A total of 1,790 felines, many abandoned by their owners, have been given a new lease on life by the Feral Cat Project of For Pets’ Sake Humane Society over the past four years.
The project’s work of trapping, neutering and releasing feral cats is resulting in colony attrition, fewer cats coming into the Cortez Animal Shelter and less euthanasia, said project coordinator Marian Rohman, who also praised the shelter for its cooperation with For Pets’ Sake in placing kittens.
In 2008, a total of 810 cats of 884 that came into the shelter were put down; by contrast, 250 (of 529) cats were put down in 2012, according to For Pets’ Sake statistics. That’s a drop from 92 percent to 47 percent.
So, what does the Feral Cat Project need? Money, yes, and volunteers — but for now, also more cats.
Publicity about the project spread slowly, via word of mouth, Rohman said, yet it led to a waiting list of colonies in need of attention.
“Now that we don’t have a waiting list, we want everyone else to know that we’re out there, so we can start helping them too,” she said. “Of course, once we start calling them, we’ll have a waiting list again — but that’s good.”
Volunteers work with property owners that have colonies of ferals — everywhere from farms to trailer parks. The efforts are labor-intensive, as trappers cannot expect to catch all cats on the first go.
“Everywhere out there, there are cats, generally cats that have been abandoned. They figure out how to make a living. They start having kittens. What we are trying to do is make sure they don’t have kittens,” Rohman said.
“We work with whoever is feeding them, or start feeding them ourselves. We go in and start doing trap-neuter-return. It’s done internationally, where a group goes in, traps cats and puts them back where they came from. They don’t get killed. They don’t get hurt.”
Most property owners are already caring for the cats by the time the Feral Cat Project is called in, she added. “We make sure they can keep feeding the cats.”
In addition to spaying/neutering, the cats are given a rabies shot and a quick exam by a veterinarian who addresses whatever ailments can be remedied during a single visit (few ferals are ever trapped twice). Problems have included abscesses, rotten teeth, fleas, ticks and tapeworms. “They’ve gone through the trauma, but they should come out healthier than when they went in,” Rohman said.
For Pets’ Sake pays for the care. The group is funded through donations and grants, some of which come with rules about how the money is spent. For instance, while one fund may help pay for spay and neuter, it might not allow the money to be spent on other expenses, or food. The Feral Cat Project last year furnished 18,400 pounds of cat food to more than 30 colonies.
“A large part (of funding) is donations. We have people donate directly to the Feral Cat Project and to For Pets’ Sake in general,” Rohman explained. “Of anything that comes in not specifically earmarked, 30 percent goes to the Feral Cat Project. This is one of our biggest programs.”
The trapping work takes at least one person per colony visit and ideally, two or three. “Right now, we’re particularly low on people for trapping,” Rohman said, attributing the shortage to volunteers’ other commitments.
“If people are comfortable and want to, we will provide them with traps and training so they can trap their own ferals and bring them to the vet and work though our program. A lot of people are taking us up on that,” she said.
The project’s goal is ambitious: 100 percent spaying and neutering of ferals.
“The only criterion we have is that the cat has to be outdoor-only. If it’s indoor-outdoor, we consider it a pet. If they live outdoors only, we consider them qualified for our programs,” Rohman said.
However, if there is a colony where owned pets are hanging out with the group and they are not fixed, “we treat them, too.”
Each cat taken in has its ear notched to show it has been spayed or neutered. If the owner of an outdoor-only cat doesn’t mind that, Feral Cat Project volunteers will treat that cat, too. In trailer parks, volunteers post door-to-door notices about trapping activities.
The project has addressed 187 colonies in the past four years and the number of colonies waiting to be addressed is down to 8, from 26. There are usually 40 or more colonies where work is ongoing. A colony can range from a single cat to many more; Rohman has seen colonies with at least 60 cats.
“Our policy is 100 percent spay/neuter. We keep going back until we’ve gotten every cat. We’re always adding in new colonies. If someone has a stray cat living under their porch, that’s fine too.”
