Last night we watched a rerun of "Friends." For those of you that remember the show, there was Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica, & Feebee. Joey and Chandler have a pet chicken, named "The Chick" and a pet duck...named "The Duck". Joey was the best man for Ross's upcoming wedding and in charge of the wedding ring. It was a family heirloom. Enter the duck. During the night, the Duck swallowed the ring. The Duck was taken to a veterinarian who worked his magic and got the duck to eliminate the ring. Both duck and ring were saved. In watching this show, there was a large sign on the wall of the veterinary clinic. It said "Spay and Neuter Your Pets - It's the Humane Answer to the pet population problem." The poster was shown in more than one scene. Even back in the days of "Friends," the writers tried to get a positive message across.
You might be wondering what "Friends" has to do with Spring Fever. The answer: Cats, Cats, and more Cats.
The mild winter has been enjoyable. There will be a price to pay in the number of feral (outdoor living, free-roaming) cats. For many years cats were an unseen population. Not anymore. Cats now have become the plague of communities. Many communities have stopped picking up cats. Why? They can't afford it. Our tax dollars cannot begin to clean up a situation we have all created. Yes, we have all contributed to this problem.
You don't think so! Well, do you have cats - either outdoor or indoor? Are they spayed or neutered? If not, then guess what - this is contributing to the problem.
Do you give the kittens away without having them sterilized first? You ask, why should I? It won't be my problem and I just got rid of some cats. Here again, you are contributing to the problem.
What exactly is a feral cat? They live in the shadows—the alleyways, empty lots and condemned buildings—of almost every neighborhood. Their lives are short and usually harsh. They struggle to find food and water in an environment filled with the constant threats of disease, starvation, cruelty and predation. They are the abandoned, the lost and the wild—and they need our help. A "feral" cat is a cat who has reverted in some degree to a wild state. They originate from former domestic cats who were lost or abandoned and then learned to live outdoors or in environments involving little human contact, such as warehouses, factories or abandoned buildings. In most cases, feral cats are not completely wild because they still depend on people for their food source, whether it's a caretaker , a dumpster outside a restaurant, garbage cans, or the like. Relatively few feral cats survive only by hunting.
Left unaddressed, as we have been doing, only makes the situation worse. You don't think so? Well, do you have an over abundance of cats in your area?
The answer is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).
What is TNR?
Trap-Neuter-Return, commonly referred to as "TNR," is the only method proven to be humane and effective at controlling feral cat population growth. TNR involves trapping all or most of the cats in a colony, getting them neutered and then returning them to their territory. The returned cats are ear tipped to identify them as neutered.
TNR immediately stabilizes the size of the colony if at least 70 percent of the fertile adults are altered. The cats tend to roam less and become a less visible presence. They continue to provide natural rodent control, a particularly valuable benefit. The returned colony also guards its territory, preventing unneutered cats from moving in and beginning the cycle of overpopulation and problem behavior anew.
TNR is not just the best alternative to managing feral cat populations - it is the only one that works. Doing nothing has resulted in the current overpopulation crisis. Trap and remove, the traditional technique, is simply ineffective. If all the cats are not caught, then the ones left behind breed until the former population level is reached. Even if all the cats are removed, new unneutered cats tend to move in to take advantage of whatever food source there was, and the cycle starts again. It's the "vacuum effect." Cats in neighboring territories will move in. Normally, most of these cats stay out of the territory occupied by a colony.
Finally, TNR is an idea whose time has come. TNR is a movement that will continue to grow as more and more caring people see its potential and, in time, it will become the predominant method of feral cat management.
TNR has the ability to mobilize volunteers because it is life-affirming, which is in itself an advantage. Catching the vast number of feral cats now at large in many communities requires volunteers. Animal Control alone can rarely make even the slightest dent in the population. If people know the cats will be altered and released, they will offer their time and effort.
While most everyone agrees that feral cats are a problem, not everyone agrees on how the problem should be addressed. Some advocate trapping and removal of feral cats from communities and then they are humanely destroyed. Euthanasia on a large scale does not enjoy broad public support.
How about removing the food source? That's much easier said than done. The food source might be daily waste from a restaurant or mess hall, or garbage left out for collection, or cans of food that continue to be left by cat caretakers. Trying to control all this and stop food from being available is rarely a practical alternative. Depriving cats of food often has the opposite effect. They just come closer.
