Loree O’Hagan’s new home in Great Cacapon, West Virginia, came with four bedrooms, a wrap-around deck, a view of the mountains—and a family of feral cats.
That last detail wasn’t mentioned in the seller’s disclosure report, but O’Hagan and her husband got an inkling on moving day, when they spotted a scruffy orange-and-white tom slinking around the property.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to get him fixed,” O’Hagan says. “He just looked really beat up, and I knew enough to know that intact males would roam around and get in fights.”
O’Hagan soon learned the cat she’d begun calling Floyd wasn’t the only one who needed fixing: There was also a mom cat and two kittens. Her home’s former owner had been caring for the group, and another neighbor had since taken over the feeding.
I knew immediately that I wanted to get him fixed. He just looked really beat up, and I knew enough to know that intact males would roam around and get in fights.
Years before, when she lived in the Metro D.C. area, O’Hagan met a woman who volunteered with a local trap-neuter-return program. She’d considered volunteering herself, but “it seemed too overwhelming,” she says. “Then we bought this house and it came with these cats and I had to face it and do something.”
Multiplying the power of one
If you’re seeing free-roaming cats in your neighborhood, grab your detective hat and possibly your binoculars, says Bays. Check to see if the cats have ear-tips, where the top of one ear (typically the left) is clipped so it’s flat instead of pointed. That’s the sign of a community cat who has been through a TNR program.
If the cats don’t have ear-tips, you need to learn more about them. Talk to your neighbors the old-fashioned way—knock on doors, post flyers. Or the new-fashioned way—send them a text or post your flyer on social media. If you see a spot where cats are being fed, leave a note with your contact information, making it clear that you want to help the kitties.
Why can’t you just trap the cats and skip the community outreach? Well, for starters, you need to know when and where the cats eat to maximize your chances of trapping success, you need their human feeders to withhold food on the days you plan to trap, and you want to avoid trapping a sterilized pet accidentally.
You also need an accurate headcount. The cats you’re seeing in your backyard could be the harbingers of a larger colony nearby. TNR will certainly improve their lives, but if there are other unsterilized community cats nearby, you won’t have a long-term impact on their numbers.
Vanessa Smetkowski, author of the Cats In My Yard blog, learned that lesson not long after she started trapping cats in northwest Chicago in 2004.
In the beginning, her goal was to trap one cat: an injured feral who had started hanging out in her yard. But in the weeks it took to catch the brown-and-white tabby, Smetkowski trapped a dozen other community cats.
“It was like a lightbulb went on,” she says. “I realized, ‘Oh, there’s a problem here. What are all these cats doing here?’ ”
Learn where the cats eat to maximize your chances of trapping success.
Have human feeders withhold food on the days you plan to trap.
Get an accurate headcount.
To answer that question, she started knocking on doors and talking with neighbors. Within a few years, she was trapping in a roughly 1-square-kilometer region around her home, with help from neighbors who fed the cats. By 2016, with no new kittens being born, community cat numbers in her target area had decreased by 83%.
The door-to-door approach takes time, but it allows for personal conversations in which you explain how TNR will improve the cats’ health, lessen nuisance behaviors like spraying and yowling, and help protect wildlife by stopping more outdoor cats from being born, she says. “Once you start doing it, people are pretty receptive and friendly. I’m amazed at how quickly they invite you inside.”
You can also enlist other animal lovers to help with trapping, colony caretaking or covering veterinary expenses. Just because you’re spearheading the effort doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. In fact, many TNR advocates cite the lifetime friendships they’ve formed as one of the rewards of their work.
Smetkowski became such a trusted fixture in her community that families would insist she eat dinner with them while she monitored the traps in their yards. When she moved from Chicago to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, earlier this year, she left behind a network of seasoned caretakers, who continue to send her photos and updates on the cats.
TNR “made me more attuned with my community,” she says, and gave her a sense of accomplishment. “In a world full of problems, it was like my contribution—the one thing I can do something about.”
The local touch
While you’re learning more about the cat situation in your neighborhood, investigate the TNR resources in your area. Reach out to local shelters, rescue groups and spay/neuter clinics to learn about trap loan and sterilization programs for community cats and, if money is an issue, whether they can cover part or all of the veterinary costs.
These connections will pay off if you encounter unexpected scenarios, says Smetkowski, who recalls the time she trapped a cat who turned out to be declawed. Unwilling to release a cat who lacked a key natural defense, she turned to her contacts within local feline rescue groups, who were able to find the cat a foster home.
While TNR videos and online guides can teach you plenty, it helps to find a mentor, whether it’s someone who can accompany you on your first trapping or a seasoned advocate you can call for advice.