June 2009

A stray-cat solution: Trap, neuter, release

By Gail Binkly

Turned loose to fend for themselves, domestic cats can breed like rabbits.

Some don’t survive long on their own, but others learn to scrounge scraps and catch mice and birds. And if they aren’t spayed or neutered, they can produce a plethora of kittens. Females may start breeding at 6 months and can produce two litters a year.

Soon you have a colony of cats, many feral and unapproachable. They generally pose no threat to humans, but they may spread disease to pet cats and can become a nuisance because of yowling, urine-marking and other behaviors related to mating.

What to do? Animal-lovers hesitate to have the cats trapped and taken to the animal shelter because they know the felines will just be euthanized. Intentional killing is the No. 1 cause of death for domestic cats in the United States, according to the nonprofit Alley Cat Allies, and euthanasia of stray cats is an enormous expense for government- funded shelters.

However, a new movement known as “trap-neuter-release” offers a different solution: trap feral cats, neuter them and turn them loose to live out their lives without reproducing.

This cuts down on the yowling and other problems, provides a humane alternative to euthanasia, and leaves a stable cat population in the original site. (If the cats are just taken and killed, other ferals will likely move in.)

The philosophy is gaining popularity nationwide. In Cleveland, for instance, more than 300 roaming cats were neutered and returned to their neighborhoods. The city paid $30 of the $40 fee to neuter each one; citizens paid the rest and agreed to feed the strays. The city has earmarked $40,000 to neuter 1,333 cats in 2009, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Now, Southwest Colorado’s own humane society, For Pets’ Sake, is trying out the TNR program locally.

“I’ve been wanting to do it for at least four or five years because there’s an obvious need,” said Marian Rohman, president of the FPS board.

At the end of last summer, a person from the animal-welfaresupporting Summerlee Foundation approached For Pets’ Sake and said grant money was available specifically for working with feral cats.

It took Rohman till January 2009 to organize a core group of a dozen people and get the ball rolling on the Feral Cat Project.

There is a definite need in the region, she said. “We hear from so many people who say, ‘There are kittens in my woodpile, what can I do?’”

At the Cortez Animal Shelter, which serves Montezuma County and takes in animals from surrounding areas as well, 692 cats were reportedly brought in during 2008. Of those, 309 were judged to be feral, and all 309 were euthanized.

Of the remaining 383 non-feral cats, the majority (179) were euthanized after failing to be adopted or reclaimed. A lucky 164 were adopted, 19 were reclaimed, eight died in the shelter, and 13 were euthanized at the owner's request.

So 100 percent of the ferals and 48.8 percent of the others were killed.

So far, Rohman’s group has worked with eight colonies of feral cats in Cortez, Dove Creek, Mancos and Pleasant View, and has spayed and neutered 63 animals. Rohman generally works with property owners who contact her rather than the other way around, and only with people who aren’t responsible for the cats being there in the first place.

“A lot of our colonies are really barn cats,” Rohman said. “We try to make a judgment call on whether the people got stuck with them when they moved in, or were just irresponsible owners. Those people get lower priority.”

The effort began with funding largely from FPS; several other donations have kept the program going. So far the project has spent a little more than $3,900 and has about $900 left.

“Right now we only have enough money to try and finish the colonies we’re working on,” Rohman said. However, she has applied for a grant from PetSmart Charities and will be applying for another from the Summerlee Foundation. So far there has been no word on whether either application will be funded.

The bulk of the costs is for spaying and neutering, Rohman said — even though all the veterinarians in Montezuma County have agreed to do the work at a discount. All the captured cats get a rabies shot, too, as well as treatment for minor medical conditions such as bad teeth.

Other costs include traps, food to maintain the colonies, and small shelters for the cats that have no place to get out of the weather. “Flooring stores have donated pieces of linoleum, and every lumberyard has given lumber,” Rohman said. “We are still spending about $25 per shelter for insulation.

“Our goal is for every cat to have food and shelter. We provide the food. We have several people who are willing to take on the responsibility of seeing that these cats get fed every day.”

So far, because the operation has been small, expenses have not been great. However, if the project is to make serious inroads into the stray-cat population, it will need more money for food, shelter, and veterinary work.

Through word of mouth the group has already been made aware of about 26 different colonies with about 420 cats. In May, the Mancos Town Board gave approval for the project to take care of ferals in its Cottonwood Park.

“So we could use an endless amount of money,” Rohman said with a laugh.

In addition, the project needs information about feralcat colonies, to show a need when applying for grants. To provide the location of a colony, e-mail Rohman at inthepj2@dishmail.net, or call For Pets’ Sake at 970-565-7387 and leave a message for her.