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Feral Cats: No Simple Solution

by Stacy Conroy

In the April Pet Tales, Street Cats Don’t Live Happily Ever After, I wrote about the problems people cause when they feed stray cats or let their pet cats roam outside. Soon after writing that piece, I received a letter from Michelle, a fellow Riverwest resident. She told me of her involvement in the Wisconsin Humane Society’s (WHS) Trap Neuter and Return program (TNR). This program allows citizens to borrow traps from the WHS, bring trapped cats in for sterilization, vaccinations, flea/tick medication, and micro-chipping, and then release them where they were found if they are deemed too wild for adoption. Michelle found a litter of young cats living in the garage of an elderly neighbor. She was able to capture five of them using WHS traps. At WHS, one cat tested positive for FIV and was euthanized, two were adopted, and the last two were returned to the ally, as they were too wild for adoption. Sometime later, MADACC picked up one of the cats and after finding the microchip, called WHS. They called Michelle and let her know the cat was being reevaluated and is now social enough to be adopted. “This is a big success story for the TNR program – I just can’t go along with the mass killing option,” said Michelle. “When [cats are] fed regularly they don’t need to hunt other wildlife,” she continued. “There’s a chance to socialize them for adoption.” According to Ellen Clark, Director of Operations at WHS, the objective of TNR is to reduce the feral cat population using tools other than euthanization. “Feral cats are like wild animals in that euthanizing them is like euthanizing a squirrel or rabbit,” said Clark. And euthanizing may not help curb population in a given area. According to an article in the JAVMA, Vol 221 (October 15, 2002), Characteristics of free-roaming cats evaluated in a trap-neuter-return program, if cats are trapped and euthanized, new cats will move into the vacated area and breed up to the capacity for the area. Studies have also documented that this method results in the migration of animals and actually speeds up the spread of disease as infected animals may move into the area. Thus trapping and euthanizing is a temporary fix and would have to be regularly repeated. Everyone agrees that euthanizing hundreds of thousands of cats each year is a horrible thing to face. The problem seems to lie in which method of population control is more humane and more successful. According to Dr. Stanley Temple, an ornithologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, TNR is missing the mark. “The models have been studied in cities where TNR is legal and it has failed miserably due to the inability of animal welfare organizations to neuter enough cats to keep up with population growth,” said Dr. Temple. The Executive Director of Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, Ken Leinbach, commented on the issue. “I don’t see the feral cat as a wild animal,” said Leinbach. “It is an invasive species – we have created competition between many species with habitat destruction,” Leinbach concluded. According to Dave Krey, Supervisor of Vector Nuisance Control for Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services, citizens who get involved with the TNR program to the extent of returning cats to the outdoors and even just placing food outside are breaking the law, specifically Chapter 78 of Milwaukee Code of Ordinances, which is punishable with a $281 fine. “I have seen no evidence that suggests the TNR program is an effective way of controlling the feral cat population but even if it is, until the ordinance is changed, it is against the law to set an animal at large or to feed stray animals in the city of Milwaukee,” said Krey. This issue is a complex one that seems to pit neighbor against neighbor and species against species. If TNR is to be legal in Milwaukee, it will be up to citizens to mobilize and create an initiative to have the ordinance changed, allowing for the management of feral cat colonies by concerned citizens in cooperation with WHS and MADACC. Until then, cats fall under the same leash laws as dogs and must be confined to a leash or fenced in area. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 6 – June 2003
by Stacy Conroy