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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Dr. Margaret Thornburg spays a feral cat at HOPE for Animals Clinic at 1333 Maycrest Drive.

City Council to consider new plan for stray cats

– For 30 years, Fort Wayne’s approach to free-roaming cats was to trap them from neighborhoods and euthanize most of them.

At the policy’s peak in 2010, Animal Care & Control collected more than 8,000 cats and euthanized about 7,000 of them.

That was the highest year for trapping and euthanizing cats, according to Animal Care & Control’s data, which go back to 1980, when the department trapped and euthanized about 2,000 cats.

For those who work with strays, it’s clear a new approach is needed.

“There’s zero evidence that itworks. In fact, all the evidence says the contrary. … It’s like euthanizing squirrels. It serves no purpose” said Jessica Henry, director of the Allen County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Relief might be in sight after Tuesday, when the Fort Wayne City Council will decide whether to change the city’s animal control ordinance.

The change would allow for a coalition among Animal Care & Control, the Allen County SPCA and the Humane Organization to Prevent Euthanasia, or HOPE for Animals, Clinic to get grant funds to trap, neuter and return cats to the areas they were found under a Community Cats program.

It may seem counterintuitive to solve an overpopulation problem with the continued presence of cats, but the numbers decline over time, officials said.

“It will create a stagnant population,” that will eventually decrease in size, according to Belinda Lewis, director of Animal Care & Control.

When a free-roaming cat population is simply removed and euthanized, it creates a vacuum effect and a new population moves into the area.

When the cats are spayed or neutered and returned to their original areas, they keep other cats at bay. Over time, as the practice is applied on a citywide scope, the population declines.

Other common-nuisance behaviors of stray cats, including howling and fighting, will also subside because of a lack of competition for mates.

“It’s doesn’t change overnight,” said Madeleine Laird, executive director and founder of HOPE Clinic.

City Council members expressed support for the program and gave unanimous preliminary approval to change the ordinance. A final vote is expected at the council’s Tuesday meeting.

Indianapolis started a trap-neuter-release program in 2004 and saw an average decline of 35 percent across the city for stray cat intakes, with one ZIP code reporting a decrease of 43 percent, according to information provided by Indy Feral to local Animal Control.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars being dedicated to this program across the country,” Laird said.

Bryan Kortis, program manager for PetSmart Charities, an organization that awards grants for animal health initiatives, including trap-neuter-release, said the approach proposed locally has become common with those introduced across the nation in the last several years.

“It does work if done effectively,” he said.

Concerns raised

In February 2013, the New Haven City Council endorsed the expansion of trap-neuter-release in the city. It was the first municipality in northeast Indiana to do so.

Having enough resources in place and getting enough cats neutered from a population cluster are vital for the program’s success.

“It’s all about the correct strategy,” Kortis said.

How the strategy will be implemented in Fort Wayne is somewhat of a concern for local veterinarian Dale McKee of the Corner Vet Clinic.

He is not opposed outright to the Community Cats program but worries that “any good effort can sometimes go wrong.”

He and some others in his field are concerned about the ongoing health of the trapped animals after they are released.

Although a rabies vaccine is given to all trapped cats, he warned of other serious cat diseases that could go unnoticed and in turn continue to be spread among the population cluster.

He also worries about how long the rabies vaccines will be effective in the cats if they are not retrapped and given boosters. Although neutering a cat may eliminate nuisance behaviors, McKee said the loss of testosterone could simply make it easier for a new cat that isn’t neutered to take over the territory.

For him, there is no easy solution for what he views as a human-made issue.

“We created this problem. These are domestic cats that were put out on the street,” he said, adding he readily admits he doesn’t know what a more effective solution to the problem would be since euthanasia is shown not to work.

He urged anyone with an outside cat without a microchip to reconsider its living location so it doesn’t get trapped and come back with the tell-tale ear notch that all trapped and released cats will receive.

Coalition duties

The groups in the coalition will each have separate responsibilities to the task – Animal Care & Control will retrieve any trapped cats, scan them for microchips and take them to HOPE for spaying or neutering if no chip is found.

HOPE staff will notch one of the ears of the cats, a universal symbol for a Community Cat to reduce or eliminate repeat trappings of the same cat.

The SPCA will get the cats from HOPE and return them to their original location.

The cats will get a visual health inspection. If they look as if they’re doing well, they will be returned to their habitat. If they are clearly diseased or have some other sort of ailment, they will be euthanized.

Despite McKee’s concerns, which he voiced to the City Council in a letter, he admires the drive of the Community Cats coalition.

“These are remarkable people trying to do an impossible job,” he said.

Lewis said Animal Care & Control officers have collected cats trapped by residents for 25 years, so that role will not be any different from the past.

If the ordinance is changed, all three groups involved hope to continue the decline in stray cat populations started in 2010 when HOPE opened its doors.

“We’re all on the same page,” Laird said. “We don’t want to kill any animals if we don’t have to.”