Cat Trap Fever: The best of the bad options for feral cats?
One every six minutes, seven days a week, eight hours a day. That’s the rate at which the Lied Animal Shelter euthanized cats in 2009. Seventy-five a day, upwards of 27,000 a year, according to Keith Williams, founder of the Community Cat Coalition of Clark County — C5 for short. The vast majority of those killed were feral or free-roaming cats, many left behind by their owners during the recession.
Since then, thanks to an epiphany by shelter administration and government officials that trapping, sterilizing and returning cats to their outdoor colonies has more potential of breaking the cycle of overpopulation than mass euthanasia, the killing has plummeted.
Last year, the shelter euthanized fewer than four cats a day. In December, the shelter put down just 66 cats the entire month, a record low.
That’s freed up cage space for other animals, allowing Lied to hold more dogs for adoption, reduce their euthanasia rate, and save close to $1 million annually in food and other costs.
“Trapping, neutering and releasing is responsible for 90 percent of the progress on the cat side, while mandatory spay and neuter brought down the dog numbers,” says Williams.
Lesser of two evils?
Trapping, neutering and releasing (TNR), a process that involves rounding up all, or almost all of the cats in a colony, sterilizing, vaccinating and returning them to their outdoor homes, isn’t perfect. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are among its most vociferous opponents and liken the process to abandonment.
“The average lifespan of a cat who lives outdoors is just 1 to 5 years, compared to 12 to 20 years for a cat who lives indoors,” PETA’s website says. “Instead of being adopted into loving homes or painlessly euthanized, abandoned cats suffer terribly and often die slowly from deadly contagious diseases, painful injuries, parasite infestations, dehydration, exposure, attacks by predators (including cruel people), and more.”
“They won’t die comfortably in someone’s arms; they will die badly,” PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk told the Washington Post in 2014. “It’s no kindness; it’s because people feel uncomfortable with euthanasia. That’s understandable, but it’s no excuse.”
But given a choice between bad options, many experts agree, TNR reduces populations, saves lives and taxpayer money.
Boulder City, a holdout in the TNR movement, adopted an ordinance in 2017 permitting the process. Last week the shelter received a $25,000 grant from Maddie’s Fund, a Lake Tahoe based organization that assists shelters in reducing euthanasia.
In Washoe County and Reno, cats are allowed to run at large.
A report authored by Washoe Animal Control says the department found “approximately 90% of people reporting a concern with feral cats would rather handle this problem through a non-lethal program.”
But not in Henderson, says acting Animal Control director Danielle Harney.
A premier community
“The City of Henderson prides themselves on being a premier community. The laws reflect the standards the community wants to live by,” says Harney.
In Southern Nevada, where the free-roaming cat population is estimated at 200,000, the Henderson City Council, which runs the second largest city in the state, refuses to allow TNR. City law requires anyone who traps a cat in Henderson to turn it in to Animal Control to be evaluated for adoption — an almost certain death sentence for feral cats.
Harney says she has no idea of the scope of the feral cat problem and admits the city has no plan for managing the herd.
“We euthanize them,” she says of the Henderson shelter, which just proclaimed itself to be no-kill, meaning no more than ten percent of animals taken in are euthanized.
Henderson Mayor Debra March and other members of the city council declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Their position is the cats are a horrible scourge on the landscape, so the only answer is to take them to the shelter and have them euthanized,” says Williams with C5. “But they don’t go out and actively trap.”
But killing the occasional cat or two brought in by residents will have little impact on preventing breeding in the colony, experts say. In the same vein, trapping, neutering and releasing just a few cats is equally ineffective. Successful TNR, they say, requires between 71 and 94 percent of all cats in the colony be sterilized.
“The effort to eradicate homeless cats is not only an inhumane and costly approach, it also is futile,” says the website of Best Friends, a non-profit facilitating TNR for the Lied shelter. “If killing community cats were the solution, free-roaming cats would be eliminated by now. In fact, catching and killing one group of community cats simply opens that niche for another group of cats.”
