by Debbie Shaver
The story of a cat colony starts with one female cat. She can have up to four litters a year with an average of four kittens. The fact is, 80% of kittens born in the United States are born outdoors. These kittens come from colonies of cats called “community cats.” These are free-roaming cats or cats without a home. During kitten season, these babies pour into our shelter and foster systems by the thousands. Prevention is not as simple as telling people to “spay and neuter” your pets.
To fix this problem, we need animal volunteer organizations working alongside state and local governments to prioritize funding for affordable and accessible spay and neuter programs. This is the obvious first step in solving the stray/feral cat problem, so that fewer cats are less likely to be abandoned in the first place. Also needed is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay and neuter laws, along with increased efforts to educate the public about their responsibility to these cats.
One proven method that is being used to reduce the overpopulation of cats is called TNR, trap neuter, return. TNR is when outdoor feral cats are trapped with a humane trap, neutered/spayed, vaccinated, and then returned to their outdoor home. Ending the cycle will require going back to the colony and getting every single cat sterilized. This assures that there will be no new kittens born to add to a world where there are already too many.
Spay and neuter has to be done not only to our pet cats, but also the cats that live outside on the streets in our community. If you spot a cat outside in your neighborhood, the first thing to look for is a tipped ear. An ear tip is the removal of the top ⅜ inch of the left ear of the cat. This signifies they have been through the TNR program. By trapping and fixing community cats, we can help prevent thousands of unwanted kittens from being born on the streets.
TNR has enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound and then have to euthanize. This comes at a time when shelters are feeling immense pressure to be a “no kill’ shelter. In addition, releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.
How well TNR’d cats fare is up for debate. Cats are not self-sustaining, as they do not belong on the street. This means colonies need to have “colony caretakers” willing to devote time and money so they can thrive. Without human interaction, they can suffer from malnutrition and infections. There is also the element of danger from living outside. The cats can get sick, hit by cars, poisoned, eaten by a coyote, or starve to death as people move and leave the cats. Some of the cats are returned to neighborhoods where they are not really wanted in the first place. Many cats go back to industrial or large apartment complexes where food, water and shelter can be scarce.
TNR begins with trappers and resources are desperately needed to support them. Volunteer trappers are the “boots on the ground” out in the field, working tirelessly day in and day out trapping and transporting. Without the hard work and dedication of the trappers, there would be no TNR program. Trapping takes extraordinary skill and dedication as rescuing seems like an uphill battle that never ends. These people are at a high risk for “compassion fatigue” which can cause depression, exhaustion, emotional drain, and short temperament. Trappers are the true heroes when it comes to reducing the overall population of cats and kittens.
Fostering is another important part of the equation. People always tell me that they can’t foster, because there is no way they would be able to give up such a perfect cat. The thing is, it’s not about us, it’s about saving lives. Remember the alternative: They would be in a shelter cage or on the street. With the unending flow of kittens and limited resources, tough choices have to be made. Due to lack of resources, terminating kittens in pregnant cats is practiced at most animal shelters, as the resources are needed for the animals that already exist.
Kittens as young as three months old may have to be TNR’d, as there is not enough time, space, or ability to socialize them. The ideal window for the socialization of kittens is between four and eight weeks. Remember, these kittens are mostly born outdoors, so early human interaction is crucial. So don’t just be a cat lover; be a foster.
Funding, free/low cost spay and neuter, TNR and fostering are the ways we can change the future for cats. Taking action is “preventable suffering” as we must do better for cats and kittens. I hope if you are reading this, and you feel touched by this story, you will be that somebody that takes action.
Debbie Shaver is a volunteer TNR, community colony feeder and foster. Her rescue group is called Feral Cat Support, #nomorestreetcats.