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Caring for community cats: Volunteers in Columbus, Starkville 'trap, neuter, release' feral cats

 

A feral cat, or

A feral cat, or "community cat," ventures out of the woods to see if Janice Greenslade has any food for it in Starkville on Tuesday. Greenslade takes care of a colony of about eight wild cats, all of which she has had neutered through a trap-neuter-release program to reduce overpopulation of undomesticated cats in Starkville. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Janice Greenslade

Janice Greenslade

 

Martha Thomas

Martha Thomas

 

Kerry Blanton

Kerry Blanton

 

Karen Johnwick

Karen Johnwick

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

A few cats were walking around outside two abandoned businesses nestled between some woods and a busy highway in Starkville when Janice Greenslade first saw them about six years ago. All she knew at the time was no one there could have owned them. 

 

Not thinking much of it, she laid out some food for them and went home. It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, when her husband also mentioned seeing the cats in the same area, that she called the Oktibbeha County Humane Society. 

 

"The lady I spoke with said, 'They're probably feral cats, and we can come and trap them, but they would probably end up being euthanized because they can't be adopted out unless someone is looking for a barn cat,'" Greenslade remembered. "But she said, 'We have a program called trap-neuter-release.'" 

 

Greenslade, who had moved from Texas a few years before, had never heard of trap-neuter-release (TNR) -- in fact, she didn't know much at all about feral cats because they were rare in the areas she'd lived before moving to Starkville. But managing the population of feral cats -- or community cats, as they're sometimes called -- sounded good to her. 

 

"TNR is a program for cats that are undomesticated, so these are cats that normally wouldn't be adopted," said Martha Thomas, director of development and community relations at Oktibbeha County Humane Society. "They can normally fend for themselves. Trap-neuter-release ensures they don't reproduce, because we want to reduce pet overpopulation." 

 

Volunteers use a wild animal cage, bait the cage and catch a cat, Thomas explained. Then they take the cat to a Humane Society or veterinarian who participates in the program. The cat is then sterilized and the tip of its ear is cut off, to let veterinarians and volunteers know the cat can no longer breed. Then the cat is released back into its home, or sometimes in a new area, where they can live on their own and help keep down the rodent population. 

 

"Through no fault of their own, most of these cats that participate in the TNR program can't be adopted," Thomas said. "They aren't going to be the cat that purrs and climbs up on your shoulders and things like that. So TNR programs are a huge resource, not only to our community, but also in terms of shelter management. Without TNR, these can't wouldn't have another option." 

 

 

 

Overpopulation 

 

Humane societies in both Starkville and Columbus have grants to fund local TNR programs -- Starkville's receives their grant from PetSmart Charities, while Columbus receives a grant from the Mississippi Board of Animal Health's "I Care for Animals" car tag program. 

 

Dr. Kerry Blanton, a veterinarian with Animal Clinic of Columbus, will spay or neuter any feral cat a volunteer brings in at no cost to the volunteer, thanks to the grant. Blanton charges the Humane Society a reduced rate for the procedure. 

 

"(The stray cat population) very easily gets out of hand, as you can imagine," Blanton said. "Mama kitties have plenty of kittens in each litter, six to eight kittens, and then they can become pregnant as soon as a week after giving birth. ... Every two months, all summer long, they can have babies. Then those babies grow up and have babies. They just multiply exponentially." 

 

Without TNR, Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society director Karen Johnwick said, feeding feral cats is irresponsible. Animal lovers think they're being helpful by feeding them, but if those cats' population keeps increasing, it means the humans have to put out more and more food, often without the cats becoming any healthier. 

 

"We're getting in kittens all the time that are sick," Johnwick said. "... They're just multiplying sickness." 

 

Typically between May and August -- prime kitten season -- the shelter gets up to 350 cats per month, she said, most of them feral. She said the shelter also receives calls daily about cats being a nuisance. Even those cats that are neutered she would prefer be taken out of the city. 

 

"Preferably they need to be located out in the county," she said.  

 

Like Thomas, Johnwick thinks community cats can be helpful for keeping rodent populations down around barns and businesses, but that doesn't work if humans are constantly feeding them. 

 

"If people are feeding them daily, they're not going to be mousers," Johnwick said. "...Feral cats are meant to be feral cats. They are meant to hunt on their own and not be fed daily. If they're expecting you to get out of the car and give them food, they're not going to go work to get a mouse." 

 

 

 

Feral colonies 

 

Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said 911 also receives constant calls about feral cats from residents and business owners in the city, where cats end up everywhere from under porches and trailers to in people's attics. Columbus Police Department's animal control officer will trap any cat and take it to the Humane Society -- from there, Shelton said, it's out of the police department's hands.  

 

It's "absolutely awesome" if people neuter them and continue to take care of them, Shelton said, but they have to be responsible. 

 

"Say we get them spayed and neutered, they still have to get out there and they're still scrounging for food in garbage cans or whatever," he said. "...So 'I can't have anymore kittens, but I should have a place to live, or a safe place to live.'" 

 

For Greenslade and her cats, that part of the job is done. She trapped and neutered her entire colony and she feeds them a few times a week. If a new cat shows its face, she makes sure to trap it as well. In the meantime, they're a small colony, and they stay out of people's way. 

 

"It's pretty low key," she said. "I take care of my cats. I'm keeping that population fed and hopefully healthy and reducing the number of kittens born."

 

 

 

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