“We trap colonies, not cats, ” says Williams. C5, has trapped, neutered and released more than 35,000 cats since 2010. The Lied Shelter has TNR’d 7,000 since 2015. Intake and euthanasia rates have plummeted at Lied in that time, but not at Henderson’s shelter.
Since 2014, the cat euthanasia rate at Lied has dropped from 55 to 18 percent. In the same time, the cat euthanasia rate at Henderson’s shelter has hovered around 30 percent, with the city putting down an average of 330 cats each of the last three years – an increase over a decade ago when the city euthanized 250 cats in 2009.
“With those kind of numbers, they are not a player,” says Williams. “Trapping goes to the source of the problem, rather than having to clean up a disaster after it happens, which is where Henderson is headed.”
Henderson officials failed to explain the disposition of hundreds of stray cats a year impounded but not accounted for in the shelter’s euthanasia statistics. (See table below)
A female cat has as many as three litters of four kittens, on average, a year.
“So 200,000 intact cats in the valley, and half are female. Each will have a litter of about four kittens this spring. That’s 400,000 kittens,” says Williams, a retired engineer with no background in animal welfare. “Half will die before they are two months old. Ninety percent will die by the time they are a year. Still, that’s 40,000 kittens from just the first litter of the year. The Henderson shelter euthanizes a couple hundred a year. If they were really doing trap and euthanize, they couldn’t be no kill. It’s impossible. Instead, they are doing nothing.”
“What I can tell you, the numbers coming in don’t reflect that kind of growth,” says Harney.
That may be because until recently, Henderson officials “looked the other way,” Williams said, allowing C5 and other trapping groups to venture into Henderson.
“We’ve trapped at 93 different locations in Henderson and TNR’d 570 cats,” Williams said. “The government didn’t want to pass an ordinance legalizing TNR, but said ‘we aren’t going to pester you if you do it.’ But since last year they’ve gotten increasingly hostile.”
Best Friends, the non-profit running TNR efforts at Lied, turns down requests from Henderson residents to assist with TNR in Henderson, for fear of losing its license. because the law prohibits TNR in Henderson.
It costs twice as much to trap and euthanize a cat as it does to TNR, says Best Friends, citing research that estimates the cost of TNR from $20 to $97 per cat and impounding and lethal injection from $52 to $123.
Lied receives grants to help cover the costs.
Harney, the Henderson acting Animal Control director, doesn’t know the cost of euthanizing a cat in Henderson.
“You have the drugs. You also have the technician, as well as time and training as well as overall costs to maintain the crematorium,” she says. “We have a $139,000 budget. We make that budget work regardless of how many animals we get into the shelter.”
Harney say the city contracts with Black Mountain Animal Hospital, whose doctors work for free after the city’s budget runs out.
Heaven Can Wait, a non-profit, low-cost spay and neuter clinic in Las Vegas, has sterilized and vaccinated more than 140,000 dogs and cats in the last decade. C5, which has TNR’d more than 35,000 cats, runs on donations, volunteer trappers and veterinarians, who donate their services at Heaven Can Wait for mass sterilization events coordinated by C5.
“You can get volunteers all day long to save cats,” says Williams, who spoke with the Current during a four hour clinic at Heaven Can Wait during which 100 trapped cats were sterilized and vaccinated. All were headed back where they came from within a few days.
“No policy beyond euthanizing”
In the City and County of Elko, which share animal control responsibilities, feral cats are euthanized the same day they are brought to the shelter, which lacks the space to house the animals long enough to conduct adequate behavioral evaluations, according to experts, who say the process takes days.
“They aren’t killed right away,” says Connie Manley, a longtime animal control officer for the Elko County Sheriff’s department. “They give them a couple of hours to calm down.”
In 2016 the shelter took in and euthanized 305 feral cats; 336 in 2017; and 325 in 2018.
“The problem is massive,” says Manley. “I joke that I’m going to wake up with cats hanging over the edge of our roofs. There is no policy for managing them beyond euthanizing.”
Manley says the city has a ordinance “like a leash law, but it’s very difficult to enforce.”
