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Right at home: A homeless cat peeks out of the boarded-up door of an Albany building.

Go Forth, But Don’t Multiply
By Darryl McGrath
photos by alicia solsman

An underground movement tries out a controversial way to reduce the homeless cat population that balances humaneness and practicality

 

The cats are out there, if you know where to look for them.

It is late afternoon in a downtown alley, and the weekend quiet of the surrounding streets is only occasionally broken by a passing car. It is also bitterly cold.

This is a narrow landscape of broken windows and rotting wood, debris piles and garbage bins. It is a forbidding and even frightening place in the fading light.

But on this afternoon, three women stand in the alley, trying to select the best place to set a baited humane trap. With any luck, in a few hours they will capture a homeless cat that’s been seen here. Once they catch it, they will have it spayed or neutered, vaccinated and fed for a couple of days. Then they will release it back into the alley or—if it is gentle enough—try to find it a home.

“It eats there, and I’ve seen it up that stairway,” one of the women says, gesturing to the back staircase of a commercial building. “Right behind that building. I think that would be fine, because all these people here know what I’m doing.”

Her partner sets and baits the trap, and a few minutes later, the group disperses. One of them will return at regular intervals that night to check the trap.

Secluded urban areas such as this are the habitat of untold thousands of homeless cats in the Capital Region. They are so elusive that their brutal lives and violent deaths often play out largely unseen by the humans with which they share a city, and the fleeting glimpses that most people will have of these cats as they slip in and out of abandoned buildings give little evidence of their true numbers.

Tough love: Dr. Kelly Cooper of Just Cats veterinary practice.

Humane societies, veterinary associations, animal lovers and community activists have long debated the best way to manage homeless cats, which can be a nuisance, a public health problem and a hazard to domestic pets. For years, the only two approaches were to euthanize them or try to find them adoptive homes—methods deemed inhumane and impractical, respectively.

Now, a national movement that advocates a different solution—of trapping, sterilizing and then releasing homeless cats back to where they came from—is taking hold in the Capital Region.

This approach, known in its simplest form as “trap-neuter-release,” is a largely volunteer effort by individuals—usually working on their own—who catch cats and bring them to a cooperating veterinarian or humane organization for neutering or spaying and basic vaccinations before releasing them.

Trap-neuter-release remains controversial, criticized by some wildlife and conservation groups who say that homeless cats kill millions of birds a year, and by some humane and veterinary groups, which object to the idea of returning animals to such a hardscrabble existence.

But advocates of trap-neuter-release say it is the only way to gradually reduce the homeless cat population, because most of these animals will never be adopted.

“My firm belief is that the future of rescue is not any more in the re-homing of animals—taking animals that are homeless and placing them in homes,” says Sue Mahar, a longtime Capital Region volunteer with various animal shelters and a past co-president of Whiskers Animal Benevolent League in Albany. “The future of rescue needs to shift from re-homing to prevention.”

In recent years, Mahar has come to see trap-neuter-release as an important part of that prevention effort. She is now a volunteer with the Noah’s Kingdom Humane Society, which operates at the Petsmart store in the Crossgates Commons in Guilderland, and she also administers the low-cost spay/neuter program for the Mohawk Hudson River Humane Society in Menands. Her years of working with abandoned and feral cats—many of which live like wild animals in an urban setting—have made her an unsentimental pragmatist.

I’ve been doing some hard traveling: Spook, a rescued feral kitten, being weighed at the vet’s office.

“When I was with Whiskers, we thought that if we got them off the street, they could be socialized,” Mahar says. “But socializing an adult feral cat is time-consuming, difficult. . . . I’d go for virtually impossible. If you use all your time and space and you fill that up with cats you can’t socialize, you can’t do anything for the cats that can be socialized and can find a home.”

The ancient Egyptians probably had colonies of homeless cats in their cities. In the United States today, the population of homeless cats is generally placed at 50 to 100 million. And in a city the size of Albany, they number in the thousands.

The broad category of homeless cats includes pets that have gotten lost or have strayed, cats that have been deliberately abandoned, and cats that have been born wild and have never been tamed—the so-called “feral” cats.

When cats have to fend for themselves, they often cluster in groups known as colonies, which shelter in abandoned buildings. The colonies are believed to have a cooperative social structure, in which the cats find food together and survive sub-zero winter nights in unheated buildings by huddling to share body warmth, says Dr. Susan Sikule, a Capital Region veterinarian and the founder of the Just Cats veterinary practice in Guilderland. Still, most of them survive only a few years on the street, and die not of old age but of exposure, malnutrition, disease or violence.

