Spring 2010 Magazine
A Case Study in Mis-Handling Feral Cats
Feral cats lead difficult, dangerous lives. They live outside all the time, dodging cars, battered by the elements, fighting other cats for territory and food, left at the mercy of people and predators, never knowing where their next meal is coming from.
Occasionally a kind person takes responsibility for feeding a feral colony on a regular basis. The feral colony can relax a little about where their food is coming from but what happens if that person dies? Suddenly the food source is gone and now the ferals face even worse perils. The city they live in may suddenly decide to kill them all.
Recently I learned of such an unsavory episode in Evanston, IL. My hometown decided to do just that to a colony of feral cats which had been cared for by a woman named Ewa Rokossowski. Rokossowski fed a large feral colony estimated at as many as 100 cats on her property for the last 15 years. The city paid little attention to the cats during all that time, even though there were occasional complaints from neighbors, because Rokossowski was opposed to any type of trapping. If anyone put out traps, she would spring them, according to a neighbor. After she died, neighbors complained to the city again because now the cats were using their yards as litter boxes and showing up at peoples' doors looking for food.
The city contacted Rokossowski's relatives who were unable to take over the colony's care and opted to let the city handle the matter. This decision allowed the City of Evanston to post notices that read:
The Evanston Animal Control Bureau will be conducting an on-going animal control abatement process, focusing on the feral cat population at this address.
They sent out flyers in the neighborhood asking people to keep their domestic cats indoors so they didn't wander onto the property when the trapping was in progress. All trapped cats were euthanized.
As soon as people realized what was happening, letters started pouring in to the City Council about how awful this plan was. People showed up at Council meetings to plead for the cats.
A majority of the messages sounded like this one:
J Rivelli says
There is a much better way than this and you know it. How can you kill these innocent creatures? Alley Cat Allies is willing to help you. There are many advocates on the ground here in Chicago, but you choose to take the easy way out and the more expensive.the taxpayers are paying for your killing. Think about it, please.
The City replied that it was working with groups to put the cats into adoptive homes. Anyone who works with ferals knows this is not a practical solution. Ferals aren't domestic cats who strayed from home for a day, although lost, domestic cats may be in a feral colony. Ferals are unsocialized and don't adjust well to living with people in a home. A kitten, who is still young enough, may be socialized and become a domestic cat but this rarely happens with an adult feral.
Most residents wanted Evanston to accept help from groups such as Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit dedicated to the welfare of feral cats. Tree House Humane Society, a no-kill cat rescue in Chicago, even offered to trap the remaining cats, spay or neuter them and then relocate them.
People who contacted the City Council asked the City to use a process called Trap-Neuter-Return, TNR, the accepted protocol for controlling feral cat colonies. Cats are trapped, neutered and returned to their original location under the care of a volunteer caretaker. Neutering creates a natural process of attrition and eventually the colony disappears. This is the humane way to handle cat overpopulation.
Within two days of announcing the trap and euthanize plan, Alley Cat Allies contacted the City, calling for a moratorium on the killing and offering their help to establish a long-term plan for feral control.
Tree House also contacted the Evanston Animal Warden within days of the announcement. They offered help in setting up a plan in accordance with the Cook County Managed Care of Feral Cats Ordinance.
Two weeks later, after most of the cats were euthanized, Evanston worked out an agreement with Tree House. Aside from the inhumanity of killing ferals, this method doesn't work well. It creates a void which is filled by other non-neutered cats who multiply and create the problem all over again.
Tree House arranged for, and is training, volunteers to manage small groups of cats once they are spayed, neutered and retuned to the neighborhood. They have received aid in this from Alderwoman Judy Fiske, the owner of a pet supply store in Evanston. She stressed that TNR has worked well with other feral colonies in Evanston.
Several of the cats Tree House took from the Evanston property were already spayed or neutered and had microchips. These were lost, domestic cats who lived with the ferals for protection. It makes you wonder how many of the euthanized cats also belonged to Evanston families who thought their pet cat was missing.
Tree House is setting up a long-term training program in Evanston so this never happens in the future. They are working with CARE (Community Animal Rescue Effort), a volunteer group which helps run the Evanston Animal Shelter. Megan Lutz of CARE will head up the Feral Cat Task Force. They also plan to work with students from Northwestern University to help with a feral colony on campus.
Jennifer Schuelter of Tree House acknowledges that although this episode started tragically, Tree House has formed a strong partnership with CARE and now has the attention of Evanston officials.
As a resident of Evanston for most of my life, I hope the city's policy toward feral cats, and all animals, continues moving in a more humane direction. Horrifying as this situation was, Evanston is not the only city that has weak or non-existent policies for dealing with feral cats.
In Los Angeles several groups recently sued the City and the Department of Animal Services for working with community groups and nonprofit organizations that work with feral cats. The plaintiffs claim stray cats harm the ecosystem by killing birds. The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered that the City can no longer inform the public about TNR services available in the community. The ruling ensures that thousands of cats will be killed at taxpayer expense. The No Kill Advocacy Center and Stray Cat Alliance filed an emergency motion to allow them to intervene. If their motion is granted, they will be able to seek modification and appeal of the court's order.
In New Jersey animal activists are trying to head off a proposal to reclassify feral cats. This reclassification would allow the cats to be hunted and shot, and the state Fish and Game Council has condemned the idea of leaving cats in the wild. Since cats are not considered a food source in this country, New Jersey ferals simply would be shot for sport. Now another committee that reports to the Department of Environmental Protection is studying the issue of TNR. If this idea succeeds, it would end many successful TNR programs that are already working in the state.
TNR, in conjunction with aggressive efforts to get people to spay or neuter their cats, is accepted by feline advocates as the most humane way to solve cat overpopulation and problems caused by feral cats. Unfortunately not all communities think this is a solution. Neighbors annoyed by feral colonies and feral cat advocates want the same thing. Both want to end feline overpopulation and stop nuisance behaviors from groups of feral cats. It is the method used to achieve those goals that differ.
Ferals need friends who are willing to speak for them and convince communities to implement the humane control route first and not just when citizens complain.
To learn more about the problems ferals face in different communities and the actions being taken to help them, check these links.
Alley Cat Allies, www.alleycats.org
Alley Cat Rescue, www.saveacat.org
Tree House Humane Society, www.treehouseanimals.org
The No-Kill Advocacy Center, www.nokilladvocacycenter.org
Neighborhood Cats, www.neighborhoodcats.org