A CHANCE AT A NEW LIFE:
RELOCATING THE TVI FERAL CATS
by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
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Tieg Veinot is the Policies and Procedures Manager for Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI). For the past three years she has played another management role at the school. She has helped to manage a feral cat colony on the campus. Feral cats are the same species as domesticated companion cats, but ferals have never lived closely with humans. They have grown up in alleys, barns or abandoned buildings. They behave just like wild cats, and can survive extremely well without any human interference. Since they have never been socialized with people, they do not tolerate human contact nor do they become good family companions. Tieg and Kathy Parks, a co-worker in Policies and Procedures at TVI, started to manage the feral cats at the school when it became apparent that the cats living in the school’s instructional welding yard were breeding out of control. The rat population was eliminated, but the cats were overpopulating the area.
Tieg and Kathy decided to use a feral cat colony management procedure called TNR - Trap, Neuter/spay and Return to the original location. Managing a colony of feral cats through TNR helps to keep the colony in check. If not managed, the feral cats breed and the resulting numbers are quickly out of control. The feline overpopulation is detrimental to both the cats and the humans who live in the area. As part of the management of a feral cat colony, food and water are provided to keep the cats in the area. Records are kept on each cat’s age (if known), dates of medical procedures and vaccinations. Any new cats entering the colony are caught up for TNR. (For more information on feral cats, read Cat Chat, “Ferals & Strays: The Forgotten Felines” by Nancy Marano in our Fall 2004 issue.
Recently the administration of TVI asked the volunteers to relocate the approximately twenty felines in the colony from what they feel is an unsafe situation in the instructional area. The school is giving the volunteers ample time to place the cats in new locations. Relocating the members of a feral cat colony is not an easy task. In fact the first rule of feral cat relocation is: don’t relocate the feral cats. One of the strongest drives in feral cats is their sense of place. If they are removed they will do anything to get back to the location of their original colony. In the past few years, progress has been made in successfully relocating ferals. It does require a specific plan, and is does not work for every cat. Tieg and Kathy knew they had their work cut out.
The first challenge was to find safe places for relocating the cats. The research on feral cat relocation indicates that rural areas, like farms or ranches that have barns or stables, are the best places for relocation. Tieg contacted rural communities in the area via email lists. Several families agreed to host ferals at their residences. All had barns, and agreed to take on life-long responsibility for the cats.
Another factor that increases the odds of a successful relocation is placing more than one cat at the new location. The host families agreed to take at least two cats. When multiple cats are placed together, they are less likely to take off in search of their former home. The TVI volunteers carefully considered the pairs for placement. Since the TVI cats are under observation by the volunteers, the alliances and friendships among the cats are known. Whenever possible, friends or siblings were placed together.
One of the big challenges is the actual trapping. Tieg and Kathy have been trapping for months. When traps are set and baited, they must be checked several times daily. Trapping goes on in all kinds of weather. Traps are set on weekdays and weekends at times when the instructional area is less active. When a cat is caught, the animal is transported to the new location immediately.
When the trapping began, two to three cats were caught per week. These first cats were thought to be among the more social of the TVI ferals. Sometimes single cats were taken to their new homes while waiting for a companion to be caught, usually only a few days’ wait. The last to be caught were the wariest, with eight to ten cats still avoiding the traps. Even the tasty food used as bait has not been enough to entice these cats into the traps.
Once at the new location, the cats live in a large cage for three to four weeks. This is necessary for the cats to bond with their new place. The caretakers spend time near the cage and talk to the cats. This allows the cats to become accustomed to the new caretakers, and the sights and sounds of the barn. Fresh food and water are provided daily and the cats learn that the barn is a good food source.
After the three- to four-week bonding period, the cats are released. Food and water are continually provided. What the cats decide to do is beyond the control of the human caretakers. If all goes well, the cats remain and establish a new life at the new location. Although the success rate is not perfect, relocation is a far better way to deal with the disbanding of a feral colony than the previous tactic, which was to catch and euthanize. At least the cats are given a chance.
Several of the TVI cats have been relocated to rural areas and released. The results have varied. One young cat, Brillo, escaped from the barn within three days of placement. Brillo was not caged since the barn was supposed to be completely closed. Yet her desire to go home was so strong that she found a way out. Her fate is unknown. As a result of Brillo’s escape, all relocations require a large cage (approximately 2’ x 2’ x 4’) for the 3-4 week confinement. Two sibling cats, Lily and Luigi, were placed in another location using the cage method. Upon release, the siblings were sighted in proximity of the barn for a week, usually at night. Then the sightings became indirect: paw prints in the mud, food eaten. Natural food is abundant, and water is still provided by the caretakers, so Lily and Luigi may still be in the area. Tieg Veinot’s hopes are high, “I hold good thoughts for Lily and Luigi and will continue to imagine them hanging around the barn eating plenty and growing fatter.” Several other pairs are nearing their release dates, and all hope that they will do well.
The success of feral cat relocations varies. Two innovative relocation programs in California placed feral cats in situations where their hunting skills were put to good use. In one case, a small group of feral cats was placed in a police station that had been inundated by rodents. The cats quickly had the rodent population under control: a real life Rat Patrol! In another situation, feral cats were released in the wholesale LA Flower Mart. Rodents in the area found the flowers tasty treats, especially red carnations. For decades, the flower mart suffered financial losses from the rats. Once the colony of 20 feral cats was established, the rats literally vanished. This is the kind of happy ending that is wished for all relocations.
With new methods and procedures available, relocation provides a viable alternative for feral cats who would otherwise face an untimely demise. The team at TVI has worked diligently to give their cats the option for a new life through relocation. Tieg says, “Whatever fate has to offer, we have given them the best of chances.”
Eight to ten TVI cats still need homes. If you would like to be considered as a possible host family for TVI cats and are willing to make a commitment to at least two of the cats, please contact Tieg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 505-224-4442.
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