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Area group helping slow the growth of feral cat nation

By Jennifer Conn / Special to Ohio.com Published: October 16, 2012

Bill killed Baby’s brothers. He killed them a week apart, when they were doing what the young do naturally – wrestle, climb and explore in the late spring warmth. Their tiny claws were perfect tools. They climbed over Bill’s fence and never came back. But Bill was doing what he was born to do, too – retrieve. A sleek, black flat-coated retriever, Bill is perpetually on the lookout for trespassers. After he killed the first brother, Bill rolled in the grass and then took a nap.

Baby’s brothers were plush and bluish-gray. Her mother, petite, black and wild-eyed, was abandoned along with her caregivers’ Akron home during the housing-market crash. Her dad was any one of the lean, well-muscled males that cruise Baby’s neighborhood, dukes up, poised to fight the other males in his territory jockeying for female attention.

And all of them are members of an estimated 60-million-strong stray and feral cat population that lives on the fringes of neighborhoods, in abandoned buildings and crumbling lots; in makeshift cat-shacks, lean-tos and tents; and in the barns, sheds and out buildings of rural America.

We’ve all seen them: striped and swirled gray or orange; solid black or black and white; mottled tortie and calico; cream, gray and white. They are ragged or well-groomed, some plagued with a common respiratory illness while some are clean, alert and cheetah-fast.

According to Alley Cat Allies, known as the Cadillac of feral cat groups, this burgeoning feline nation is the direct result of people not spaying and neutering their pets. Alley Cat Allies and most animal welfare organizations also agree on a startling statistic: a single pair of breeding cats can exponentially produce roughly 420,000 cats in seven years. To raise awareness, a decade ago the organization named October 16 National Feral Cat Day.

But there are wildly differing viewpoints on how to reduce this cat population. One side believes stray and feral cats, known as community cats, deserve protection and care because, after all, it was human failing that caused the problem to begin with. Those on this side are likely among the 33 percent of U.S. households that keep an estimated 86.4 million cats, according to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey.

Not surprisingly, 83 percent of community cat caregivers are female, mostly over 40, according to a study on free-roaming cats and their caretakers. But that doesn’t mean they’re crazy cat ladies.

The TNR method

A method known as TNR - trap, neuter and return, is gaining ground around the world. With TNR cats are caught in humane traps, spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies and their ears are notched or their bellies tattooed to signal the animal is altered. The cats are then released to allow their colony population to naturally diminish. Proponents of TNR believe these cats can live out relatively healthy lives, with reduced aggression between males.

“TNR allows natural attrition to take place,” said Georjette Thomas, director of advancement for Akron-based One of a Kind Pet Rescue. “It’s the common sense side of it.”

One of Northeast Ohio’s most active rescues, One of a Kind operates a booming TNR program around Northeast Ohio, in addition to an adoption center and a low-cost spay/neuter clinic. Throughout October, in recognition of Feral Cat Day, One of a Kind is offering $20 cat spay/neuter surgeries, calling the initiative “Stop the Littering.”

The other option

But many others favor a more archaic practice: trap and euthanize. This could explain why the National Council on Pet Population and Study found more than 70 percent of cats that enter shelters are euthanized – the leading cause of all cat deaths in the U.S. But this method is costly. According to the Humane Society of the United States in its Animal Control Guide for Local Governments, taxpayers pay about $105 for each animal picked up and euthanized by animal control.

Further, simply removing cats from colonies can have damaging repercussions, Thomas said. When cats are removed, the remaining females can induce ovulation at will, enabling them to repopulate the colony with litter after litter, going into heat as often as they wish.

“Cats are prolific breeders,” Thomas said. “TNR corrects the problem as much as it can be corrected.”

TNR advocates hold fast to research that supports this claim. One study tracked a TNR program over 11 years on a Florida university campus. By the end of the study, the cat population had not only decreased by 66 percent, more than 80 percent of the remaining cats had lived in the colony for more than six years, a lifespan comparable to the 7.1 years pet cats average. In Rome, a 10-year TNR study documented a 16 percent decline in colony size over three years and 32 percent in six years.

