Aiding feral cats: Humane or horrendous? (poll)

TIM ENGLE

The Kansas City Star

On a late Sunday afternoon behind some houses near Southwest Trafficway in midtown, a mission as organized as a military exercise is about to go down.

A dozen live game traps? Check. Neatly folded sheets? Check. Cans of mackerel? Check: smelly but essential.

Clipboards contain Google map printouts of the neighborhood. Earlier, someone distributed door hangers urging residents to keep their pet cats inside.

From a nearby backyard a dog on a chain barks incessantly, adding an air of tension to what is already a semi-clandestine operation.

I don’t know if it’s exactly legal,” one of the half-dozen volunteers will say a few moments later as he deposits a trap under a tree in an unkempt lot.

His efforts, and the efforts of others in neighborhoods across the city and around the nation, might not be a war exactly, but it can feel that way. And it’s all about cats. Feral cats.

TNR” is the name of the mission, and it describes the objective: Trap. Neuter. Return (aka release).

Traps are set near a known “colony” of feral cats. The caught cats get taken to a clinic to be neutered or spayed and vaccinated (against rabies, at a minimum). Each cat’s left ear is “tipped” — a straight-across snip — to indicate that it’s a feral fixed feline.

Then, within a couple of days or so, the cats are returned to the wild where they were caught (which might be a spot no wilder than an alley). They’re baaaaack, maybe to the chagrin of neighbors whose complaints may have prompted TNR in the first place. But now, at least, the cats that were caught won’t be breeding.

Many animal welfare groups have wholeheartedly embraced TNR, saying it’s the only effective way to keep down the numbers of feral and stray cats. But the practice has detractors, too. One anti-TNRwebsiteprominently displays a photo of a cat with a chipmunk in its mouth … as if only feral cats are interested in stalking such game.

That day in midtown, where 15-20 ferals and strays were thought to be living in a one-block area, the colony’s “caregiver” — in TNR-speak, a person who feeds and cares for them — did not want to be identified for fear the city would come after her. In Kansas City, after all, a household can legally have no more than four dogs and cats.

When did it become a crime to help one of God’s creatures?” she asks.

She got evicted from her last place for feeding strays. A neighbor across the street, she adds, was trapping cats and letting them loose in Loose Park.

Suddenly a racket breaks out a few feet away. “We got one!” somebody calls out.

It’s the boy,” the caregiver reports after getting a look at the yellow cat inside the wire box.

It’s OK, sweetie,” a woman says softly to the trapped tom as she covers the box with one of the old sheets. “It’s OK, baby.” She carries the trap to the caregiver’s driveway.

The sheet-draped cage rocks from side to side, then is still.

Good hearts’

The trap-neuter-return movement really started booming about a decade ago, says Michelle Rivera, executive director ofSpay & Neuter Kansas City, which provides low-cost veterinary services. “It’s universal now.”

TNR made news late last year when Annette Betancourt of Liberty ended up in court after the city accused her of “harboring” more cats than were legal. At the jury trial — which resulted in a conviction and $200 fine — 30 animal advocates, many of them TNR practitioners, turned out to support her.

Betancourt, who lives near a wooded area, had been caring for a colony of cats. Since 2008 she had caught 40-plus cats around her neighborhood and gotten them fixed. But a neighbor complaint led to the city’s involvement and, ultimately, the trial.

The ruling against Betancourt was “devastating” to people who work on behalf of feral cats, says Gail Longstaff, vice president ofGreat Plains SPCAin Merriam.

Chelli Tillman, who has assisted with TNR in her midtown neighborhood, says she had nightmares after Betancourt’s trial. She expresses a sentiment popular among the TNR crowd: Betancourt, “trying to do good,” was rewarded by “getting in trouble.”

Which is not exactly, as you might expect, the viewpoint of the city of Liberty.

People like Betancourt who care for animals “have good hearts on them,” acknowledges Capt. Andy Hedrick of the Liberty Police Department, who oversees the animal control unit.

But we have to address the bigger concern by residents of the neighborhood,” he says. “I understand why people want to feed animals, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to address the concerns of the neighbors.”

Liberty has two animal control officers, and they are “not out there seeking to trap feral cats,” Hedrick says. “A lot of our enforcement actions are complaint-driven. When we receive complaints, that’s where we devote resources.”

That’s an understandable position. Cities “have to respond to taxpayers,” says Rivera with Spay & Neuter KC.

And make no mistake: A colony of feral cats can make life miserable for the humans next door or down the block. Particularly if those feral cats are mating, and producing offspring, year-round.

Yowling tomcats brawling over a pussycat in the middle of the night. Males spraying to mark their territory, which might happen to be your front porch. “You can smell that 100 feet away sometimes,” Rivera says.