Sikule is one of a handful of veterinarians in the Capital Region who advocates and practices trap-neuter-release. Most of the homeless cats she treats come to her via local shelters that she works closely with, and she charges whatever a particular shelter charges its own clients for low-cost spaying and neutering. Last October, she treated about 20 cats during a daylong free trap-neuter-release clinic, but sheer numbers prevent her from doing that on a regular basis, or from doing more than a limited number of trap-neuter-release treatments at all.

She would like to help bring the disparate trap-neuter-release efforts in the area under one cooperative regional program, and has sought the advice of a nationally known organization—Alley Cat Allies in Washington, D.C.—on the best way to do that. In the meantime, she plans to continue her solo trap-neuter-release work, even though some of her colleagues in the Capital Region veterinary community have criticized her for it.

Sikule acknowledges that it takes a radical change in thinking for a veterinarian—trained to see an animal through a full course of treatment and follow-up care—to instead treat an animal once and then return it to a life of hardship and malnutrition. Now, when asked if that is difficult for her to do, she quickly shakes her head and says, “I’m helping them.”

She vaccinates the cats against rabies and distemper (a highly contagious, often fatal viral infection), in addition to sterilizing them. But, in accordance with the recommendation of Alley Cat Allies, she does not test homeless cats for the viruses that cause feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency, even though an infected cat can spread these serious and often fatal illnesses to other cats.

“I’ve come full circle,” Sikule says. “I can remember the first time somebody approached me, I was like, ‘Oh, no, I have to test.’ ” Now, she reasons, given that these viral infections may afflict as little as 3 percent of the homeless cat population, it’s more cost effective not to test and to use that time and money instead to sterilize other cats. (Sikule’s approach, while shared by many advocates of trap-neuter-release, is not uniformly accepted. The Humane Society of the United States, for example, advocates testing all trapped cats for feline leukemia/immunodeficiency, so that infected cats won’t be released back to their colonies.)

For Sikule, the importance of addressing the homeless cat population was reinforced in April 2004, when one of her regular volunteers brought in a trapped homeless male cat. Sikule neutered and vaccinated the cat, and the volunteer took it back to her home. Just before the volunteer released the cat, she noticed it seemed ill, and she brought it back to Sikule for an examination. The cat—which Sikule euthanized—turned out to be rabid.

Seeking alley cats: volunteer with a humane trap in an alley known to harbor homeless cats.

Although many volunteers working in trap-neuter-release programs will never see a rabid cat—Sue Mahar said Sikule’s account is the first one she has heard of in 20 years of work with animal shelters—homeless cats can be a public health problem and a nuisance. But colonies of feral cats are tolerated in a way packs of roaming feral dogs never would be, because they are so easy to forget and ignore.

New York state law requires cats to be vaccinated for rabies whenever possible. But, because state law also considers cats free-roaming animals, officials in Albany County and the city of Albany say that just about the only time they take any action on a homeless cat is when they get a report of one that might be rabid.

Cohoes did organize a trap-neuter-release program five years ago to address its homeless cat population, and that effort that has been continued by volunteers working with the city’s cooperation, says Mayor John McDonald. Nationally, certain cities—such as Indianapolis, San Diego and Washington, D.C.—have become known for their well-organized efforts to manage and reduce their homeless cat colonies, through trap-neuter-release programs that blend volunteer efforts with the cooperation of nonprofit groups and municipal authorities.

But cats aren’t on the radar screen of most municipalities, and it’s unlikely that cash-strapped upstate New York communities will take on the task of managing their homeless cat colonies if they aren’t already doing so. Of course, trap-neuter-release advocates point out that it’s cheaper to sterilize a cat in a one-time, quick, in-and-out visit to a veterinarian than to shelter it for days or weeks and then eventually euthanize it. They also note that the few studies done on trap-neuter-release programs indicate they actually can reduce the local homeless cat population.

And so, organized approaches to homeless cats are rare in the Capital Region, even though groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Association of Feline Practitioners point out that it’s going to take a broad-based public response, led by government agencies, to reduce their numbers.

Yet government agencies don’t see this as part of their missions, says Dr. James Richards, immediate past president of the American Feline Health Association and the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at the Cornell at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “I see it as a big educational problem. Concerned individuals are really going to be nothing more than spark plugs that have to try to change behaviors. Public education is extremely important.”

But a number of professional veterinary and wildlife groups oppose trap-neuter-release efforts, says Dr. Paul Barrows, a Texas veterinarian and the immediate past president of the Wildlife Disease Association. In addition to his own group, the list of opposing organizations includes the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians; the Association of Avian Veterinarians; the Wildlife Society, an organization of professional wildlife biologists; and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“This is an emotional issue for people who don’t want to kill cats,” Barrows says. “I don’t, either. There are a number of solutions other than euthanizing them. That’s our last choice.”