How about those cat caretakers? Feral cat caretakers are a devoted breed who will often do whatever is in their power to feed and protect their feline wards. The trap and kill turns caretakers into enemies. TNR mobilizes them into an enormous force for population control.
Humans, of course, are the other stakeholders in the TNR debate. With TNR programs, the neutered cats engage in less nuisance behavior. Over time, with appropriately managed colonies, the numbers in a feral cat colony will decrease, and eventually the colony will cease to exist.
How Does TNR Help Feral Cats?
Through TNR, feral cats can live out their lives without adding to the homeless cat population. It is very important to have all feral cats spayed/neutered because feral cats are prolific reproducers.
How Does TNR Benefit the Community?
TNR helps the community by stabilizing the population of the feral colony and, over time, reducing it. At the same time, the benefit of natural rodent control is continued.
What is Ear-Tipping and Why Is It Important?
Ear-tipping is a widely accepted means of marking a feral cat who has been spayed or neutered. It also often identifies them as being part of a colony. Ear-tipping is the humane surgical removal of the top quarter-inch of the left ear. The procedure is performed by a licensed veterinarian, typically during the spay/neuter surgery. Ear-tipping is completely safe and rarely requires special aftercare. Ear-tipping is especially important as it prevents an already spayed or neutered cat the stress of re-trapping and, more important, an unnecessary surgery.
Does Eradication Work?
Eradication, the deliberate and systematic destruction of a feral cat colony, by whatever method, almost always leads to the “vacuum effect”—either new cats flock to the vacated area to exploit whatever food source attracted the original inhabitants, or survivors breed and their descendants are more cautious around threats. Simply put, eradication is only a temporary fix that sacrifices animals' lives unnecessarily, yet yields no positive or beneficial return.
What Is Relocation and Why Doesn't It Work?
Many communities have rounded up colonies of feral cats either for euthanasia or to relocate them to another area. This never works. Feral cats are very connected with their territory. They are familiar with its food sources, places that offer—shelter, resident wildlife, other cats in the area and potential threats to their safety—all things that help them survive. Relocation of feral cat colonies is difficult to orchestrate and not 100-percent successful even if done correctly. It is also usually impossible to catch all of the cats, and it only takes one male and one female to begin reproducing the colony. Even when rounding up is diligently performed and all ferals are removed, new cats will soon move in and set up camp..."the vacuum effect."
Don't Feral Cats Kill Birds?
While feral cats do kill some birds, they prefer to kill rodents. Other issues, such as the decline of natural habitat and use of pesticides, have a greater negative impact on bird populations.
Will Animal Shelters Adopt Out Feral Cats?
No, feral cats are not adoptable and shelters rarely will accept them. The fact is, most feral cats exhibit wild, shy or frightened behavior, and it's impossible to predict how or if they will ever acclimate to indoor life.
Socializing feral cats involves an extreme amount of patience, time and energy, and there is no guarantee that the cat will become tame.
You are Not Comfortable Working Directly with Feral Cats. What Are Some Other Ways You Can Help?
Pointers to consider in discussing a TNR program for your neighborhood or community:
• Establish a friendly relationship with people living near a feral cat colony. This could be your neighborhood, work place, or a specific target area. Present information in a reasonable, professional manner and address individual complaints by listening patiently. Always maintain a constructive, problem-solving attitude.
• Explain diplomatically that the cats have lived at the site for a long time and that they have been or will be sterilized, which will cut back on annoying behaviors. Explain that if the present colony is removed, the problems will recur with new cats.. "the vacuum effect."
• Organize neighborhood or community fund raisers or seek donations to help with a TNR program. Contact businesses that have cat problems and seek their cooperation and assistance. Work together in organizing a TNR clinic. This situation isn't impossible. If we, as citizens, neighbors, employers, and employees work together, the difference will be awesome.
You may use this information when discussing TNR programs and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Resources Used: Neighborhood Cats - The Feral Cat Experts; Trap-Neuter-Release Programs for Feral Cats; Peter Foley, MSc, DVM, DACVIM; ASPCA Feral Cats FAQ