Back in 2004, Manley says she spent an entire weekend trapping, neutering and releasing cats in Jackpot, about 100 miles from Elko.
“It was a lot of work. I lined up vets from out of town,” she says. “But the community dropped the ball and didn’t keep up with the trapping. I would do anything to reduce the numbers we have now.”
“If you TNR an entire colony and walk away for five years, it’s as if you were never there,” says Williams, noting the long-term commitment required to make TNR successful.
“We only trap for colony caretakers who are taking care of the cats and want those cats back,” says Williams, noting that caregivers must vigilantly watch for newcomers to the colony.
An ounce of prevention
TNR provides only limited protection against rabies, say its detractors.
“No management system for feral cats currently existing in any city under which these cats are allowed to roam freely can guarantee that the cats remain effectively vaccinated for the many diseases that may infect cats, including rabies, because of the need to vaccinate at periodic intervals.” the City of Henderson said in a statement to the Current.
Dr. Terry Muratore of Legacy Animal Hospital in Henderson, says one dose is highly preferable to none. He says Henderson officials would be wise to allow TNR and the feeding of feral colonies. Muratore says colonies of starving, sick felines are far more of a threat to humans than robust, well-fed cats.
Kittens in peril
Another drawback of TNR — the potential to temporarily deprive kittens of their mother.
“If a doctor tells us a cat just had kittens, we have to hold it for 24 hours so the anesthesia wears off, but we will take that cat back as soon as it’s safe,” says Williams. Spayed cats are usually able to continue nursing.
Henderson’s policy of trapping and euthanizing leaves undiscovered kittens at even more peril, since their mother will never return.
Perhaps the greatest objection to feral cats worldwide is their potential to prey on wildlife. A study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimates that free-roaming cats kill up to 22 billion birds a year.
“First, we need to identify the areas where cats pose the greatest risk—to biodiversity and to human health—and are in the greatest danger themselves,” said one of the authors of the study, Dr. Peter Marra, in an interview. “Cats need to be removed from these areas immediately. Once they’re removed, they can be adopted, put in a sanctuary or, as a last resort, euthanized,”
“There is no credible scientific study that shows cats to be a significant threat to birds,” Gregory Castle, interim chief executive officer for Best Friends Animal Society, said in 2010. “Songbird decline is mainly due to loss of habitat due to deforestation, urbanization and development, as well as window collisions (especially with high rise glass buildings), wind turbine generators, common pesticides and lawn care products.”
“These cats are really terrible hunters,” says Williams of C5. “When you talk about their natural prey, there’s just not that much here. Probably very few are surviving on rats, mice, birds and lizards.”
The irony, according to advocates of TNR, is that prohibiting the practice results in more cats preying on wildlife.
Opponents of TNR contend cats become reliant on their caregivers, who sometimes move or die.
“When people have to move, the first thought is ‘what am I going to do? These cats are going to starve to death,’” says Williams. “What we’ve found is these cats are pretty resourceful. Most aren’t eating at one place. Most of the time they were eating before you started feeding them and they’ll find food after you stop.”
Williams says animal shelters are unfairly saddled with solving pet overpopulation issues.
“Overpopulation shouldn’t be a shelter problem,” says Williams. “It’s a community problem. The shelter should be an afterthought, a redundancy. It’s the population outside the shelter that needs to be on the radar screen.”
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Objectivity is harder to come by on some stories than others. This is one of them.
I suppose I have been a Crazy Cat Lady since childhood. In 2017, I became a cat trapper. A reluctant cat trapper, but a cat trapper, nonetheless.
Upon learning of the Henderson prohibition on TNR, I even unsuccessfully lobbied my city councilman and the mayor to change the law. Given the clients, it was unpaid work.
Suffice to say the bounty of my summer-long effort – four kittens and their mother, Raggedy Ann, a kitten herself – were illegally trapped, neutered, but never returned to the parking lot behind the Henderson grocery store where they came from. Today they remain the joy of my mother, another in a long line of Crazy Cat Ladies.
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