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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 28 May 2002 Issue

Alternative to euthanizing feral cats

If the little striped cat could talk, her comments would be unprintable.  That's how angry she appears, trapped in a narrow wire cage in a garage on Cleveland's East Side.

She twirls wildly and hisses as Matt Granito strides toward her.   
    
"She's about 6 months old, looks well fed," he says, kneeling to survey his hissing captive.  He guesses correctly that the cat is female because the neck is very narrow, unlike the thick neck developed by an un-neutered male.

"She's probably never been so close to a human," he says, as her frenzy rocks the cage.

He carries the trapped cat to his van, plunks it in the way-back and heads across town to Tremont to the Animal Protective League, where he is deputy director and chief animal cruelty investigator. En route, the cat sinks into a slow simmer, tucking her little paws under her forearms.

This time last year, the little cat would have been on her way to an unhappy ending - death at the hands of an APL technician. That's how the APL attempted to control the feral cat population, which Granito estimates at
40,000 to 50,000 in Cuyahoga County and 15,000 to 20,000 in Cleveland. Feral cats are domestic cats that have returned to a wild state.

In June, the APL adopted a radical new feral cat control program that allows the cats to live. It's called trap/neuter/return, in which cats are sterilized before being returned to their home turf. The cats are trapped in
areas where residents complain about feral cats.

"It's not only humane, it addresses the problem," says Jeff Kocian, APL executive director. Neutered males stop fighting and spraying urine to mark their territory, spayed females stop howling during fertile cycles, and the population declines as fewer cats reproduce.

The old system of trap and euthanize wasn't effective. In fact, says Granito, feral cat complaints increased yearly the last three years the former program was in use. In 1998, the APL received about 700 feral cat complaints, about 800 in 1999 and about 900 in 2000.

Euthanizing cats is a temporary solution, says Kocian, because the remaining cats in a colony tend to overbreed to compensate for the reduced numbers. A colony averages 30 cats. Sterilized cats maintain their positions in their colony, keeping other feral cats from encroaching on the food source.

"If you have a colony and we trap 30 cats and euthanize them, the next spring you'll call again, because you'll have a new colony moved in," he says.

Trap/neuter/return also costs less than euthanizing, says Zoe Carson, program manager for Alley Cat Allies, the national clearinghouse for feral cat control information. She cites a model program in Orange County, Fla., where from December 1995 to May 1998, 2,298 cats were trapped, sterilized and returned, at a cost of $124,768. Sheltering and euthanizing that number of cats would have cost $233,940.

Kocian says that over time, the numbers of colonies will slowly decrease.

"Instead of trapping 100 colonies every year, we may end up trapping 30 colonies in five years. That's what others say happens," he says. "We're in for the endless long haul."

Since June, the APL has processed about 400 feral cats trapped in Cleveland, South Euclid and Parma Heights. The South Euclid cats are trapped by volunteers and delivered to the APL. The Parma Heights cats are caught by the city, and the APL handles pickup and return.

A $20,000 grant from the Kenneth Scott Foundation is financing the program's first year or so. Kocian expects other grants to cover subsequent years of the program, which will be offered to other cities soon.

"The more communities involved, obviously the greater the effectiveness," says Granito.

Rainer Bertulies, Parma Heights animal control officer, is very satisfied with the program. "It was tough knowing the cats were being euthanized," he says.

Within hours of arriving at the APL, a feral cat gets a lifetime of health care crammed into a half-hour with veterinarian Dr. Karen Metz and her assistant, Jamie Poss. The cat is anesthetized and tested for fatal feline diseases. If a cat tests positive, it is euthanized. About 50 percent of males age 1 year or older test positive. If a cat tests negative, it is inoculated against rabies and common cat diseases and sterilized.

Metz's hands deftly fly through the surgery in about two minutes for a male cat, about 15 for a female. "Considering how many spays and neuters I have to do, I have to be fast," she says.

After surgery, the tip of one of the cat's ears is lopped off to distinguish it from ferals who have not been sterilized. This procedure allows for immediate recognition if the cat is subsequently re-trapped.

"It's the Vincent van Gogh look," says Metz.

A day or two later, the cat is returned to its neighborhood of origin to live out its life, on average three years.

Each female cat sterilization represents a significant potential reduction in cat population. According to a study of a feral cat colony in San Jose, Calif., one unspayed female and all her unspayed female offspring will have more than 3,200 kittens over 12 years.

While the trap/sterilize/return program is new in Cleveland, it has been effectively used for 30 years in South Africa, England, Australia and Denmark, says Carson.

It also has been successfully reducing the feral cat population in many American cities, including Pittsburgh, Atlantic City, N.J., San Diego, San Francisco, Washington and Los Angeles. In June 2000, Columbus became the first city in Ohio to trap and to sterilize feral cats.

"Every time we go into a new municipality, they want to know if it can really work," says Carson. "We say, 'Of course.' We've implemented it in many locales, and you name it, it works."

Reporter Fran Henry:

fhenry@plaind.com, 216-999-4806

Return to Animals in Print 28 May 2002 Issue

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