New program aims to reduce local feral cat population

10/15/2013

BY SCOTT AUST

BY SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Kay Gillespie is spearheading a new program for the Finney County Humane Society designed to stabilize and eventually reduce the population of feral cats in Garden City.

The TNR program, which stands for trap, neuter and release, will involve Humane Society volunteers trapping feral cats, taking the cats to a participating veterinarian to be spayed or neutered, receive rabies vaccinations, be dewormed, tested for feline leukemia and treated for ear mites, and then returning them two to three days later to the location they were trapped.

"The benefit of that is all of the bothersome behaviors that people hate will be gone," Gillespie said.

Tomcats won't be fighting over females, females won't go into heat and howl all night and there won't be new kittens being born, she said.

The program will be operated entirely by Humane Society volunteers. It will not involve city animal control or the city's animal shelter. The program is in its infancy and will start small, as resources allow.

Currently, feral cats make up a good portion of the cats euthanized locally each year.

In 2011, 562 cats were euthanized, and another 617 cats were put down in the first eight months of 2012, Gillespie said. The majority of the euthanized cats were feral cats, and half of the feral cats were kittens.

Gillespie said some feral cats can be adopted if they can be tamed, a task that's easier with kittens or young cats, or older cats that haven't been living wild for long.

"You can pretty much tell when you trap them (whether a cat is feral). They'll be fighting in the cage, hissing at you and those kind of things," she said.

A cat that doesn't scratch, hiss or bite most likely has been somebody's pet at one time, and for whatever reason was abandoned. Gillespie said people move away and leave their cats, or a person may have died and the family doesn't want the cats, so they turn them loose outside.

Teri Sutherlin, Humane Society president, said the organization fully supports the program and agreed to allow it under the organization's umbrella as a nonprofit, but Gillespie is the one spearheading the program.

"We're just going to give her whatever support she needs," Sutherlin said.

Sutherlin said feral cats, and cats in general, are difficult to adopt. Many people balk at the adoption fees for dogs and cats at the shelter that go toward spaying and neutering and rabies vaccination costs, and especially so for cats.

"We try really hard to spay and neuter as many of the cats as possible that come into the shelter, but finding rescues for cats is almost impossible," Sutherlin said. "It's tough to get them placed."

Feral cats, which are basically any cat that has reverted back to a wild state, live in colonies. Some were born wild, but some were just abandoned by people and have reverted back to doing what they need to do to survive in the wild.

Colonies vary in size, Gillespie said, depending on food availability and shelter. They grow to the point of maximum sustainability of their food supply and then drive off other cats from their territory.

Some may ask why feral cats would be released after spaying or neutering.

"The reason that trapping and killing doesn't work is because colonies have a set size. If you go in and trap a few and take them away, the colony is going to either take in other strays to get back to that number, or they're going to breed faster with larger litters," Gillespie said.

Gillespie said studies of TNR programs have shown that putting fixed feral cats back into the colony keeps the colony size stable, and over time, the number of adults will start to go down.

"Unfortunately, we're still going to have the people problem. We're always going to have more abandoned cats," she said. "We're never going to run out of cats to trap, I'm sure."

Sutherlin said some citizens will trap ferals themselves to have them fixed just to make sure the animals aren't spreading diseases.

"That's a lot of what the TNR program is about is making sure that these wild cats are healthy and not spreading disease, not just destroying them. Letting them live out their lives, and by controlling the population, you can reduce the size of the colony. Through attrition, it will naturally die out," Sutherlin said. "Capturing and killing them just drives them to make more. They want to keep their colony the same size."

Sutherlin said handling feral animals is one of the top ways shelter workers get injured, so reducing the number of those animals that move through the shelter will help. She said other communities have been doing TNR programs successfully for years.

"It's just a more humane way to deal with the problem," she said. "That's why you don't throw your animals out. That's the best way to deal with the problem."

Westlake Ace Hardware has donated 10 traps for the program. Gillespie said she still needs help, including additional cages big enough for a cat and litter box while at the vet and small enough that they can be carried; donations of cat food; and most of all financial help from people who support the program.

Cages, cat food and monetary donations will be accepted through the Humane Society, which can be reached by calling 272-5651.

Currently, Gillespie is negotiating with a local veterinarian on a price for performing services. She declined to identify the vet until an agreement is reached.

Another thing the veterinarian will do is snip off the left ear tip of TNR cats, something Gillespie says is the universal indication that a cat has gone through a TNR. She said she has asked the city animal shelter to let a cat go if it has a snipped left ear, or if they trap any feral cats to contact the Humane Society and give them the option of doing a TNR.

For now, the program will start small and address colonies one by one as resources allow. Gillespie said the first colony to be tackled is behind Tractor Supply. The business has been feeding a few wild cats there because the cats are keeping rodent populations down.

Gillespie has a volunteer working on locating colonies and lining up other volunteers who will set and monitor traps and transport cats to and from the vet.

"In my mind, this program helps everybody. Whether you love cats and want to see them taken care of, or you hate cats, we're going to have less cats," Gillespie said. "There just isn't a downside."

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