Advice from the Experts

TNR stanches feral cat population

10/01/2008
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By STEVE DALE
Tribune Media Services


You'd think the day would be declared a national holiday! Tuesday, Oct. 16 is National Feral Cat Day. If you can't take off work, or park without plugging the meter, at least there should be free catnip for everyone.

Cats are the most popular pets in America at 82 million. The problem is, there are an estimated 40 to 80 million feral cats. "They're the same cats who share our beds; they're domestic cats, they're just not socialized," says Becky Robinson, president of Alley Cat Allies. In 1991, ACA decided to speak up for feral cats and endorse a humane approach to reduce their numbers: trap-neuter-return, or TNR.

Robinson is the first to admit that stray/feral cats can cause problems, ranging from making a mess in gardens to late-night yowling to potentially spreading rabies since most are unvaccinated. Cats also kill assorted wildlife, most notably song birds (though data verifies that habitat loss as well as light and air pollution cause far more problems for birds). In fact, some people maintain that cities actually depend on feral cats to help control rats.

In a sense, rodent control should not be surprising. Feral cats have been around for thousands of years - plenty of time to acclimate to living around people. While feral cats do surprisingly well, cars are a potentially deadly problem they didn't have to deal with centuries ago. Aside from being on the losing end of collisions, stray cats are subject to predation, disease, toxins such as antifreeze, and many other dangers.

Animal control agencies have historically attempted to deal with the problem by trapping all the cats they can, then killing them. "If that method worked, I wouldn't be talking to you now about feral cats," Robinson notes. While an occasional solitary cat may wander about, domestic cats are social and generally form colonies. Robinson explains that animal control can't catch all the feral cats in a colony. Even if they catch 90 percent (which rarely happens), a vacuum effect is created. In no time, the cats step up their reproduction to fill the void. Outside cats may also be allowed to enter the colony until numbers are back where they were before animal control arrived.

Alley Cat Allies' mission is to end this endless cycle of trapping and killing with TNR.

According to a poll commissioned by the group, 81 percent of those surveyed said they considered it more humane for feral cats to live out their lives than to be trapped and killed. However, left to their own devices, feral cats don't practice birth control. That's where trap-neuter-return comes in.

Feral cats are humanely trapped, then transported to participating shelters or private veterinarians to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated for rabies. Any young kittens and friendly cats are adopted out. Those who are very ill are humanely euthanized. The remainder are ear-notched (so they can later be identified), then returned to where they were trapped to live out their lives. Often, caretakers oversee the cat colonies and provide extra food. As new cats enter the colonies, they receive similar veterinary care.

Tree House Humane Society is a no-kill shelter for cats in Chicago, where development director and TNR Program Manager Jenny Schlueter's phone rings constantly with complaints about stray cats. "When people complain about the un-owned cats, I explain that our goals are the same as theirs," she says. "We want to see the feral cat population diminish, too. It's not like we're a bunch a crazy people trying to populate the world with more cats. We're here to help."

Alley Cats Allies' mission is helping to provide resources and advice to organizations such as Tree House in the big city, as well as rural groups, such as Cat's Cradle, Harrisonburg, VA. "Trapping and killing just doesn't work. The new paradigm of TNR does work," says, Cat's Cradle executive director Josie Kinkade. "People here get it; they just need to be told what to do (for the feral cats) and how to go about doing it."

Cat's Cradle raised money to build a spay/neuter clinic, which opened in January, 2005. Over 30,000 dogs and cats have been 'fixed,' which goes a long way toward fixing a problem.

Back in Chicago, Schlueter says there are over 100 registered feral cat colonies within the city limits, and over 30 are overseen by Tree House volunteers. "Of course, the colonies are getting smaller and smaller; some will disappear all together," she says.

Celebrating one day for feral cats and TNR isn't enough for Tree House. Throughout October, the shelter will offer free spay or neuter, rabies and feline distemper vaccines, ear-tipping and even an application of flea control for all feral cats. "People are excited about this," says Schlueter.

Robinson says TNR works. The original alley cats (which Alley Cat Allies is named for) in Washington, D.C., are long gone, and there are lots of examples of colonies that are now depleted to zero or have only a pawful of geriatric cats.

Robinson says that while over 200 non-profit groups now have TNR as their primary mission, many communities still cling to the old model of trap and kill.

"National Feral Cat Day is about changing that," adds Robinson. "Alley Cat Allies hopes more individuals and more shelters get involved. We know how to humanely help cats and at the same time help the community in a cost efficient way - that's what TNR does."

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he will answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or send an e-mail. Include your name, city and state. Listen to Steve Dale's WEEKLY RADIO SHOW, "Pet Central," on Saturdays at http://www.wgnradio.com; or Steve's syndicated radio shows: "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." Learn more at http://www.petworldradio.net. Steve's personal website is www.stevedalepetworld.com.

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