Schuyler County, her job includes investigating cases of cruelty to animals, dogs running at large, unlicensed and/or unvaccinated, enforcing local laws pertaining to animals as well as Agriculture and Markets laws affecting livestock.
“And wildlife,” she adds. “Sometimes we get injured wildlife so I need to call in the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) or a wildlife rehabilitator. I’ve had to help trap some squirrels and deal with nuisance stuff. Sometimes I wish there were five of me.”
Depending on the time of year, the humane society has little to no room to house unwanted cats. Taylor says she receives an average of six phone calls a month asking the humane society to take responsibility for stray, feral and unwanted cats. But unfortunately, the supply of cats in the county – as in, apparently, every locale in the world where people take note of this grim statistic – far exceeds the capacity of institutions and private individuals to house them. Some humane society volunteers provide foster homes for cats whenever possible, but the volunteer homes are also at maximum capacity.
So the Humane Society of Schuyler County, like many other such agencies around the country, has adopted a “Trap, Neuter and Return” (TNR) program. Strays and feral cats are captured, transported to a clinic where they are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and treated for health problems. When space is available, and the strays are healthy and friendly, those who may be adoptable are fostered until a permanent home is found.
When this is not possible, the animals, now healthier, are released back to the environment where they were found. These cats will not continue to produce more unwanted cats and eventually their numbers dwindle. But between now and eventually, they’re still partly dependent on humans for food and shelter from extreme weather conditions.
Some people intentionally leave a garage door slightly open to provide a dry space out of the elements for feral cats. Outdoor shelters may be simply and inexpensively constructed using recycled conventional building materials – even plastic tote boxes - to house feral cats so they may stay warm and safe in adverse weather. Online, www.alleycat.org offers directions for several varieties of shelter options; the Schuyler Humane Society has also had shelter-building parties and provided some outdoor shelters for feral cats.
Some Watkins Glen residents feel there’s a real problem – kind-hearted individuals who began feeding feral cats and found their numbers increasing over time. This is particularly a problem for those unaware of the TNR program and some of those who have difficulty connecting with it.
Additionally, according to Samantha Mullen of the New York State Humane Society (who could not find the exact citation) once an individual begins regularly feeding a cat, that person has assumed ownership of that animal in the eyes of the law. This also means humane societies, whose financial resources are limited, ask those who feed ferals to contribute to the cost of spaying and neutering these animals when help is requested.
A few years ago, Watkins Glen resident Kathy Crans was “gifted” with a pregnant female cat who had two litters of kittens before Crans was able to catch her and have her spayed. The two kittens from the first litter were neutered and fostered in the Crans home – and eventually adopted by the family. She’s fostered a few more she does not have room for; these have also been neutered and she’s socializing them in preparation for their permanent families.
“It’s not a hard thing to do, to get the cats taken care of,” Crans says. And while she didn’t want to keep the cats even temporarily, she understood the humane society’s lack of space for them. “It was just a reality check,” she says.
Another village resident (who requested her name withheld) who initially shared feeding responsibilities with a neighbor, ended up with a large burden as the original cats multiplied and were joined by other strays. She would rather not have the responsibility for these cats and was disturbed to learn that the growing crowd of cats is legally hers. Private veterinary care would cost up to $200 per female cat, slightly less for a male. The humane society can subsidize the cost of spaying and neutering, bringing the cost down significantly, but does not have the resources to solve the problem without her involvement.
“We need to work with the community,” Taylor says. “I understand that people feel the responsibility for these cats when they have been dropped on them. We can help with spay/neuter; if that’s financially difficult we can help you. Afterwards, if they’re friendly strays, we can help you find them a home. But if you’re watching the feral population, don’t just wait for them to keep on having kittens. Avail yourself of the resources, and be patient – there’s not enough of us [humane society volunteers] to go around.”
As for the Watkins Glen and Schuyler County feral cat population, “We see peaks and valleys – the numbers have actually dramatically decreased,” Taylor says. “We have probably trapped, spayed and neutered more than 100 cats out of Watkins Glen and many have been placed into permanent adoptive homes. But it has been an ongoing problem. We have to talk about the root causes – and clearly one of those is that people don’t take responsibility for spaying and neutering their pets.”
Meanwhile, the humane society’s newest resident, the mother dubbed “Chloe” by the volunteer staff, is wary but forgiving. When her picture was taken, she began purring and welcomed a bit of conversation and petting. Not yet a year old – cats may begin a pregnancy before they’re six months old – she’ll be spayed before she has an opportunity to have another litter.