My Pet World: Humane approaches to feral cats

A recently released report from the University of Nebraska Extension, called "Feral Cats and Their Management," actually endorses catching feral cats in barbaric traps, and also whipping out a gun to shoot unwanted cats.

I concede that feral cats are problem, and this is an issue I've written a great deal about this past year. We don't know how many feral cats are out there, but we do know cats are America's No. 1 pet, with nearly 90 million pet cats (according to American Pet Products Assn.). It's estimated there may be up to 1 ½ times that number of un-owned cats, including both feral cats and strays. These cats typically live in colonies in urban alleys, or roam from farm to farm. They live on empty urban properties, on grassy areas of college campuses and in city parks — pretty much everywhere.

This isn't a new problem, or an issue unique to America. Many nations have been dealing with feral cats for centuries.

It is a problem for people because feral cats can carry diseases we might potentially get, including toxoplasmosis and rabies. And it's a problem for the environment because the cats do kill songbirds (often endangered species) and other wildlife. And feral cats can be annoying, leaving their "calling cards" in our gardens or yowling at all hours.

Going back centuries, when feral cats became too much of a problem, they might have been poisoned, shot at, or animal control officials would be asked to catch and kill them.

If this approach worked, we wouldn't still have a problem today. The University of Nebraska wouldn't have written that paper, and I wouldn't be offering comments.

Relatively recently, the idea of managed care for feral cat colonies, called trap, neuter, return (TNR), was popularized as a solution. Feral cats are individually trapped and ear-notched to identify them as colony members. The cats are spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies (and in some instanced micro chipped for further identification), then released. Kittens are given to shelters to adopt out, and very sick cats are humanely euthanized. Volunteer caretakers watch over the colonies, processing any new arrivals and supplementing the colony's food. While cats will still instinctively kill some birds, with a full tummy they're not as driven. Unable to reproduce, colony members dwindle to zero.

Well, that's the theory. TNR can take time and requires dedicated volunteers, effort and resources. But given half a chance, it does work.

What's more, the methods supported by the University of Nebraska paper only duplicates obsolete approaches that have failed for generations.

The paper suggests that its recommendations are within the guidelines of the American Veterinary Medical Assn.; however, I believe they took the AVMA specific guidelines on the humane euthanization of animals using a gun out of context. (As of press time, the AVMA had been unable to weigh in.)

The American Animal Hospital Assn. offers this statement: "As a veterinary association dedicated to the health and welfare of companion animals, it is shocking that a university publication would advocate shooting and the use of leg-hold traps as acceptable methods to control/exterminate free-roaming cats. These methods are indiscriminate, inhumane and are unacceptable for the purpose of cat population management."

Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the American Humane Assn., chimes in: "It's absolutely unconscionable to advocate shooting cats as humane. How does the person pulling the trigger know if the cat is feral or not? And advocating shooting at cats is potentially very dangerous for the community. What if just one child is injured? We know there's a better way for the community and the cats, and it's called trap, neuter, return."

Ganzert isn't alone. Many other organizations have issued statements in opposition to the University of Nebraska report.

Aside from their inhumane recommendations, the report also further accelerates the battle between "bird people" and "cat people." This is not productive to help songbirds, or to reduce feral cat numbers.

According to a story in the Washington Post, an American Bird Conservancy official calls the University of Nebraska report "a must read" for communities with a feral cat problem. Parrot poop! The truth is, cat lovers don't want to see birds further endangered, either. And blaming all problems facing songbirds on cats is plain wrong. Experts concur that habitat destruction, and both light and air pollution are also immediate threats to birds.

If we all want to see feral cats decline significantly, and if we all want to protect birds, why can't we find a solution by working together?

If the best "experts" in academia who helped write the University of Nebraska paper can suggest is to set inhumane traps, and to shoot feral cats, I think we need a new set of experts to review the problem.

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to petworld@steve dale.tv. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.

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