At this time of year, it’s heartbreaking to see stray cats walking around in the cold with nowhere to go. While many kind people take them into their homes, others can’t because of lease agreements, allergies, existing family pets, or other factors. So they do the next best thing—take strays to a shelter or rescue group.
But some felines can’t be captured easily. These are feral cats, who are wild and undomesticated. Feral cats either have never had contact with humans or have reverted to a “wild” state after being away from humans for so long. A feral cat is much like a raccoon: Try to approach him, and he’ll bolt. If you do somehow get him in your arms, he’ll bite and scratch, possibly injuring you.
Feral cats can be caught with humane traps, whose doors automatically close when the cat wanders inside (usually drawn to food or some other bait). But once they’re caught, feral cats can take awhile to domesticate, and shelters often don’t have the room to hold them or the resources to provide the one-on-one attention they need to become socialized. As a result, ferals often end up being euthanized. Recently, animal welfare experts worldwide have realized this isn’t the best approach. When a cat colony in the wild suddenly thins out, nature urges the remaining cats in the neighborhood to over-breed to fill the void—a phenomenon called “the vacuum effect.” So to discourage this scenario, many animal lovers are turning to a more progressive solution: TNR, or trap-neuter-return.
TNR is just what it sounds like. Using humane traps, animal rescuers or neighborhood residents trap local ferals, have them sterilized and vaccinated, and return them to their colony. While the cat is under anesthesia, the vet “ear-tips” her—removing about 1/8 inch of flesh from her ear. This painless procedure indicates she’s been spayed so that future rescuers don’t bring her in for unnecessary surgery. Alternatively, some vets tattoo a female cat’s stomach, which can be checked before surgery.
Once the cat is returned to her colony, caregivers provide food, water, and some sort of shelter for warmth (which could be just a shed, garage, or even a big doghouse with straw). With this approach, cats can live out their lives in greater comfort without breeding endlessly. Thousands of people nationwide are using TNR to make life easier for the millions of feral cats on America’s streets.
Do you have a colony of feral cats in your neighborhood?
Here are some steps to get started with TNR:
Step 1: Check to see whether TNR is legal in your municipality. (In some places, such as Chicago, it’s technically not legal to feed stray cats; if you do, you’re considered their “owner” under the law, and are expected to keep them inside.) However, if TNR is possible in your neighborhood, inform your neighbors of your plans. You may find partners to aid your efforts. On the other hand, some neighbors might prefer to have the cats “removed.” Explain the vacuum effect, and the high chance that the cats will be euthanized, and you should be able to get them on board. Point out that having a colony of cats in the neighborhood helps prevent a rodent problem, which can be a serious health threat to humans.
Step 2: Call the Chicagoland Stray Cat Coalition at (773) 517-5199, or call your local shelter or rescue group. You’ll get information about where to take cats for discount veterinary care (some programs even provide it for free!). You’ll also learn where to find humane traps (most shelters or rescues will loan them to you). Look for traps such as the Tru-Catch 30LTD, whose light but swift trap door ensures that tails or paws are not caught as it closes. Never try to trap a cat in a box or with a net. Humane traps are safe—and they work!
Step 3: Place traps out for a few days “unloaded,” or unset. This will get the neighborhood cats used to the big metal boxes. Line the bottom of the trap with newspaper, and place bits of food along the ground and inside each trap. This accustoms cats to walking into it to eat, so when the trap is set, the cats will most likely enter with ease. Great “bait” includes tuna, liverwurst, or sardines. It’s a good idea to put a towel over the back of the trap, which allows cats to feel privacy as they eat.
Step 4: You may want to set the traps the day before the surgery, just to make sure you’ve allowed enough time to attract the cats. Never leave a trap unattended or set overnight; it could create danger for the cat or for an unwitting person who comes along, opens it, and reaches inside! Once a feral kitty is trapped, expect her to hiss, claw, and bang against the walls of her cage. Don’t be alarmed, as long as she doesn’t hurt herself. Eventually, she will settle down. If there’s not an ear tip, let the cat can remain in her cage overnight, covered completely with a blanket or towel (this has a calming effect). It’s best to leave her in an enclosed porch or garage—someplace safe, warm, and out of reach of animals or other people.
Step 5: Take the cat to the clinic. Once he’s home, monitor him closely. Cats can recover in their traps, which should be covered and kept warm. Include food and water if the trap easily allows them to be slipped in. The newspaper will help absorb any waste from the cat. Generally, traps are two to four feet long, so the cat can usually get away from his own waste.
Step 6: Generally, males can be released after 24 hours, while females may need a little longer to recover, but always follow the vet’s directions. Once the cat is ready, take him to his colony, open the rear door, and step away. The cat will probably bolt. Don’t worry about being attacked; a feral cat keeps his distance.
Step 7: Continue daily colony care. Provide shelter and fresh food and water daily. With a snug shelter lined with insulating straw and placed out of the wind, cats can burrow in, curl up, and keep warm. Finally, congratulate yourself on doing your part to help end the pet overpopulation crisis by practicing TNR! For more information on how to build an inexpensive shelter, set a trap, and create community support for TNR, contact any of these organizations:
• Chicagoland Stray Cat Coalition:
(773) 517-5199 or ChicagolandStrays.org
• Spay and Stay:
(847) 289-4557 or SpayAndStay.org
• Alley Cat Allies:
(202) 667-3630 or AlleyCat.org
• Neighborhood Cats:
(212) 662-5761 or NeighborhoodCats.org
• San Francisco Humane Society:
(800) 426-1528 or sfspca.org
Note: Tru-Catch traps are available from Heart of the Earth Marketing, (800) 526-1644