New Mexico's Pet Resource SPRING 2007

by Debra J. White (photo from

Wide-eyed and mistrustful they hide behind bushes, stalking prey to stay alive. Tattered from life outdoors, they lurk behind office buildings waiting for nightfall to scavenge crumbs left behind by hungry workers. Finding water to quench their thirst in the blistering Arizona sun is tricky. The unlucky ones are slammed by cars. Their bodies litter the roadsides. Nearly 500,000 stray and feral cats scrape out a living in and around Phoenix.

The American Pet Products Manufacturing Association says cats have edged out dogs as the number one pet in the U.S. While some felines are pampered and fussed over, dining on fresh salmon and sipping chilled Evian, others are cast aside when they’re no longer wanted. Some adventurous felines wander from home and become lost. Without ID tags or microchips, they’re doomed. Maricopa County Animal Care and Control only picks up stray dogs. The cities and towns don’t pay for cat control. The county as well as the Arizona Humane Society (AHS) accept stray and unwanted cats. Both agencies, however, impose fees for owner turn-ins and more for feral cats. The county charges $96 for trapped cats; AHS asks for $75. Some experts suggest stiff fees encourages dumping. Others say it leads to responsible behavior. Regardless of who is right the county has a staggering problem with feral cat overpopulation.

Is there any hope? The Arizona Humane Society responds to calls about injured cats. Law enforcement agencies investigate cat cruelty. Otherwise, stray and feral cats manage alone. If unaltered, they reproduce and the cycle of misery continues. For food, they hunt mice, rats, birds, or other small animals. Sometimes they feed on trash. Residents often view them as a nuisance. Recently, the state of Wisconsin suggested that hunters shoot feral cats. What’s the solution for Maricopa County?

AzCats, started in 1999, is a private, non-profit agency staffed primarily by volunteers. For Maricopa County it is the cat’s meow. Without AzCats, there would be few resources to aid the burgeoning feral population in our midst.

According to Melissa Newton, president and CEO of AzCats, it practices an increasingly popular concept called TNR - trap, neuter and return. Newton and other feline fanciers believe it’s the only humane solution to stem cat overpopulation.

Feral cats are considered unadoptable. They are euthanized because of antisocial behavior and their inability to live with humans. TNR was developed to cut down on the overwhelming number of healthy feral cats that were euthanized every year.

What’s involved in TNR? Feral cats are trapped, neutered so they cannot reproduce, and then returned to their colony. How do residents take part in TNR? Because AzCats is the only local organization that offers TNR, there is a huge demand for its services. Currently, there is a two to three-month waiting list. Turnaround time is less if a resident picks up a trap at an AzCats-designated location, coaxes the cat inside and drives to a cooperating veterinary service. The resident then returns the cat to its colony.

AzCats relies on donations to provide TNR to the public. On average, it costs them $35-55 per cat for the sterilization. Caregivers utilizing their services are asked to pay as much of the cost as possible. AzCats networks with other groups so low-income customers are not turned away because of an inability to pay.

Kittens are referred to other rescue groups for placement. If they are not fearful of humans they are socialized, spayed or neutered and put up for adoption.

TNR has other advantages. “Feral cats form bonds with one another,” Newton says. “Once the colony is stable, they deter others from entering. Cats protect their turf. Problems like yowling and hissing during mating and spraying by males are almost eliminated. Since the cats are altered, the colony eventually thins out until the last cat dies.” In urban areas, a colony of feral cats is adept at rodent control too. A mouse dare not venture near the colony or it’ll end up as lunch.

TNR participants are asked to feed the colonies. “If food is left out regularly, the colony becomes self-contained. The cats don’t wander off in search of food. This makes the cats happy as well as the neighbors,” says Newton.

A few months ago, Qwest employee Georg Anderson was on a service call when he spotted what he thought was a small colony of feral cats. “I felt bad for the cats and couldn’t leave them alone,” Anderson said. “I called AzCats for help. The process went more smoothly than I expected.” Upon further scrutiny, the colony turned out to have 18 members, not the seven or eight cats that Anderson originally counted.

Because Anderson worked full-time, he needed help trapping and transporting so many feral cats. “AzCats picked up the cats, had them sterilized and met me afterwards.” The cats were returned and thanks to the quick thinking of Georg Anderson this colony will not be a burden to the county.

AzCats has expanded over the years. In 2005, 7,100 cats passed through the TNR program. This year it expects to assist at least 8,000 cats. AzCats has ended the breeding cycle of more then 34,000 cats since 1999. Only through a dedicated and resourceful volunteer base of about 100 individuals are the county’s feral cats saved from fates such as being a coyote’s lunch, being shot by angry residents, or being euthanized at shelters.

“I do this because I love cats,” Newton says, as she blows her nose. Star the office cat plopped down from her perch on the window and walked across Newton’s lap. Newton is allergic to cats, of all things. She puts up with the runny nose and teary eyes because of her dedication and devotion to feral, unwanted and stray cats. “I can’t give this up,” she said.

TNR also cuts down on shelter charges. Euthanizing animals isn’t cheap. Besides the price of euthanasia drugs, there is body disposal as well as staff time. While the cats are impounded, they must be fed and cared for. TNR reduces shelter costs and lowers the euthanasia rate. Cats survive in the wild much better than dogs. They are natural hunters and skilled at snagging prey for food. Feral cats never starve to death. What’s in the future for AzCats? The American Humane Association, a national organization based in Englewood, CO, recognized its outstanding achievements and nominated AzCats for the prestigious Best Practice Initiative Award for 2006. The award is presented to groups that reduce the euthanasia of healthy animals.

Clever and creative fundraising efforts will continue at AzCats. Demand for services has understandably drained its fledgling budget so cash campaigns will be very important over the next year. AzCats’ commitment to the feral community remains strong. How can it turn its back on tiny kittens born into the wild, little ones so afraid of humans that at four weeks they’re already hissing and spitting? As long as there are feral cats running loose in Maricopa County, which there will be for years to come, AzCats will be there to help.

If you are interested in aiding AzCats and its mission, please contact: AzCats, Box J, Scottsdale, AZ 85252 or or (480) 968-4TNR (4867).

Debra White is an award-winning author who is on the board of PACC 911 (Phoenix Animal Care Coalition). She volunteers at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control and for AzCats. She is also the author of Nobody’s Pets.

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