Feral cats not just a local problem

Derrick Thomas

Five million.  According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, up to 5 million U.S. cats are euthanized in shelters each year.

With an estimated population of anywhere from 20,000-50,000 feral cats, this is a problem all too familiar with the Athens area.  The Athens-Clarke county Commission, however, has made an attempt to control the problem when it approved a new method for which to handle such animals.

In a 9-1 vote Tuesday evening, the commission passed legislation supporting the trap-neuter-release method of controlling stray cats, also called TNR.  TNR programs allow citizens to feed, trap and vaccinate feral cats before releasing them back into the wild.  TNR practitioners are now allowed to legally register feral cat colonies, thanks to Tuesday’s vote.

TNR is an alternative to rounding up and euthanizing stray cats.  Both the issue and the proposed solutions have been debated in the community for some time.

“TNR is one component of reducing the population of stray/feral cats within the community,” said Athens Mayor Heidi Davison.  “Will it be successful – I hope so.”

District 7 Commission Kathy Hoard agrees.

“Considering the minimal funds budgeted for humanely dealing with our stray and feral population, a public/private partnership with our government and dedicated volunteers appears appropriate,” said Hoard.

Many, however, do not see TNR programs as a viable solution to the problem.  District 1 Commissioner Doug Lowry was the only member to oppose Tuesday evening’s vote.

“This will not reduce the number of feral cats in the community,” said Lowry.  “We don’t know anything about the scope of this issue.  There is no evidence that (TNR programs such as these) will work.”

Mayor Davison, on the other hand, believes TNR programs have already been proven effective.

“There are colonies in Athens that began with 30+ cats, that are now reduced to… a very small number of cats that are not adoptable,” said Davison.

Some experts say that TNR programs may not be the ultimate solution, but they should help.  Amanda Rodriguez is the owner of Pawtropolis, a local organization devoted to caring for pets and animals.

“We must have stricter spay and neutering laws, and we have to educate the public in addition to these programs.  But to say that (such TNR programs) won’t make a difference is just ignorant,” said Rodriguez.

The Classic City, however, is not the first community divided by this issue.  Feral cats have caused a stir in communities – large and small – throughout the country.

In Jacksonville, FL, First Coast No More Homeless Pets (FCNMHP) runs a program called Feral Freedom.  One of the first of its kind in the nation, the program, in conjunction with the Jacksonville Humane Society, brings stray cats in off the streets to be cared for.  They are vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and given a health check.  Before being released, they are also “micro-chipped,” which enables the cats and their colonies to be monitored in the future.

According to Rick DuCharme of Florida’s Feral Freedom, the program has led to a 26% decrease in shelter intake.  The live release rate has risen from 10% to 50%, and there has been a nearly 60% decrease in the amount of adult feral cats in the community.

Not all such programs in major cities have been well-received, however.

Los Angeles, which has a feral cat population of around 3 million cats, according to the Department of Animal Services, has been dealing with this issue for years.  TNR programs had been promoted and funded by the government, and were the preferred method of controlling feral cats.

In a December 2009 decision, however, a Superior Court judge ruled that the programs – and their funding – be suspended.  The judge ordered that the entire issue be more closely reviewed before the city could continue to support it.

Smaller communities, such as in Evanston, Il, Point Pleasant Beach, NJ and that surrounding Penn State University, have also dealt with growing feral cat communities.  All have used a variety of methods, with varying results.

Tuesday night’s vote was the culmination of months of study and debate.  But it certainly is not the end of the issue.

“It’s one piece of a much larger pie of policy,” said District 9 Commission Kelly Girtz.

“I hope the individuals who are managing colonies and those within our scientific community will seize this opportunity to work together to help us evaluate the program so that an informed decision can be made as to its efficacy,” said Davison.  “We will certainly be looking at other strategies, including increased education, knowing that TNR alone will not solve the problem.”

The legislation approved Tuesday night calls for a review process one year into the legislation, at which point the programs will be reevaluated.  The legislation also calls for a review at the three-year point, with new criteria being evaluated at each point.

“I’d be happy to not talk about cats for a couple weeks,” said Girtz, whose idea it was to include the mandatory review in the legislation.  “But we’re already getting experts together for the evaluation process next year.”

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