Captured homeless cats can be adopted, moved to managed sanctuaries, or used in biomedical research, Barrows says.

“TNR is a threat to public health,” he says. “And there is a deception here, too: If it is considered inhumane and ill-advised and in most cases illegal to abandon animals, how can it be humane to re-abandon them?”

Lisa Smith sees cats. She spots them in places that other people pass without seeing, a talent she developed in a rural childhood.

“Cats would show up; my mom actually would take them in and adopt them. I guess it’s in the blood,” says Smith. “And in every new location that I’ve moved to, it seems I’m faced with a new population of cats. And because of my upbringing, I see them. Most people don’t see them. I guess the radar is there.”

Lisa Smith is not her real name; like the other volunteer cat-trappers interviewed for this article, she asked that her name and other identifying features of her work with homeless cats not be revealed. The reasons are many. The people working in trap-neuter-release efforts are often women, working solo in isolated urban areas at night. They don’t want their trapping sites revealed, for fear that people bent on cruelty will find the trapped cats first. And, although they often work with the tacit permission of property owners, they worry that municipal authorities will somehow decide that what they are doing is illegal, just because it is unorthodox.

They also don’t advertise their efforts because they don’t want their front lawns to become the neighborhood dumping ground for unwanted cats and kittens. But theirs is a small community, and they often end up finding each other through word of mouth. Smith says that when she moved to the Capital Region from Indianapolis a few years ago, one of the first things she did was try to locate the key players in the homeless cat community.

It is difficult work, requiring a volunteer to return to a baited trap every hour or so through the night, because a stressed, trapped cat is highly susceptible to shock and exposure.

Yum: Some homeless cats are fed by concerned neighbors.

Smith and her cat-trapping partners try to place cats in adoptive homes whenever possible. Nature allows an incredibly narrow window of time to tame a kitten that’s born homeless: Once it reaches about six weeks, it’s almost impossible to get it to accept human contact, they say. Patient volunteers sometimes succeed in taming slightly older kittens, but shelters don’t have the staff or time for such intensive effort. No-kill shelters usually won’t accept feral cats at all, and shelters that euthanize animals generally kill any feral cats they receive.

This night’s work is a success, because one of Smith’s trapping partners later finds a cat in one of the two traps they have set. The cat is deemed suitable for placement, and a few days later, the newly spayed and vaccinated cat goes to her adoptive home.

The standard cost to have a trapped cat sterilized and treated through a private veterinarian is about $200, these women say. Cat-trappers try to negotiate reduced fees or find a shelter that will work with them for a lower cost on cats that are not household pets. Truly feral cats cannot be handled without being sedated; they can rip a person’s hands and arms to shreds, and not every veterinarian or shelter will work with them. Veterinarians participating in trap-neuter-release programs have to sedate such cats through the bars of the trap or cage.

Other cat-trappers, like Smith’s partners, prefer to work with certain private veterinarians with whom they have an established, comfortable relationship, and they pay the higher fee and pull the money together through donations or their own efforts.

Smith’s partners teamed up three years ago, and they estimate that they catch about 30 cats a year. That number might not seem large enough to make a dent in the homeless cat population, but trap-neuter-release advocates look for small victories in this frustrating work. A female cat usually bears two litters of three to five kittens a year; a male cat can impregnate dozens of females during a mating period. So Smith’s partners conservatively reason that they have prevented the birth of hundreds of unwanted cats.

And it may be that efforts such as theirs, which call for donated time and unlimited patience, will catch more cats than a massive sweep by inexperienced municipal authorities, because homeless cats are notoriously skittish and scatter at the slightest hint of danger. Sue Mahar, the longtime shelter volunteer and activist, tells of sitting in her car once years ago for eight hours in sub-zero weather, waiting for a single cat that knew her to enter a trap she had set.

“I tell people, ‘If you see one, there’s probably 10,’ ” Mahar says. “And they think, ‘I’ll just call someone to trap these cats, and they’ll go away.’ Well, that’s not going to work, because if they don’t recognize the scent of the person, they won’t go near the trap.”

The question of whether to feed a colony of homeless cats is even more controversial than the trap-neuter-release concept. Organizations that have addressed this issue have developed carefully worded policies that endorse the feeding of homeless cats by “caregivers,” as long as the feeding is combined with a number of strict conditions. Some of the more common conditions cited in these policy statements include a public education campaign about the pros and cons of feeding, mandatory registration of the caregivers with municipal authorities, and allowing a managed cat colony only in an area where the cats cannot threaten wildlife.

Even the Audubon Society—which estimates that feral and free-ranging cats kill hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion small mammals every year—has weighed in on the issue. In a draft statement slated for a vote by the statewide chapters next month, Audubon New York opposes the feeding of feral or free-ranging cats.

