Good News for Feral Cats
by Nancy Marano
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Feral cats can be found wherever there is some type of shelter and a food source. There are no precise numbers for how many feral cats roam our streets and countryside, but the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates the numbers could be anywhere between 10 and 90 million.
Feral cats live in colonies, which are often cared for by individuals who simply want to help the cats survive or by rescue groups that have established feral cat programs. In Albuquerque, Street Cat Companions, a program of New Mexico Animal Friends, and the Feral Cat Program run by Albuquerque Cat Action Team (A.C.A.T.) are organized efforts to feed and sterilize feral cats so they don’t continue to reproduce.
For many years Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) has been considered one of the most humane ways to manage feral cat colonies. It not only reduces the feral population through sterilization and removing adoptable kittens and cats but, by managing the colonies, it guarantees healthier cats with fewer nuisance behaviors. TNR was pioneered in this country by Alley Cat Allies and patterned on practices of non-lethal feral cat management used in the United Kingdom.
The basic tenets of TNR are trapping feral cats in humane traps, taking them to a veterinarian for neutering, vaccinating and other medical procedures, and then returning them to their colony. While they are under anesthesia, the tip of one ear is snipped off or tipped, the universal sign of a neutered feral cat. After return to their colony, the cats are cared for and monitored by their caretakers.
Until last year HSUS gave moderate support to the concept of TNR in well-run feral cat management programs, but it stopped short of putting the full weight of the organization behind this effort. This was due in large part to the fact that HSUS represents all animals, including wildlife, and feral cats are seen by some as a grave danger to songbirds and other wildlife. TNR has always been opposed by the American Bird Conservancy and similar wildlife groups. HSUS took the middle road in the controversy by saying that all cats should be indoor-only cats. They recommended that communities require all cats to be licensed, have an identification tag, have a rabies vaccination and be sterilized. This was largely unworkable with feral cats. Often they were treated as strays, picked up by animal control and put in shelters. Being feral, they weren’t claimed. Not being good candidates for adoption, the result usually was euthanasia.
HSUS’S POSITION STATEMENT
In March 2006, HSUS published a new position statement on feral cats.
“We continually evaluate our position statements and refine our policies based on the collective expertise of our professional staff and new scientific data or evidence provided by outside experts,” says Nancy Peterson, Feral Cat Program Manager at HSUS. “Over the last decade, our policies on feral cats have evolved, been revised and updated.”
The new statement was a welcome surprise to many feral cat organizations and individual caretakers. It says in part, “The HSUS advocates community-based Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs with on-going responsible management as the most viable, long-term approach available at this time to reduce feral cat populations….The goal of any feral cat management program should be to maximize quality of life for the cats and to eliminate the existing colony over time through attrition.” (Read the Position Statement and find other resources on feral cats at: www.hsus.org/feralcats.)
“The reasons we think TNR is best today,” says Peterson, “is because when colonies are ignored, the cats’ nuisance behaviors continue and there will be more and more kittens. By humanely trapping a colony, you can check which cats can be removed and adopted. Kittens less than seven weeks of age can be removed, as can friendly stray cats who have moved into the colony to survive. This reduces the population, leaving only the truly feral.”
The position statement further recognizes that feral cat management is a community affair. “…this statement is meant to encourage all members of the community citizens, veterinarians, animal shelters, wildlife advocates, policy makers, public health departments, businesses to work together toward a goal of non-lethal approaches to feral cat management.”
“We want to encourage shelters to work with feral caretakers in the community. We need city officials embracing this and providing more funds for spay and neuter. They also need to exempt feral cat caretakers from ordinances on feeding bans, pet limit restrictions, and roaming cat restrictions,” Peterson says.
Feral cat caretakers often feel vilified because they get little or no support from their communities. They try to do the humane thing for cats living on the fringe of society and consequently they are classified as being on the fringe, too. Too often they see their care of a colony ruined because of a nuisance complaint that causes animal control to trap the cats and euthanize them.
Bryan Kortis, Executive Director of Neighborhood Cats, a respected feral cat organization in New York City, believes the importance of this statement by HSUS cannot be underestimated.
In a news release, Neighborhood Cats said, “HSUS is the largest animal welfare organization in the United States with many of the most respected leaders in the field. Their support and active involvement will ultimately mean feral cat caretakers and advocates will no longer be considered part of a fringe, questionable movement, but will instead be embraced as part of the progressive mainstream of animal welfare.”
Louise Holton, formerly of Alley Cat Allies and founder of Alley Cat Rescue, also applauds this statement. “I think long-time feral cat caretakers who have been working on colonies since the late 1980’s were a little skeptical when they first heard that HSUS was now supporting and promoting TNR,” Holton says. “HSUS has a huge membership, and they are still a great influence in animal shelters, where our greatest problems lie. I think over time it will be good for all of us the cat caretakers, the feral cat groups, and, of course, most importantly, the alley cats.”
These thoughts are echoed by Pam Russell, of A.C.A.T.’s Feral Cat Program, and Barbara Cohen, of Street Cat Companions. They felt it would not change their day-to-day work caring for feral colonies, but it would give more credence to what they are doing.
“The clout they can put behind the TNR concept can only help,” Russell said. “They will be able to educate and get publicity out to people that we can’t on our own.”
Cohen added, “The more people and organizations that come on board with this concept, the better for the cats and everyone who cares for them.”
HSUS’S PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
According to Nancy Peterson, HSUS has launched several projects either on its own, or in cooperation with Neighborhood Cats, to educate people about feral cat issues. Among these projects are
1. Six two-day workshops for communities looking at how to provide non-lethal solutions to the feral cat issue.
2. A self-paced online course for feral cat caretakers. (See: online course)
3. A comprehensive guide to TNR by Bryan Kortis and The HSUS. (To be published this year.)
4. A DVD to encourage policy makers to adopt TNR (To be released this year.)
5. Numerous FAQ’s about feral cats on the HSUS web site.
6. Designing a panel for the Think Adoption First kiosk at Petco.
7. Designing a brochure about helping homeless cats. They will be available in 750 Petco’s nationwide.
8. Over the next three years, HSUS plans to give funds to Humane Alliance to create 27 high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinics across the country, which will provide services to feral cat caretakers.
Times are changing for feral cats and the people who care for them so diligently. Instead of being relegated to the edges of society and the city’s back allies, feral cats are grabbing the national spotlight. With cooperation from all elements of the community feral cat colonies can be managed to benefit the cats and the community.
For a history of TNR, check the reviews page under Berkeley, Ellen Perry: “TNR: Past, Present and Future”)