Spring 2013 Magazine

Cat Chat

"SECOND SUNDAY" Spay/Neuter Clinic

By Nancy Marano

(This article is the third in the series on Albuquerque Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR) programs.)

Usually I am sound asleep at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. But this particular second Sunday of the month I got up very early to go to the spay/neuter clinic held at Animal Humane | New Mexico and run by Street Cat Companions. Jayne Sage, the "go to" person for any feral cat in Albuquerque, manages the clinic. She stands at the door bringing in carriers filled with terrified feral cats who are positive they will die today. Sage took time from stacking carriers to welcome me to the clinic.

Cats come in from all over the city. They are trapped by people who manage various feral cat colonies in the area. I was not prepared for the number of cats there were or how many volunteers came to help. Everyone was cheerful and seemed quite happy to be at the clinic despite the hour.

The cats are moved quickly to different stations. They are weighed in, have an IV line started and are given anesthesia. Each cat is laid on its back and strapped to a board to have its tummy shaved. When all the preparatory work is done the cat is moved into the surgery area where five veterinarians wait with scalpels at the ready. Once the surgery is completed, the cat comes back out for some pampering. As one of the veterinarians says, this is like a day at the spa for the cats although I'm not sure they would agree. Each cat is checked for fleas, ticks, and mats of fur. Then each receives the proper treatment. They receive rabies and other vaccines. Next their ears are cleaned, ear mites treated, and their eyes checked. They are examined for any abscesses or cuts, and their ears are tipped. This means a small amount of skin at the top of the left ear is clipped off so future rescuers will know this cat has been spayed or neutered already. After the treatments are finished, the cat goes into the recovery area. Each cat's carrier is waiting in the recovery room. The number on the cat is matched to the number of the carrier and the cat is gently placed inside its own carrier. During the recovery period, the cats are constantly monitored by volunteers who check for any sign of distress. At the end of the day the rescuer who brought the cat in takes it home where it is watched overnight. Then, if everything is fine, the cat is put back in its colony the following day.

The day I was there about 25 volunteers were taking care of all the various stations and working on the cats with gentleness and efficiency. This is the normal number of volunteers at every clinic. They are competent at their jobs and they work swiftly to keep the cats moving along from one table to the next. There is a lot of camaraderie in the room and it is clear they all enjoy being there and feel they are participating in a worthwhile project.

It is truly amazing to see so many unconscious feral cats resting peacefully in their carriers. It is possible to touch them and tell them their lives will be better now. These cats would never allow such intimacy ordinarily. The day I was there 96 cats were spayed or neutered. This has become a normal number for each clinic.

As Vicki Williams, president of New Mexico Animal Friends, says, "The clinic is very effective. It looks like chaos when we first start but everyone has a job, everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and it's very efficient. Everyone is concerned about the cat's welfare so we do everything we can for the cat while it's there. It's like a triage. We do dental, flea and tick, clean ears and anything else the cat needs. Mats and ear mites are handled, too. Sometimes we have abscesses that need to be drained. Any problem we can see, we fix. If a cat has an upper respiratory infection, it is given a long-term antibiotic so it doesn't need to come back. We even do X-rays when necessary. Usually it is just spay and neuter but if a cat comes in with another medical condition, we try to do what we can for that cat.

I think the reason we have so many volunteers is because they know it's successful, they know we're making a difference and we're doing something to help individual cats. Volunteers keep coming back because it makes them feel good. We have great volunteers who are full of common cause and they all get along. There's a lot of laughter and joking. Everyone is happy to be there because it's a good environment."

There is a dedicated group of about 25 veterinarians who keep coming back to volunteer at this clinic. They work in four hour shifts either morning or afternoon and spay and neuter as many cats as they can in that time. Every one of these veterinarians leads a busy life with their practice, families and other activities. What keeps them coming back five or six times a year to help feral cats?

Dr. Barbara McGuire of Aztec Animal Clinic has been volunteering here for over four years. "The core group of technicians and helpers are the backbone of the program. They get there early, they get things ready and they stay late to clean up after us. The clinic is highly dependent on a lot of people doing a lot of things. The reason we keep coming back is the people who are there. They are such fun to work with and they are incredibly generous with their thanks and gratitude. You end up feeling like a star," she said. "We also know that we've grabbed a lot of gonads and kept a lot of kittens from being born. But it really is the people who get you back. It is a joyful thing."

Dr. Kacie Martin, medical director at VCA-Wyoming, agrees. "It is an incredibly good group of people. They are very happy. Their ultimate goal is to help cats with whatever we can do for them. It's a good way to give back to the community."

Both veterinarians agree that the only alternative to the TNR program is trapping and killing. "The feral population is out there and it is important to control it," said Dr. Martin. "I like the TNR idea because I don't like euthanizing a healthy cat. To me every creature has a purpose and should be allowed to fulfill it."

While there will always be a conflict between wildlife and feral cats, Dr. McGuire believes, "The only alternative to this program is trap and euthanize. That doesn't solve the problem and it isn't acceptable. This isn't a perfect solution but most of these cats aren't adoptable. TNR is a way of slowing down the population growth within the colony and improving the life of those cats we spay and neuter. TNR also raises awareness of the issue. When we do this, we tell our friends and neighbors that this is an attempt to stabilize the cat colonies."

This clinic serves a valuable service in the community. Every time a breeding pair of cats is sterilized the result is thousands of cats who aren't born. The success of TNR is already being seen in Albuquerque with fewer kittens at the shelters. While this clinic is part of solving the larger problem of community cats, it is really geared toward helping individual cats and affecting their lives.

"These cats can take care of themselves and feed themselves. Because of what we've done at this clinic they no longer have to get into fights or have babies. He doesn't have to be a little tomcat getting beat up for infringing on another cat's territory and she doesn't have to be a mom trying to take care of kittens and herself. When I leave, I know I helped spay 96 cats today and understand that for these kitties I made a difference,"Dr. McGuire said.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by two cats, Callie, a tortoiseshell, and Max, a black, panther wannabe. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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