Spay Neuter Ohio is born

A rural resident, Tracy Cotopolis has seen her share of pets dumped by those who assume animals can reconnect with their primal roots and reclaim survival skills that enable them to return, Rambo-like, to life in the wild. Cotopolis is pro-TNR and one of the 83 percent, caring for two community cats named Bob and Ray. She also is CEO and founder of Spay Neuter Ohio, a nonprofit offering pet owners in rural areas access to low-cost spay/neuter services.

Cotopolis had fantasized for years about somehow buying a mobile spay/neuter clinic. “But I didn’t actively pursue anything,” she said. “That whole concept seemed kind of magical and impossible until I saw the RASCAL Unit in practice many years later. And even then, I kind of went step-by-step, not believing it would actually happen.”

A Dublin-Ohio-based surgical sideshow, the RASCAL Unit is a high-tech veterinary hospital on wheels that performs low-cost spay/neuter surgeries and other services for humane organizations and pounds across Ohio.

Before Spay Neuter Ohio, Cotopolis spent years as a volunteer for the Humane Society of Greater Akron and ran transport, one of the happier tasks in animal rescue, giving dogs and cats a lift, often across state lines, to new homes. But the work was endless. Cotopolis knew transport would go on forever unless the number of shelter animals was reduced.

Finally, she located Mid Ohio Animal Welfare in Mansfield, the only area rescue she could find that provided low-cost spay/neuter services. There Cotopolis saw the RASCAL Unit in action and spent a day observing a clinic. “They told me I should start clinics in my county and really encouraged me to do it,” Cotopolis said. “My first thought was ‘I can’t do that!’”

But she did. She chose Pike Township, a small rural community in southern Stark County, gained approval from the township trustees and with the RASCAL Unit held her first clinic in March 2010. As she held additional clinics, word spread quickly and Cotopolis worked to meet demand. She added extra clinics while fine-tuning event coordination, which required advertising, scheduling and a lot of educating. At first a few breeders and others who didn’t truly need low-cost services called to schedule appointments, and Cotopolis patiently worked her way through each conversation. Still, legitimate demand continued to rise and in year two she opened up clinics for Harrison County.

“The first day I accepted appointments for their first clinic, I had 41 missed calls by 2 p.m.,” she said. “There is most certainly a need.”

Averaging 40 animals per clinic, Spay Neuter Ohio to date has performed 272 cat spay/neuters. This month, honoring Feral Cat Day, Spay Neuter Ohio will hold its first clinic exclusively for stray and feral cats.

Helping caregivers, reducing colonies

One of a Kind not only offers a special spay/neuter package for community cats, it also loans out humane traps. For $30 the animal is altered, vaccinated against rabies and its ear is notched. Performing up to 70 surgeries a day, One of a Kind spay/neutered more than 1,105 cats in 2011. Since its inception the organization has spayed and neutered more than 42,000 cats and dogs.

If the projection regarding the proliferation of offspring from two unaltered cats is correct, in 2011 One of a Kind kept 464 million cats from hitting the streets over the next seven years. Spay Neuter Ohio, the younger nonprofit, has kept more than 114 million cats from breeding.

And Baby was one of them. By the time she was humanely tapped and sponsored by Spay Neuter Ohio for One of a Kind’s feral package, she had produced a litter. Baby’s kittens were trapped as well and placed in good homes. But it was too late for Baby. She is feral and can’t be acclimated into a home.

She sticks around her caregiver’s place, often sleeping in a small dog house with a heated pad for winter. Her inky fur glistens in the sun as she waits for her caregiver to provide food and water each day. Her notched ear makes her look slightly off balance, but her butter-colored eyes are clear, she’s alive and healthy, and now that she’s an adult she’s also clever. Baby is aware there is a big, black beast on the other side of the fence. And no way is she getting anywhere near it.

For information about One of a Kind Pet Rescue programs, call 330.865.6200 or visit http://www.oneofakindpets.com/site/. For more information about Spay Neuter Ohio clinics, visit http://www.spayneuterohio.com/ and schedule an appointment online.

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