The draft statement also urges the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct a study of the feral cat population’s effect on wildlife, “with special attention to the feral cat ‘colonies’ maintained on public park lands by well meaning, but misguided individuals who proclaim their love of cats.”

Those are a few of the official positions. In the real world, there are people like Camilla Frances and Nigel Johnson, who find it difficult to look the other way, and who and work out their own solution as best they can.

Frances and Johnson moved to Albany’s downtown Mansion Neighborhood a few years ago from Columbia County. They had previously owned dogs and never would have classified themselves as cat enthusiasts. But a young and apparently homeless cat started showing up at their back windows, and Frances and Johnson started feeding her. This went on for a few months, until the cat disappeared in November 2003.

Frances and Johnson were on their way to a friend’s home for Thanksgiving dinner when the cat reappeared at their back door, obviously badly injured. They postponed their dinner plans, took the cat to a veterinarian and learned that she had been hit by a car. She recovered, but she lost an eye, and Frances and Johnson decided to keep her.

Gradually, they became aware of the other cats in their backyard, and took a couple more to their veterinarian for treatment.

“We had a long, philosophical talk with the vet about, ‘What should we do?’ ” recalls Johnson. Their vet urged them not to feed the cats, and they did stop for a while. In the meantime, they tried to gauge the interest in their neighborhood about organizing a homegrown trap-neuter-release program, while feeding the cats that already existed.

“As soon as we started to make some inquiries, we were told by some people who had tried it before that we should back off, that it was very controversial,” Johnson says. They decided to feed just the cat colony in their backyard, treat what cats they could catch and place as many in adoptive homes as possible. (Holly Katz, board chairman of the Mansion Neighborhood Association, says that Frances and Johnson have been commendably forthright about their work with the cats and that residents have been understanding and accepting of their efforts.)

The approach taken by Frances and Johnson is a variation of “managing” a colony: keeping it as healthy as possible by feeding it, while trying to find homes for adoptable cats. Many—although not all—organizations that take a stance on homeless cat populations approve of managed colonies, as long as the goal is the eventual elimination of the colony through attrition and sterilization.

Dr. Jan Scarlett, a veterinarian at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and an expert on shelter medicine, understands the dilemma faced by people like Frances and Johnson.

“As a person, I’m a veterinarian because I care about animals,” she says. “I’m concerned about their welfare, so I have a hard time telling someone, ‘You shouldn’t feed these animals.’ On the flip side, yes, they’ll be better nourished, less resistant to disease and they’ll also be better able to reproduce and they’ll survive longer. That’s why I’m an advocate of trap-alter-release.”

The past two years have included some hard lessons for Frances and Johnson. For now, they are keeping four cats they have taken in, although they are trying to find homes for two. They have placed one cat. Finding homes even for kittens is extremely difficult, as they have learned; once the kittens begin to mature, the difficulty ratchets up several notches.

They became discouraged about dealing with shelters, after a local shelter accidentally euthanized a kitten even though they had signed paperwork stating their desire to take it back if it could not be placed. Two other kittens they took to the same shelter contracted distemper there, and one died. Frances and Johnson were deeply upset at the time, but understand that such occurrences are the result of the incredibly overcrowded conditions at most shelters.

“I don’t think that you can hold the shelter responsible; they’re doing the best they can,” Frances says.

For now, Frances and Johnson plan to continue managing their little colony.

“I think first of all, it’s partly our responsibility,” Johnson says. “They’re out there. As a society, we do have a responsibility to help them as much as we can. We would not have considered ourselves cat people. And here we are, with four cats in the house who have given us a lot of pleasure. They give so much; they ask so little.”

And that hits upon the underlying philosophical issue about homeless cats, one that transcends all the scientific studies about their reproduction rates and the conflicting opinions about how many birds they really do kill each year: Humans are the reason there are millions of homeless cats in the first place, and like it or not, humans are going to have to figure out a way to reduce their numbers.

“We need to care about these animals,” says Dr. Jan Scarlett at Cornell. “We’re responsible. A very large percentage of the animals on the street have been previously owned. We’re responsible for them being there.”

Sue Mahar is even more blunt. Although the no-kill movement in shelters is gaining ground, millions of dogs and cats each year are still euthanized in the United States because they cannot be placed and shelters are so overcrowded. Those numbers should convince even skeptics to give the trap-neuter-release approach a try, she says.

“It’s aesthetically acceptable to most rational people who don’t want to kill animals just because they’re alive,” Mahar says. “When you have perfectly healthy adoptable animals that are being euthanized because there aren’t enough adoptive homes, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the feral cats will be euthanized.”


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