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Finding a fix for feral cats

Published 10:24 am Thursday, February 7, 2013

In a cage behind a dentists office in West Frankfort Tuesday, a tomcat with the colors and attitude of a badger spit, hissed and struck out at humans from behind the bars.

It was a feral cat, the same domestic species as housecats but without the desire to cuddle. Feral cats are descendants of pet cats but have reverted to their more primal nature to endure life in the wild.

Youll never make a house cat out of a feral, said Mike Nolan, county representative for the Franklin County Humane Society, as he placed the angry, caged cat into the backseat of his car.

Good thing Nolan doesnt need a house cat, just a barn cat to help keep the vermin population down.

But before the cat headed to Nolans farm in Switzer, a helpful veterinarian at Cornerstone Animal Clinic made sure he wouldnt add any kittens to Franklin Countys wild cat population.

This is the aim of Nolan and the other members of the Franklin County Humane Societys new Trap-Neuter-Release Committee, which had its first official meeting Tuesday evening at Paul Sawyier Public Library. The humane society has given the group $3,000.

The group uses cages to catch feral and stray cats such as the group of four behind the dentist offices of David and Joseph C. Bell or the more than 30 behind the Taco Bell on Versailles Road treat them for rabies and other diseases and spay and neuter them.

Sometimes they return the cats to their colonies; other times they place them on farms where they can be cared for but still roam free. One member of the trap-neuter-release group, Debbie Bramlage, is trying to convert some feral kittens into pets, but progress is slow.

Nolan will keep his capture in a crate in his barn for several days after it is neutered to get it comfortable there. But he knows the tomcat may run back into the wild.

Humane society volunteer Ginny Wilson said several areas of the county are overrun with feral and stray cats. She pointed to a study that found only 2 percent of the perhaps tens of millions of wild cats nationwide are fixed.

We know weve got issues out there, Wilson said.

Wilson said a city law exacerbates the issue by preventing animals, including neutered feral cats, from being released into the wild. She suggested the law might make sense for a wild dog, which could endanger humans, but not for wild cats.

Wilson once estimated that because of the policy, the city animal control officer was responsible for bringing in roughly 75 percent of the humane societys felines. Unlike with dogs, she said few owners return for cats, so the humane society is forced to euthanize them.

The humane society had a 61 percent live release rate for cats in 2012, calculated through November.

Wilson said euthanizing cats is neither preferable nor effective due to the vacuum effect, the result when a large portion of a cat colony is killed off, leaving the surviving members with more resources. Those cats then breed more and grow the population back quickly.

We cannot euthanize our way out of this situation, Wilson said.

Sterilization, besides reducing population, also fixes other feral cat problems, such as noise, aggression and the horrific smell of tomcat urine.

A recent study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service also found that cats, mostly strays and feral cats, kill a median of 14.7 billion mammals and birds each year.

Though trap-neuter-release programs can assuage this problem, they are controversial because they return predatory cats to the wild.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has also expressed serious reservations about the method due both to the number of creatures killed by feral cats, and to the often-painful lives feral cats live.

Members of Franklin Countys trap-neuter-release program have taken issue with the Smithsonian and Fish and Wildlife study.

Though the Trap-Neuter-Release Committee just had its first official meeting, a group under names such as the Franklin County Friends of Feral Cats was meeting previously, and individuals have been trapping cats on their own for years.

Gae Broadwater, the committees chairwoman, said she began feeding a colony of feral cats two-and-a-half years ago at a trailer park, and she more recently began catching cats. A big breakthrough for the group, she said, was the December simultaneous trap-neuter-release of the 30-40 cats behind Taco Bell.

The group is searching for veterinarians to donate time to spay and neuter the animals once they are caught. If the veterinarians use the humane society for the operations, the shelter will pay for the needed materials.

Members have been relying on spay-neuter programs in other counties, such as Spay Our Strays in Fayette and HOPE Spay Neuter Clinic in Woodford. Theyve also been using others traps, but have recently ordered 10 of their own.

The committee has also received a $500 challenge grant, which it can only receive if it raises an additional $500 from the community.

Donations should be sent to the Franklin County Humane Society, 1041 Kentucky Ave., and specified for the program.