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Prowling for the right answer to Chicago's feral cats

by Lyz Hoffman
July 26, 2013

Find out their feeding schedule, and do it then. Use a live trap, a humane trap. Line the bottom of the trap with newspaper, and cover the top with a blanket or a towel. Put a dab of tuna fish in the back. Then wait.

That, the experts say, is how you trap a feral cat.

Six animal welfare organizations in Cook County do that trapping — along with neutering/spaying the cats and then returning them to where they were found, in a process abbreviated to TNR — under the county’s Managed Care of Feral Cats Ordinance. TNR, which is supported by not only the local cat advocates but also national organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and is increasingly common in cities across the country, aims to keep the existing cats alive while preventing future generations of felines.

Given that there are about 500,000 feral cats in Chicago, proponents of TNR argue that their way is the most humane, cost-effective, and surefire way to get that population to decrease over time. However, TNR’s detractors, most of who are staunch advocates for other forms of wildlife that they claim are preyed upon by the cats, disagree. TNR is not the answer, they say, but rather a system that places an invasive species (cats) above ones that may be threatened.

On the surface, TNR may seem fairly mundane. But claw a little deeper, and it becomes clear that it’s not just about the cat people versus the bird people. Both locally and nationally, it scratches at issues of emotions, economics, ethos, and, above all, effective communication.

“Actually trapping the cats is the easiest part,” said Jenny Schlueter, the director of development at Chicago’s Tree House Humane Society, one of the designated TNR organizations. “That part’s pretty straightforward.”

“Are they vicious? No, they’re not vicious, they’re terrified. They’re like most wild animals,” said Liz Houtz.

Houtz, the community cats program manager for Tree House, said that there are a lot of preconceived notions — incorrect notions — about what feral cats are, what they do, and what can be done to and with them.

The term “feral,” she said, refers to not only to their homelessness but also to their disposition. Feral cats are cats that are, more often than not, born on the streets, often the offspring of previously homed — and unfixed — cats that were abandoned by their owners and went on to reproduce. Because they’re born on the streets, Houtz explained, they’re not socialized and therefore not likely to rub against someone’s leg or cozy up on the couch.

Therefore, Houtz said, feral cats for the most part (though there are always exceptions, such as kittens) are best-suited to continue being feral cats.

“Feral cats don’t do well in captivity,” she said, adding that they can develop illnesses such as tumors and ulcers from the stress of it. “Shelters are not a place for feral cats. Think of it from a prospective adopter’s point of view — you want a loving pet that is going to sit on your lap and purr. These animals are not going to do that.”

The issue is a man-made one, Houtz added, seconding the fact that feral cats are around because of all the domestic cats that have been abandoned. And TNR is the lemonade to that lemon, she said.

“We have this problem, and at this point, we have to figure out how to best address it,” she said. “We really need solutions that are practical. TNR, in our opinion, is the most practical and humane solution.”

False, say those opposed to the system.

“We need to recognize that TNR is a failed management strategy and remove those animals from the environment,” said Grant Sizemore, the head of the Cats Indoors Program for the American Bird Conservancy, which is based in Virginia.

“We request that instead of TNR, we trap and remove the cats,” Sizemore continued. “Let’s take those cats to shelters where they can be properly cared for and adopted. Let’s get them out of the environment. What people don’t realize is that, no matter what you call them, they’re actually a non-native species in the United States and as such have significant and extreme consequences for the local ecosystem.”

Earlier this year, a scientific article written by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and published in Nature Communications sparked controversy with its accusation that cats are the single biggest killers of wildlife, responsible for billions of bird and small mammal deaths each year.

The figures were shocking enough, but the article’s assertion that TNR wasn’t working and was continuing only to the detriment of other animals really incensed the cats-versus-birds debate.

The alternatives posed to TNR by its opponents, including putting the animals in shelters and simply keeping cats indoors, evoke similar reactions from the pro-TNR crowd. Those suggestions skirt solutions, they say, because feral cats’ dispositions don’t allow them to simply become house cats.

For the most part, the bird welfare groups — including the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society — neither confirm nor deny the rumors of a pro-euthanasia argument. What they want, they say, is for the birds to elicit just as much concern as the cats do.

Speaking about the Smithsonian article, Sizemore called the numbers “staggering.”

“It’s completely unnecessary and unsustainable for these bird populations that are already stressed by other anthropogenic causes,” he said. “We don’t need to be throwing cats into the mix.”

In addition to moving the cats to shelters, Sizemore — who has a background in biology and is a cat owner himself — suggested treating cats more like dogs. He said that leash laws and roaming prohibitions could help.

“They’re wreaking havoc in the ecology of the area they’re in,” said Roger Shamley, the president of the Chicago Audubon Society, of the feral cats. “It’s really a no-brainer when you take the emotionalism out of it.”

When asked whether the figures from the Smithsonian article could be at all exaggerated or improperly measured, Shamley said that although the numbers could be “approximations,” they shouldn’t be disregarded.

“Let’s cut those numbers in half,” he said. “What would be acceptable? Even allowing for inflated statistics, it’s sobering.”

Although he acknowledged that TNR is the law of the land in Cook County right now, it doesn’t always have to be: “Are we ever going to get rid of it? That’s the question.”

