St. Paul deploys effective weapon against frisky felines

Caged heat: They're not getting out until they can't reproduce
courtesy of Animal Ark

Roland Weber loves animals. So in 2006, when a big tomcat jumped on the outside windowsill of his brick duplex in northwest St. Paul, he couldn't resist giving the cat some food. He named the cat Mooch; all it wanted was something to eat. Only rarely could Weber pet him—the wild ball of fur never sat still enough to cuddle.

Mooch was feral, a lone cat roaming the streets just north of the capitol—until the Webers got a new neighbor who brought with them a female cat. Soon enough, Mooch was a father. His new cat girlfriend had gotten pregnant and kicked out of her home.

Within months, a family of five felines was waiting on Weber's porch. They'd show up in the middle of the night, crying and howling for food and water. They didn't like humans. As soon as you'd open the door, they'd scatter in fear.

"The family just grew and grew," says Weber, who planned to get the kittens neutered when they were old enough.

Apparently, he waited too long. Within a year, Mooch had become a grandfather of three.

As Weber hauled straw to his makeshift garage so the family of eight could have a "hotel" during the cold winter, he realized the situation was out of control. He didn't want to kill the cats, but he didn't want any more kittens, either. He already had a dog and two cats of his own; eleven pets were too many.

Then Weber saw an article in the newspaper about a new Trap, Neuter, and Return program targeting feral cats in St. Paul. If he could catch the cats, he could get them fixed. So Weber went to the store and bought the most irresistible mix of tuna fish, ham, and salmon—the stinkiest food he could find— and placed it in traps.

"It didn't take long for the cats to come," he says.

Though there is no official estimate, experts argue that there are anywhere between 300,000 to 1 million feral cats in the Twin Cities, and that number is likely to increase as sympathetic humans continue to feed them. Recent warmer winters have also made it easier for cats to survive in the wild, says Mike Fry of Animal Ark shelter, a Hastings-based no-kill facility. Cats can bear up to three litters a year, meaning one female feral cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years.

"Feral cats are in every nook and cranny in the U.S.," says Elizabeth Parowski with Alley Cat Allies, a national advocacy organization for wild cats. "There are at least as many, if not more, feral cats than there are domesticated house cats."

Two years ago, St. Paul Animal Control and Animal Ark formed a unique partnership to implement the controversial Trap, Neuter, and Return program advocated by the Humane Society.

The program, which originated on the streets of Europe, is as simple as it sounds. Feral cats are lured into cages with food. Once trapped, they are sterilized, vaccinated for rabies, and screened for disease. Sick cats are euthanized, and the healthy cats have their ears clipped for identification purposes.

Then the cats are returned to the same spot outdoors where they were caught, and volunteers regularly leave out food for them. Partnerships are formed with farmers, urban dwellers like Weber who have taken it upon themselves to care for a colony, and hoarders. Having a designated food source helps officials keep track of the colony to make sure any new cats get fixed. It also deters the wild animals from hunting birds.

"It really is the most successful, cost-effective, and humane solution," says Fry.

In 2006, when the cat problem escalated in the Frogtown neighborhood, St. Paul Animal Control turned to Fry for help. Wild cats had made homes in empty rentals and vacant buildings, forming urban cat colonies varying in size from 6 to 50 animals, says Bill Stephenson, the supervisor at St. Paul Animal Control.

The city's normal policy of trapping and killing feral cats didn't seem to be working. Although 2,500 cats were killed between 2004 and 2006, the population was still growing, and the neighborhood wanted them gone.

The cats were ruining gardens, using sand boxes as litter boxes, and threatening local wildlife. There also was a public health risk. Cat bites can be much more serious than dog bites, because wild cats carry an infectious bacterium in their mouths and stool that can cause disease, high fevers, and swollen lymph nodes in humans.

Animal Ark has implemented more than 100 TNR programs statewide and has successfully proven its ability to control large colonies with its work in Anoka. For 20 years the animal officials there had been trying to kill off a colony of 200 cats roaming state land, but the hardy animals kept coming back despite the cold winters, disease, and threats of starvation. After four years of TNR, the colony is down to just 45 cats.

The problem with kill policies is that officers never can get to all the cats quickly enough, says Fry. It is a matter of basic population dynamics. When a cat colony starts to decrease in size, cats tend to breed more. The removal of one cat simply makes space for another to survive. The only way to ensure that feral cats go away is to remove their ability to reproduce.

"You've got to have more than an emotional reaction to something like this, you have to have biology and science behind your solution," he says. "With TNR you only need to get 70 percent of the colony sterilized, the other 30 percent are unlikely to survive anyway. Whereas, if you are trying to kill the animals you need to get 100 percent, and that's hard. These are wild cats."

Stephenson decided St. Paul should try Fry's theory, but admits it took some convincing. He battled through neighborhood meetings. At first the disgruntled neighbors weren't too keen on the seemingly counterintuitive theory that involves letting the cats continue to roam the streets.

"There are some people that would prefer to just shoot them and eliminate the whole problem," says Donna Czupta of the Minnesota Humane Society, who facilitates small-scale TNR programs throughout the state. "But we know that doesn't work. We human beings have displaced these animals, and it seems like whenever animals are a problem, wild or domestic, people think the only solution is to kill them. It bothers me a whole lot that we can't come up something better."

During the pilot program in Frogtown, 85 feral cats were trapped and 65 neutered and returned. Kittens that were young enough to be socialized were trained and put up for adoption. Though Stephenson says that if people on private property want to get rid of feral cats "the old fashioned" way, St. Paul Animal Control will accommodate them, he thinks TNR is working. Last summer, the city made TNR its official policy. Despite continued dissent, 95 cats were trapped, neutered, and returned.

"If we prevented between 30 and 50 pregnancies, at only three kittens apiece, three times a year, we prevented the birth of 300 cats," he says. "Hopefully, in a year or two we will see our impound numbers and euthanasia drop and that will be a pretty good indicator this is working. I think if we can continue this we are going to see those main numbers of cats coming through our doors drop for sure."

Seeing St. Paul's success, Dan Niziolek, Minneapolis's Animal Care and Control manager, wishes he could implement similar programming. Currently, when he gets calls about feral cats, he sends out a form e-mail explaining that he doesn't have the resources to do much.

Niziolek tells people to carefully trap the cats and bring them in for impound. After a five-day hold, feral cats are euthanized. Though Minneapolis's impound has been working with Animal Ark to move towards a "no kill" or limited euthanasia model that would include TNR, Niziolek says dangerous dogs, not wild cats, are his priority as set by the City Council.

"There's a staff of 11 here," he says. "We get 15,000 calls for service a year as well as running our own dispatch and shelter. With feral cats, we'd love to do something, but it's really a question of resources. We've experienced a lot of budget cuts in the last few years."

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