Summer 2013 Magazine

Albuquerque's Community Cat Program

By Nancy Marano

(This is the final installment in the PETroglyphs series on TNR programs in Albuquerque.)

April 1, 2012 saw the launch of The Community Cat Program in Albuquerque, a cooperative program that includes the City of Albuquerque, PetSmart Charities and Best Friends Animal Society. The Community Cat Program is funded through a $700,000 grant from PetSmart Charities and run by Best Friends Animal Society and the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department.

This three year program is designed to spay or neuter 3,500 community cats per year, reduce euthanasia in the city shelters by 25% in the first year, and have a 12% reduction in feline intake at the city shelters in the first year. To say that Albuquerque is doing well would be an understatement. In the first year, the euthanasia rate at the shelter has already decreased by 59%, more than double the program goal.

Shelly Kotter, the Community Cat Program Manager for Best Friends Animal Society, explained how Best Friends became involved in community cat projects and why Albuquerque was selected for the program.

"Our first such project occurred when Best Friends was brought in as a potential funder for a project called 'Feral Freedom' in Jacksonville, FL. The original project planned to focus on spaying and neutering community cats in a few of the city's zip codes. Then the city manager decided it would be better if we covered the whole city. It was a daunting task but it turned out to be one of the most innovative ways of dealing with street cats we'd seen," Kotter said.

When there were measurable results in intake and euthanasia at the shelters, Best Friends contacted PetSmart Charities with the concept of adding field work to the original Feral Freedom program. "We wanted to help the shelter cats but we wanted to get out in the field and help the community cats who hadn't been included in Feral Freedom. That was one of the missing links in the program. We thought it would reduce the shelter population even more if we could get in the field and sterilize cats who were out there but who hadn't been fixed before. And that is exactly what happened," Kotter said.

The results of this first project were such that Best Friends decided to launch similar programs in other cities.

"This was an invitation only grant. I did a lot of research on cities around the country who were using trap-neuter-return (TNR) to see how far along their programs were. I considered some basic questions. What was the capacity of the local spay/neuter programs? Could their program grow? Was there a strong trap-neuter-return (TNR) presence already? Were they doing target work? What kind of numbers were they looking at? Would there be someone we could utilize for this program? Were there laws or ordinances that would prevent us from doing this work? As soon as I started my research, I knew Albuquerque would be our number one pick," Kotter said.

Desiree Triste-Aragon, the Community Cat Program Coordinator in Albuquerque, has been here since the program's inception. "The goals we have for this program are a 25% reduction in euthanasia rates in the city shelters, a 12% reduction in shelter intake by year two and 3,500 cats spayed and neutered per year. As of now, we've achieved all of those goals. The program has been successful because of all the help we've received from groups already working in the city and the help we've received in finding out where the community cats are," Triste-Aragon said.

They find community cats through word-of-mouth, referrals, the City's 311 help line and from animal control officers.

"We base the program on the feral freedom model. If an unadoptable cat comes into the city shelter, whether feral or stray, it is entered into the community cat program. We get it sterilized, vaccinated and ear-tipped. If the cat is sick, we hold it until it is well and then put it back where it came from.

Every day the shelter is checked for any community cats who have arrived at the intake facility. The community cats are held in the intake area and never become part of the actual shelter population. Information on the cat is recorded and it is taken directly to be sterilized. Community cats are never formally processed to the cattery area. This is what helps lower the intake numbers. It is also better for the cats because they aren't as stressed out as they would be in the cattery.

"We know there will be more cats in the area this one came from so we start doing community outreach to find the other cats. We find out who is feeding these cats and where the other cats are so we can get the whole colony sterilized. This way the community cat population will decrease in time," she continued.

The Community Cat Program relies on local groups for help in trapping, transporting, surgeries and adoptions. These groups are Street Cat Companions, the Animal Welfare Department, Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART), Animal Humane | New Mexico (AHANM), Watermelon Ranch and People's Anti-Cruelty Association of New Mexico and Animal Rescue (PACA-AAR). Spay/neuter surgeries are done at Vetco and AHANM and paid for through the program grant.

The outreach associated with the program is a matter of educating people about the benefits of sterilizing community cats. They talk to people in the community to see who likes the cats and who doesn't. "We are trying to get these colonies trapped as close to 100% as possible," Triste-Aragon said. "When people understand our program and goals, it makes a big difference in helping to lower shelter intake. Even people who aren't cat caretakers don't want to see the cats killed. They just want to be sure that the two cats they are seeing in the neighborhood don't turn into twenty."

The numbers for the Albuquerque program are excellent. "Albuquerque is already there. You blew us out of the water. The program is very popular. We are seeing huge improvements in the shelter population. We are publicly driven and we want everyone to be happy with the program. Nuisance levels have dropped in the neighborhoods and the intake of kittens has dropped overwhelmingly. There has already been a 45% drop in kitten intake since the program started here," Kotter said.

The program will continue to stay focused. "We are contacting people who find litters of kittens to see where the momcat is so we can get her spayed. We are also doing cleanup. If we trapped in an area last April, we want to go back and be sure there aren't any more cats there who haven't been spayed or neutered," Triste-Aragon said.

This program is working largely because of the cooperation of the community groups and the city. "It is very gratifying to see everyone cooperating and working together to reach a goal. We are very appreciative that the numbers are going down every month which is amazing and gratifying to see," Triste-Aragon said.

Baltimore will be the next to receive help for their community cats and they hope for results similar to those in Albuquerque.

Visit the Best Friends website for further information on the Feral Freedom program and model.

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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