Cats leaving dirty paw prints all over your just-washed car. Or using a flowerbed or sandbox as a toilet.

(Time out for definitions: A colony might include cats that were born in the wild or lost or abandoned pets. Feral cats haven’t been around people and typically aren’t adoptable. Strays are more social and probably once belonged to someone. Ferals and strays are often lumped together as “free-roaming” cats.)

Pro and con

Proponents have heard the arguments from the other side of the TNR fence. Here’s some of what’s said about trap-neuter-return, and how supporters counter those claims:

  • Great! The nuisance cats have been neutered. But they’re still around, so they’re still a problem.

    TNR doesn’t address all of the concerns with feral cats,” says Hedrick with the city of Liberty. “The nuisance behaviors are still there.”

    TNR advocates say, however, that once the felines in a colony are spayed or neutered, they change their bad-cat ways. The midnight catfights and the spraying, for instance. The cats won’t roam nearly as much. And fixed cats tend to hide more.

    After they’ve been spayed, free-roaming cats “become much more good citizens,” Longstaff says, “because they’re not doing the behaviors that upset people.” And if the cats don’t conduct themselves properly, Great Plains, which claims to operate the largest TNR program in the area, has strategies to rein them in.

  • The cats just need to be relocated isn’t there a nice barn out in the country somewhere?

    Yes, and organizations like Great Plains do try to find those barn homes, a win-win, especially when there’s a rodent problem. The cats in Betancourt’s colony in Liberty will be divided between a barn in Holt, Mo., and one near the Iowa border.

But there’s much more demand for barns than there is supply.

Also, herding cats somewhere else might not solve a neighborhood’s problem, says Melody Kelso, executive director ofPet Connection, a no-kill group. “If you take all the cats out of an area, more cats just move in.”

An average feral colony is 10-15 cats, Longstaff says, but one not TNR-managed and therefore overflowing with kittens could grow much larger. Females can bear their first litters at 6 months old or younger, and they can produce as many as three litters a year.

  • The feral cats are a menace to people, including those who try to catch them.

Veterinarian Lawrence Kovac, owner of Northland Mobile Veterinary Clinic, says two of his human clients were bitten last year by feral cats, and one had to undergo rabies shots.

Kovac worries about disease control among the feral cats that will never be caught, worries “about children, especially, being bitten by sick feral cats.”

(Longstaff says research shows that the incidence of disease in feral cats is about the same as in “owned” cats.)

But Kovac is sympathetic to the plight of the cats, and he knows that people who feed them have the best of intentions.

Veterinarian Vern Otte of State Line Animal Hospital in Leawood supports TNR, but with one caveat: Humans shouldn’t be feeding the feral cats, he says.

Otte asserts that a given area “will supply enough wild animals, mice and rabbits and so on, for a certain number of wild cats to live. And once it reaches that level, that’s it.”

When people feed a cat colony, “now there’s enough food for 10 more cats to come into the area. If you don’t feed them, they maintain the level of food supply and know how much space they can have. And if there’s not enough food there, they move on to somewhere else. If you feed them, you mess all of it up.”

TNR opponents maintain that as long as humans are feeding a cat colony, there’ll always be feral cats around.

And when people hear about a managed colony, Liberty’s Hedrick says, they start dumping unwanted cats there. Their thinking is “ ’I won’t turn in the animal to the animal shelter; I’ll let it go where I know this feral population is taken care of.’ Which doesn’t really address the problem.”

  • Feral cats are a menace to birds.

TheAmerican Bird Conservancyhas called for “the humane removal of all free-roaming cats beginning with areas important to wildlife.” The conservancy “strongly opposes managed free-roaming cat colonies.”

Oh, and it doesn’t want you to let your house cat out, either, unless Tiger is closely supervised.

The group says that free-roaming cats “are efficient predators estimated to kill hundreds of millions of native birds” and “countless small mammals, reptiles and amphibians” each year.

Some TNR supporters, as you might guess, dispute those numbers. Longstaff contends that free-roaming cats will go after whatever is easiest, typically bugs and small rodents.

As an article in the January e-newsletter ofMaddie’s Fund, a no-kill charity, puts it: “Studies have come to varying and sometimes contradictory conclusions regarding the impact of cats on native species. … However, there can be little doubt that free-roaming cats, owned or not, can have a negative impact on native species in some cases.”

The Cadillac of colonies

Some free-roaming cats have it better than others. The managed cat hideaway in Independence known as “Jazz Colony,” in a patch of woods near a strip center, is “the Cadillac of colonies,” says Judy Spearman.