Ear-notching comes in handy for tracking purposes. Rohman told of a property owner with about “a dozen” barn cats who contacted the project. Volunteers rounded up 40 cats in three trips. Each one was black and white, so the property owner didn’t realize she had more cats than she thought.
In another case, project volunteers stepped in to help a woman with 20 cats on her property. The woman was no longer able to afford to feed them, but when told For Pets’ Sake would trap them and help with food, she was thrilled, Rohman said in a newsletter.
“Every colony is a story. That’s one of our good ones. We got all the cats on the first try,” she told the Free Press.
Still another property owner, “fed up” with the number of kittens he was seeing, called Rohman and told her to come get the cats. She found 60. So far, volunteers have sterilized 43 cats in the colony, in eight visits.
“He said, ‘Eleven years ago, I just had three cats.’ I said, ‘Yes, this is what can happen’,” she recounted.
The reason the man didn’t have even more cats is because mortality rates are high among ferals. “Only 10 to 20 percent of kittens survive. It [the feral-cat population] doesn’t go up in those exponential numbers that people talk about, because of the low survival rates.”
Feral cats face threats from hunger, each other, disease, the elements, predators and the actions of humans. That’s a tough environment for a cat, let alone a kitten.
While trap-neuter-release programs have spread around the country, not everyone favors them. Groups such as the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy are bitterly opposed to any attempt to keep feral cats alive, even when they’re neutered. They say ferals kill birds and other wildlife and even pose a threat to humans, because they may carry rabies or other diseases. They maintain that all cats should be kept indoors.
Cat advocates say the whole purpose of the TNR programs is to reduce feral populations and make sure the animals are all vacci nated for rabies. They say ferals pose little if any danger of transmitting disease so long as people don’t try to pick them up. Cats keep rodent populations in check, they say as well.
In March, National Audubon Society writer Ted Williams drew fire when, in an Orlando Sentinel column, he appeared to advocate poisoning feral cats with Tylenol and criticized TNR efforts. Williams cited a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study that estimates cats kill 2.4 billion birds yearly.
The National Audubon Society briefly suspended Williams, but reinstated him on March 26, the New York Times reports.
Per the Times, the reinstatement prompted further outcry from cat advocates, who dispute the accuracy of the study. Many of the comments posted to the NYT’s website criticized the study, blaming any wildlife depredations on the underlying cause of feral-cat colonies: people who dump cats.
Rohman expressed similar sentiments. She said the cats do not kill anywhere near the number of birds and small mammals for which they are blamed. Ferals are happier as pets than living on their own, sick and hungry; if they are hunting, it is because of hunger — and it’s not their fault they were abandoned, or born to an abandoned cat.
“People think of them as disposable. When they’re convenient, they keep them; when not, they toss them. That’s what we’re fighting,” she said.
“We’re never going to get them all, because there’s always people abandoning them.”
Not every feral-cat colony story has a happy ending. There are places in Cortez where the colonies simply cannot remain, and there are limited alternative sites for colony relocation. Also, For Pets’ Sake is not able to take many adult pet cats for fostering, because they have such trouble placing them.
“At the shelter, they get exposure; people can see them and get them adopted. We take in very few now. What we’re doing is taking more kittens in general and making sure they’re healthy,” Rohman said.
“We’ve got the money to take care of medical bills more than the shelter does. We’re trying to work to get them a good supply of healthy kittens. But we rarely take in adult cats, which is too bad.”
Grown cats have a very slim chance of being adopted and will likely be euthanized. “We get calls regularly from people with quite-old cats. The shelter is going to have an amazingly hard time finding homes for older cats.”
But cooperation with the shelter is bringing positive results. In 2008, 306 cats that came into the shelter were ferals. The number of feral intakes for last year was 117.
“The staff at the shelter is working really hard to find homes for cats and kittens. They have started transfer programs to areas where they don’t have enough cats and kittens.”
For Pets’ Sake began working with the shelter last fall. The shelter now takes kittens found in feral colonies, socializes and vaccinates them, and puts them up for adoption. Kittens are rarely put down.
The number of domestic cat intakes is declining too, she said.
“They try really hard. They will keep the cat as long as it takes, even adults, for months, if they need to,” Rohman said.