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How to help your neighborhood's feral felines: tips for keeping neighborhood cats safe

Caring for feral cat colonies takes a village

All Animals magazine, July/August 2016

by Julie Falconer

Caring for feral cat colonies can be a communal effort. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Cats

Beth McNulty was used to seeing the occasional cat cross her property. In her rural community in Monrovia, Maryland, some of her neighbors let their pet cats roam free. And from time to time, a stray would show up and take shelter in her backyard shed. Over the years, she’d adopted two of these strays and found homes for a few more.

It was all manageable as long as the unexpected cats came in a trickle. But in 2010, looking out her kitchen window one summer morning, McNulty spied five black teenage kittens in her backyard. The next day, she counted 11 cats and kittens, and she started to panic.

She already had three indoor-only cats. She’d just recently managed to stop her cat Murphys (named for an Irish beer) from spraying, and she feared any additional feline housemates, even temporary fosters, would increase his stress and trigger a return to his old habits.

Her first thought was to take the cats to the local shelter. But they were wild, and the shelter was already struggling with too many cats. McNulty, an operations manager with The HSUS, had heard some of her coworkers talk about trap-neuter-return (TNR), so her next plan was to borrow traps and get her new backyard residents sterilized.

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Neither course of action would have solved the problem in the long term. As McNulty later learned, the cats were part of a large colony a few houses away. Their caregiver had been feeding dozens of cats in her backyard for more than a decade.

It was a scenario that Susan Richmond, executive director of Neighborhood Cats in New York City, sees all too often. “A lot of people with good intentions will feed, feed, feed,” she says, “and they won’t go ahead and fix the cats. And nobody wants the cats to be hungry, but that’s not providing a solution.”

For the first time, McNulty realized where the cats she’d found over the years likely originated. She also solved the mystery of the sudden new influx: Next to the caregiver’s house was a former junkyard. The owner had started clearing out the old scrap metal, and some of the cats had been scared away by the noise and chaos.

McNulty enlisted the help of her HSUS friends and another cat-loving neighbor to raise money for the spay/neuter surgeries and to organize a neighborhood-wide trapping effort. Thirty adult cats and older kittens were sterilized, and since the junkyard clearing had ended, they were returned to the caregiver’s property. Three young kittens were placed with a local rescue group. McNulty hasn’t seen a kitten born in her neighborhood since.

Beth McNulty worked with neighbors to have the more than 30 feral felines near her home spayed/neutered. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS

Looking back, McNulty sees how easily she could have followed the wrong approach. If she’d taken the cats to the shelter, they would likely have been euthanized, while the remaining cats in the colony down the street continued to produce more litters. If she’d simply sterilized the cats in her backyard, she would have only prevented a third of the neighborhood cats from reproducing.

“There would probably be like 100 cats around here,” she says. “They were all living in my neighbor’s backyard for so long, and I had no idea. I felt glad it all worked out the way it did so I was able to take care of the problem. It was a small amount of work for the payoff.”

Today, as a seasoned community cat advocate, McNulty is comfortable talking about TNR with strangers. But she still remembers how intimidating it felt six years ago to approach neighbors she barely knew. “I didn’t feel qualified to talk about the issue, and I was worried they’d think I was blaming them for the cats.”

Such fears are a common stumbling block to successful TNR efforts, says Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for The HSUS. The basic TNR strategy is simple: It involves sterilizing and vaccinating the free-roaming unowned cats in an area and returning them to their territory, where they’re fed and monitored. The cats have safer, healthier lives, and their numbers dwindle over time. But in real life, TNR is as much about talking to people as it is about trapping cats.

“I sometimes think it’s so funny that there’s this stereotype of the crazy cat lady who loves cats and can’t connect to people,” says Lisnik, “when the kind of personality that you really need to excel in TNR is someone who is very outgoing and willing to talk with people and engage with them and listen.”

...the kind of personality that you really need to excel in TNR is someone who is very outgoing and willing to talk with people and engage with them and listen.
- Katie Lisnik

Richmond shares that message with the hundreds of people each year who attend Neighborhood Cats’ TNR workshops.

“People think when you’re going to fix a colony that the first step you do is go get your traps and set them out and get them to the clinic, but that’s actually toward the end of the process,” she says. “The first thing you want to do is establish lines of communication with the community that you’re working in.”

For most people, that simply means walking around their neighborhood, knocking on doors and talking with people to figure out how many cats there are, where they hang out and who is feeding them. Richmond coaches TNR newbies through a variety of scenarios, so that even shy types can become comfortable initiating these conversations.

Without this essential legwork, a TNR project risks sterilizing one group of cats while another nearby colony continues to breed. The cats who were fixed will have better lives, Richmond says, “but it’s not going to help anyone else. The [breeding] colony is going to quickly make up for the reduced reproductive capacity. So if you’re going to do this and expect to have an impact, you really have to strive for the 100-percent sterilization [in a target area] or as close to it as you can.”

Taking the time to explain TNR to the people who live or work in the area where the cats are living pays off in several ways, says Lisnik. Whether they’re motivated by compassion for animals or the promise of fewer cats in the future, they’ll often become part of a team that assists with trapping or contributes money for the spay/neuter surgeries. After the cats are sterilized, residents will help feed and monitor the cats and identify any unsterilized newcomers, ensuring that cat numbers decrease over time.

Humane traps help caretakers catch cats before they undergo spay/neuter surgeries. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Cats

Lisnik learned the benefits of an open approach to TNR more than a decade ago from Friends of Feral Felines, a TNR group in Portland, Maine. One of the organization’s early projects was sterilizing community cats who lived around the docks at the city’s waterfront. “We first started going in under the radar, trying to do some TNR, and the efforts were immediately thwarted because all the fishermen loved the cats and thought we were coming in to trap and remove them or kill them,” she remembers. “We didn’t think anybody would care about the cats, which they very, very clearly did. Once they got over their mistrust and understood what we were doing, they fully participated, and that’s why it was a success.”