She and her husband, Vance, who live nearby, are among a handful of volunteers who feed the Jazz cats twice a day. “There’s not a skinny cat here, I can tell you that,” Vance says.

Head up a path into the trees and you quickly encounter not just cats but clusters of kitty condos, some made of plastic storage bins lined with straw and covered with plastic sheeting. Here and there are bales of straw, as well as water bowls. Down the path a ways: a couple of dog houses.

As Judy approaches, she pets a sleek black cat that has hopped atop a bale of straw. She removes a big plastic bowl from a tote bag and stirs the fishy combination of dry and wet cat food. She serves it up on plastic plates.

Yes, these animals are feral, but most of them appear friendly, although they do tend to keep their distance from strangers. They look like ordinary cats: No baring of fangs or ominous yowling.

And no kittens here, either, since at least three years ago. This colony had about 100 cats a decade ago. Current population: 25-30.

And every cat has a name, like Tillie and Frankie and Lippy, bestowed by the woman who is Jazz Colony’s primary caregiver.

As Great Plains SPCA volunteers, the Spearmans have also been active in TNR. Last year, as part of a TNR effort targeting the 64050 ZIP code, a big chunk of Independence, the retired couple trapped and released 160 ferals and strays there (and another 200 elsewhere).

The two-year project’s goal is to fix 2,400 feral cats; Independence already thinks it has seen a drop in cats coming into the shelter. The initiative is funded by a $100,000 grant from PetSmart Charities.

Which raises another point: TNR costs money. Typically, animal organizations let people borrow traps. As for the spaying, Great Plains charges a discounted rate of $15 per feral cat (soon to rise to $20), which somebody has to pay.

It might be cheaper to euthanize a cat (there’s debate about the actual cost of that, including staff time), but for TNR supporters there’s no question which is the more humane option. And TNR, they point out, relies on volunteers, not taxpayer dollars.

Cats win, humans win

Among animal activists, city animal control departments are sometimes viewed as the enemy. Really, a major goal of TNR is to keep animal control from trapping cats, hauling them to a shelter and killing them.

Kansas City’s head of animal control, Patrick Egberuare, sounds tentative on the subject of trap-neuter-return, although the city is experimenting with it.

We asked Egberuare if TNR is illegal in Kansas City.

You know, how do I answer this, we have issues as far as totally supporting the program,” says Egberuare, manager of the Animal Health and Public Safety Division.

But the city has partnered with Great Plains SPCA to try to get a handle on feral cats, he says. When the city receives a complaint, Longstaff and Great Plains investigate it and try to work with feral colony caregivers and neighbors.

Kansas City, like many communities, does not have a leash law for cats. Generally, KC animal control is not in the business of picking up cats, although injured and sick animals are exceptions.

Across the entire metropolitan area, Longstaff estimates there are 250,000 free-roaming cats. (Since 2004, Great Plains and predecessor organization No More Homeless Pets KC has fixed about 21,000 of them, just “the tip of the iceberg.”)

But as far as legalities, “we tend to look at (TNR) as a tool to address the cat overpopulation,” Egberuare says. “We don’t say it’s illegal to do that.”

The city could, of course, catch nuisance cats and take them to the shelter. But that’s risky business, Egberuare says: “Somebody will say, ‘Well, they killed my cat.’ All of a sudden the cat has an owner and a name.”

At any rate, Kansas City does not have the resources or the room to “start trapping every alleged feral cat,” Egberuare says.

It’s more likely, as was the case in Liberty, that a do-gooder gets busted for feeding a bunch of cats, because in the eyes of the law, feeding cats amounts to owning them.

All over the city, hundreds of people may well be feeding feral and stray cats, but they usually don’t advertise it. It’s said that a woman in Independence has been feeding cats in a park there for 18 years — by cover of night.

Most people don’t start out feeding 30 cats, Judy Spearman says. “When you see ‘em starving, what are you going to do? They have no choice.”

As for TNR, “the point we stress is that it’s not about cats winning at the expense of everyone else,” Longstaff at Great Plains SPCA says. Once the cats are no longer breeding, they should calm down. The neighborhood should calm down.

But would these wild cats be better off dead?

Hard to believe, maybe, but that argument is sometimes made by cat lovers, Longstaff says: “ ’Only living in my house could that cat be happy.’ ”

The feral cats, however, are “living and surviving in a family group,” she says. “They play, they eat, they sleep.”

No, they’re not curling up in a human’s lap or snoozing at the foot of a warm bed.

As a society,” Longstaff says, “we’re not able to provide that for all cats.”

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or email <a href ="mailto:tengle@kcstar.com">tengle@kcstar.com</a>. On Twitter: @tim_engle

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