Enacted in 2007, the county’s ordinance designates animal welfare organizations and people vetted by those organizations — known in TNR parlance as colony caretakers — to not only see feral cats through the TNR process but also to monitor them and provide for their basic needs afterward. The aforementioned six organizations involved in the ordinance — Tree House Humane Society, Triple R Pets, PAWS, PACT, Feral Feline Project, and CatVando — are responsible for educating the colony caretakers about how best to care for the colonies of cats.

Under the ordinance, the organizations also agree to maintain records of the colonies’ size, location, and overall health, in addition to making sure they are TNR’ed, vaccinated, micro-chipped, and ear-tipped (to indicate sterilization). The organizations also promise to serve as mediator between colony caretakers and those who may disagree with the caretakers’ actions, such as angry, not-cat-loving neighbors. And, in a nod to the anti-TNR crowd, the ordinance stipulates that the sponsor organizations must “use due consideration to prevent Feral Cat Colonies from being maintained on lands managed for wildlife or other natural resources, such as but not limited to Nature Preserves, where the presence of a Feral Cat Colony is a proven threat, and to avoid the taking of rare, threatened or endangered species under the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act.”

The caretakers — who can be people who happen to come upon a colony of feral cats and decide they want to do more to care for the cats — work with the sponsor organizations to learn how to best provide food, water, shelter, and medical care for the cats. They also, as stated in the ordinance, are responsible for placing kittens born into the colonies — which shouldn’t happen too often given the “neuter/spay” in TNR, but can occasionally — in foster homes to help get them adopted and off the streets.

The animal welfare organizations’ TNR programs rely heavily on volunteers. No one, several TNR advocates said, is going to volunteer to trap cats and euthanize them, or even put them in shelters where they will likely go on to be euthanized.

“I don’t know who would do that,” said Ann-Marie Shapiro, a volunteer trapper in charge of the TNR committee for Hyde Park Cats. “Where’s the army of people who would do that?”

What volunteers like herself are willing to do, Shapiro said, is make sure that the feral cats are fixed — to prevent more of them in the future — and to see that their lives on the streets are the best they can be. Lots of people like her care, she said, but there is always room for more caring.

“We domesticated animals and now they’re not all being cared for,” she said. “I have a stewardship view that includes domestic animals. Not everyone’s out there polluting, but we’re concerned about a subset of the world that affects everyone. I would include domestic animals in that. We’re humans — we’re kind of in charge of how things go.”

Georgie Black, who does trapping for the TNR program at PAWS, agreed that more people need to step up.

“It’s a human-created problem,” she said. “If these were dogs, there would be people beating down Rahm Emanuel’s door.”

“Some people think that people like us are obsessed,” Black continued. “I am not. This is a very serious reality that needs to be taken care of. I do what I can.”

As the founder and president of CatVando, one of the six designated sponsor organizations in Cook County, Ellen Miles has seen her fair share of TNR projects. And she said that she believes that that method of population control is not only good for the cats, but also engenders something good in the people who recognize its benefits.

“If people can respect the life of a cat, then that will translate to other areas of life,” Miles said. “We all need to be a little bit more humane, period. Starting with the cats.”

Multiple TNR advocates said that, if the population control angle doesn’t appeal to people, or the emotional angle doesn’t have the necessary hook, people need look no further than the money.

Whereas TNR services — including the trapping, sterilizing, vaccinations, micro-chipping, and ear-tipping — cost taxpayers nothing but rather are paid for with the organizations’ donations, it would cost upward of $100 for the county to trap and euthanize just one cat. And at about 500,000 feral cats (by Tree House’s estimate) roaming around Chicago, that’s a lot of money to kill cats, the pro-TNR crowd argues.

“I look at it from a budget standpoint,” said Frank Hamilton, an associate professor of management in behavioral sciences at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida who also runs a low-cost spay/neuter program.

Citing figures from Hillsborough County in Florida, Hamilton said the cost to taxpayers to euthanize an animal is staggering.

“The average cost per animal to catch, house, and dispose in Hillsborough County is approximately $230 per animal. In D.C., it’s over $400 per animal,” Hamilton said. “You have employees involved, you have a facility, you have computers, you have licenses, you have visitors. There are all kinds of costs going on there. If you euthanize them, you’ve got to destroy them. Part of their taxpayer dollars is going to a crematoria. That’s all tax dollars at work.”

“It’s very expensive for a municipality, and nobody has the money,” said Houtz, of Tree House Humane Society. “One of the strongest arguments against trapping and euthanizing is that it doesn’t work. If you clear out an area of all the cats, that just leaves that area wide open for other cats to move in.”

But TNR is different, Houtz said.

“People like to do it, and we have lots of volunteers to help us out,” she said. “This program is great not only for people who love cats but people who hate cats.”

Jenny Schlueter, also of Tree House Humane Society, seconded that sentiment.

“Even when people don’t self-identify as ‘pet people,’ they say, ‘I don’t want to see them around, but I don’t want them killed,’” Schlueter said. “Would you rather see tax dollars go to trapping and killing or a private group sterilizing them?”

And even if there are people who aren’t big cat fans, Schlueter said, or people who aren’t fans of cats preying on birds, or people who chastise cats as non-native species, isn’t there something that feral cats do that we can all support?

“Remember why we brought cats here in the first place? Rats.”