Of course, community outreach doesn’t mean dealing solely with people who care about the cats. In neighborhoods where the feline population has long been out of control, some residents may consider cats a nuisance.

Richmond encourages people to address the controversy directly, explaining to neighbors how TNR can drastically reduce or completely eliminate the problems they’re having with the cats, such as the yowling, fighting and spraying that accompany mating. “You can often take someone who’s really hostile and turn that around and have that person even become a supporter,” she says.

Humane traps help caretakers catch cats before they undergo spay/neuter surgeries. Photo by Chris Lake/For The HSUS

It’s only by talking with the people involved that you can figure out the best solution to a cats-versus-people conflict, says Renee Clark with Cat’s Cradle in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Clark remembers one situation in which residents at an assisted living complex were feeding feral cats. The residents loved the cats, but a neighbor across the street was calling for their removal. Sterilizing the cats resolved his complaints about the noise and smell, but he also didn’t want to see them lounging in front of his house. So Clark and other volunteers set up feeding stations in the woods on the opposite side of the complex.

“As soon as you moved the feeding stations, you never saw cats out front anymore,” Clark says. “We probably moved them just 20 to 30 feet, but there wasn’t anything drawing them to that neighbor’s side anymore.”

Some scenarios call for more creative solutions or some inexpensive technology. Richmond describes a situation in which a Brooklyn resident was irate about cats coming into his yard.

The cats came from a colony of six who were fed in a neighboring yard. They were sterilized and well cared for and weren’t doing any damage—the man simply didn’t want them crossing his yard.

“Digging in your heels and saying, ‘Well, the cats have a right to be here, and too bad for you,’ is not a good approach,” Richmond says. “We just said, ‘We understand. This is your home. You don’t want them here. They are fed and sheltered next door, but if their presence is disturbing to you, let’s see if we can find a solution.’”

Neighborhood Cats installed two motion-activated sprinklers, and the cats quickly learned to avoid the man’s yard. “That was pretty much the end of the problem,” Richmond says. “As soon as he understood that he was being listened to and we stopped the cats from going where he didn’t want them to be, it was fine, and they’re still successfully in their colony.

After the cats are captured and undergo spay/neuter surgeries, they are returned to their colonies to reunite with their feline friends. Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Cats

In the 13 years that she’s been caring for community cats in Montgomery County, Maryland, Connie Markwood has successfully negotiated with cat lovers who didn’t want her help, cat haters who blamed her for the animals’ existence, as well as property developers, business owners and city officials. She’s had a few tense conversations, but she’s found that most people applaud her work, and many of them want to help.

It all started in 2003 when Markwood spied a group of feral kittens outside her local post office. Pretty soon, she was seeing cats everywhere: outside a Pizza Hut, a supermarket, an auto repair shop, a strip mall, the rusted shell of a long-closed laundromat.

A self-described “dog person,” Markwood knew nothing about TNR and had never even owned a cat. But she quickly realized that just feeding the cats wasn’t the solution. And as a natural extrovert and former police officer, she wasn’t shy about approaching people.

She discovered that the laundromat cats were being fed by an elderly man who lived next to the property. Two women had been feeding cats at the other locations for nearly 20 years.

Altogether, there were more than 100 cats among eight nearby locations and “kittens everywhere,” remembers Markwood. Still, no one wanted her help. “The cats were their babies,” she says. “They didn’t think anyone else would feed them properly.”

Fortunately, she persevered and eventually won the trust of the longtime caregivers. Online research led her to information on TNR, and she enlisted the help of Metro Ferals, a D.C.-based nonprofit, to sterilize the cats. She met with the owners of wooded areas near where the cats were living and gained permission to place feeding stations and shelters in these more discreet spots. She made friends with employees at nearby businesses, and she recruited more volunteers to the effort by placing ads on a community website.

Two outdoor kittens cuddle together. Photo by Marco Garcia/For The HSUS

On a Saturday morning, as she makes her feeding rounds in a white SUV stocked with cat kibble, cans of Friskies and gallon jugs of water, the results of her efforts are obvious. The post office and Pizza Hut colonies no longer exist; those cats have since died or been adopted. There are 44 cats among the remaining colonies, not counting Swat, a brown tabby from the laundromat colony who is recovering from dental surgery in Markwood’s garage.

The colonies are located in a commercial district, yet the cats are nearly invisible to passersby. There are none loitering on sidewalks or hanging out on the edges of parking lots. Feeding stations and shelters are tucked back into the strips of woods adjacent to developed lands. Like the cats, they blend into the landscape.

At each stop, Markwood’s voice seems to magically conjure cats from the undergrowth, all bearing the left ear-tip that marks them as sterilized members of a managed colony. They cluster around feeding stations, looking alert and expectant. A few, like Evil—an elderly male in the auto shop colony—have surpassed the pleasingly plump stage.

“He lives to eat,” Markwood says, looking both exasperated and fond as he waddles by.

Most are middle-aged or older now, and eventually these colonies, too, will become nonexistent.

In the meantime, the cats appear healthy and content with their outdoor lives. They have insulated shelters that volunteers stuff with fresh straw bedding every fall and feeding stations with tiled roofs to protect them from the rain. They have veterinary care as needed and daily deliveries of food and fresh water. Most of all, they have a team of dedicated caretakers led by Markwood, who turned her community’s cats into a community effort.

HSUS web specialist Krista Rakovan tends to a feral cat colony in Damascus, Maryland. Photo by Kathy Milani/The HSUS


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