Feral cat woes: A different approach

A grant is being introduced in the new year in the 32601 zip code to increase the sterilization of feral cats. This is a domestic short hair feral cat at Alachua County Animal Services.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Cat hunters will soon be laying traps in an urban Gainesville area - not to kill them, but instead to capture them for a study that may save the lives of unowned felines and influence animal control policies across America.
The effort by a University of Florida veterinary professor and Alachua County Animal Services aims to substantially curb the number of cats brought to the county shelter. The nonprofit foundation Maddie's Fund has approved a $229,282 grant for the study.
Feral and stray cats in the 32601 zip code will be collected and sterilized to determine if intensive trap-neuter-return efforts reduce the number of unowned cats. That will could mean fewer cats brought to and euthanized by Animal Services.
"We need to (spay or neuter) a minimum of 1,000 extra cats more than we usually do from that zip code. That is a huge undertaking and I'm worried about whether we can really pull it off," said professor Julie Levy. "We want to hit the ground running and get into this neighborhood and start talking to people, finding out where the cat problems are and bringing them in."
The study will draw national attention in animal control and advocacy circles, where debate over how to deal with stray and feral cats can be rancorous.
Trap-neuter-return programs - in which cats are trapped, sterilized and then released where they were found - are particularly contentious.
Maddie's Fund has already given several local grants to boost animal sterilization. The latest was awarded to try to learn the impact of large-scale sterilization on cat populations, said Maddie's President Rich Avanzino.
"We think the study has great potential and national ramifications in demonstrating the value of trap-neuter-return programs. While this activity is gaining greater acceptability, there still is a strong element of disbelievers," Avanzino said. "This is a university study which has the benefits of academic engagement. It gives it a scientific element and a credibility that can be used by everybody."
The 32601 zip code is largely defined by W. 13th Street, N. 16th Avenue and Williston/Waldo Road.
It was chosen because a lot of unowned cats live there. Animal Services Director Ray Sim said the shelter gets hundreds of cats from the 32601 zip code.
If it can be proven that intensive trap-neuter-return works, it will keep more cats from being born and reduce euthanasia.
Feral cats that have not been socialized around people are not likely to be adopted, so are instead euthanized. And unless sterilized, the cats keep reproducing - one unaltered cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 cats in seven years.
The program also would cut the costs of temporarily housing and then euthanizing the cats, Sim said.
"When people call for assistance, our first response will be to try to put them together with Dr. Levy's research assistant so that the animal doesn't just come here and be euthanized," Sim said. "If the citizens are willing to try this program, it could potentially save significant amounts of money."
Word of the program will be spread through direct mail, public events, churches, civic clubs and other means. Volunteer teams will trap cats if the cats do not have a caretaker who is willing or capable of doing so.
Another tactic will be trying to solve problems people may have with unowned cats in a way that does not result in their death.
The study is putting one of Levy's pet theories to the test.
Levy is a nationally recognized proponent of trap-neuter-return. She began Operation Catnip at UF in 1998 with monthly clinics in which up to 200 cats trapped by volunteers are sterilized in a day. A related program pays local veterinarians for operations in between clinics.
Levy believes trap-neuter-return is an effective, humane way of dealing with unowned cats. She said it has been shown to control the population of cat colonies and reduce cat numbers in a targeted neighborhood.
Critics, especially those who believe the cats endanger wildlife, contend trap-neuter-return does not substantially reduce cat numbers and that lethal means are sometimes necessary.
Levy said the study will be a step toward showing whether large-scale sterilization works.
"We are really taking a bit of a risk here. I think this is a good answer to the cat problem, but I could prove myself wrong," Levy said.
"We hope to make it a very holistic approach to cat control. One is by sterilization to reduce the numbers. We'd like to increase adoptions so when we come across kittens that are friendly, it would be great to get them into homes. We also want to find out what it is about the cats that are causing a problem and try to solve that without removing the cat."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@ gvillesun.com.

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