New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2007

By Vicki Williams

It was 11:30 p.m., and I was winding down from the daily grind enjoying the antics of David Letterman when I heard the phone ring. It was my friend Deidra calling to tell me she had just rescued a litter of kittens.

“Can you help me?” she asked.
“Sure,”I said, “what do you need help with?”
“Well . . . the kittens need to be tamed before they can be adopted.”
“Tamed?” I asked. “Aren’t kittens these cuddly, big eyed, big eared little balls of fur that purr when you rub their bellies?”
“Yes, but these are feral kittens,” she said.

Feral kittens? My mind immediately filled with questions. What’s a feral kitten? Where’s their Mom? Are there feral adults, too? Where do they come from? Where do they live? How many are there? My interest was peaked and the research began.

Deidra and I found that there are many ideas, opinions, and definitions surrounding feral cats, but one thing was obvious, feral cat overpopulation is a reality and action must be taken to reduce the numbers. Rachel Lamb, a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says, “I know of no community that is untouched by this problem.”

Extremely prolific, it is estimated that there are between 60 to 100 million feral cats in the United States. Females will reproduce even when conditions are not optimal. Approximately 50 per cent of feral kittens will develop a treatable condition such as an upper respiratory infection, and 75 per cent will not reach the reproductive age of five months. Trauma is sited as the major cause of death.

Typically feral cats are born outdoors and form colonies close to a food source. Many live in residential neighborhoods where someone is feeding them or they live close to a commercial site or restaurant area where they rummage through dumpsters for food. They are wary, fearful, and have no physical contact with humans; therefore, no bond is formed and they rely on their inherent skills for survival. Untouchable, they will flee if approached. A portion of the cats living in feral colonies are tame cats who were once pets but have either lost their way or were abandoned. We learned that feral cats are simply cats that have never experienced human companionship.

For decades the strategies for feral cat population control was to trap and kill them. As we learned more it became apparent that this was not a viable solution. If this strategy did in fact work, the feral population would be under control. We asked ourselves, “So what’s the answer?” The answer was Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). TNR is a non-lethal population control method that has been used worldwide for over 20 years. It is the only proven, humane and effective method to reduce the feral cat population. Endorsed by many animal welfare groups including HSUS, ASPCA, and Cat Fancier’s Association, the cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and returned to supervised colonies where they are fed and cared for by individuals.

As we worked to tame the feral kittens, we talked about how we could start a TNR program. Deidra and I hoped to make some kind of difference. We presented the idea to New Mexico Animal Friends (NMAF), a local non-profit animal rescue group; and in 1997, Albuquerque’s first TNR program, “Street Cat Companions,” (SCC) was born.

For the next two years, NMAF’s SCC used personal resources, yard sale money, and donations to buy traps and sterilize cats. As the word on the street spread, the phone calls increased exponentially, and NMAF knew we needed to expand the program. In 1999, SCC began working with Susan, a “feral friendly” veterinarian, to secure the use of The Animal Humane Association of New Mexico’s (AHA) surgery facility, and we began a monthly SCC Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic. In 2006, NMAF teamed with The Albuquerque Animal Care Center (AACC) to offer city residents spay/neuter services for feral cats. In February 2007, NMAF planned and executed a “Feral Cat Blitz,” a new approach to get a jump on kitten season. Working with AHA, AACC, SCC volunteers, local veterinarians, and caregivers, over 300 cats were sterilized during the February Blitz.

Street Cat Companions has evolved into an effective program offering the community a means to reduce the feral cat population. Since its inception, SCC has sterilized over 1,700 feral cats.

The program’s success is multi-pronged:

  • The local veterinarians..... indispensable. Because of their suggestions and ideas, we have been able to continually improve the care given to each cat. They donate their time, and surgical talents, and their dedication is truly appreciated.
  • The volunteers..... a “must have.” Each volunteer faithfully participates in the entire process -- from scheduling cats to cat recovery. It’s hard work, both physically and emotionally.
  • The caregivers..... cat lovers. They have taken the responsibility to care for the cats by investing time and dollars.
  • The cats..... unwilling participants. They don’t understand we’re doing a good thing, but they are healthier and happier when they leave the clinic.
  • The donations..... great to have. Every dollar goes directly to the operations of the clinic, purchasing medical supplies, traps, and carriers.

Each cat that comes through the clinic is special and they capture our hearts in so many ways. We know we’re improving their quality of life. At the close of an SCC monthly clinic, we’re tired, but the feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, and pride in what we do is well worth the time spent.

If you are interested in being part of the solution, please contact New Mexico Animal Friends at 881-PAWS (7297).

Please spay and neuter your animals, and help a friend or neighbor to do the same.

(To borrow humane traps or to schedule reservations at the SCC Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic, call NMAF at 881-7297.)

Vicki Williams is the New Mexico Animal Friends Street Cat Companions Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Program Coordinator. Vicki also serves as vice president of the NMAF governing board.

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