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Mobtown Beat

Herding Cats

City Legalizes Feral Cat Trap-Neuter-Release Programs

Frank Klein
Fix-It Shop: Marie MacKamul, Manager Of The Mdspca's Spay/Neuter Program, Works On A Sedated Cat Brought To The Facility As Part Of The Trap-Neuter-Release Program.

By Chris Landers | Posted 12/5/2007

Fuzzy wants out. Though the
renovated pump house next to the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MDSPCA) is remarkably quiet for a room that contains two dozen cats, Fuzzy, a small gray and white male clearly has no desire to be here-he rolls and jumps in a small blue cat-carrier in a frantic attempt to escape.

Cages and carriers holding the cats are lined neatly in two rows, and the silence is occasionally broken by a soft mewling or hissing from one side of the room or the other.

Veterinary technician Leigh Bender handles each cat in turn, reaching in and pulling one out by the scruff of the neck. Maya Richmond, watching, says: "We've seen some scary things come out of those cages." In the corner, something called "Missy" hisses from a cage covered by a towel.

Most of the cats here live in houses in and around Baltimore, and all were brought here for a low-cost sterilization operation by a volunteer veterinarian. But a handful of them, including Missy, are feral cats brought here today to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Each feral cat will have the tip of one ear cut for future recognition before being returned to the area in which they were trapped. The MDSPCA on Falls Road sterilized 836 feral animals in 2006 and more than 700 so far this year. They were brought to the MDSPCA in steel-mesh traps by one of a network of Maryland trappers bent on reducing the feral cat population without killing the animals. The trappers are passionate about what they do, devoting time, money, and energy to the cause. They are also a bit secretive-until a recently signed ordinance goes into effect later this month, their hobby is illegal.

The practice called "Trap-Neuter-Return," or TNR, is a fairly new one. Bethesda-based Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit devoted to education on the subject, was formed in 1990. The group took in almost $4 million in 2006, according to its IRS forms, and this year the group set its sights on Baltimore, hoping to change the way feral cats are handled in the city. A bill passed by the City Council last week will, advocates say, decriminalize several aspects of TNR, notably the "return" part of the practice, which was previously considered animal abandonment.

On a November Tuesday evening, a line of cat lovers headed through the City Hall metal detector to make the case for TNR before the council's Housing, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee.

The actual committee members were absent. As supporters took their seats, reports came that Chairman Kenneth Harris Sr. (D-4th District) was stuck in traffic, so Councilman Robert Curran (D-3rd), who co-sponsored the bill, filled in for him, along with Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th), who worked the room before the meeting began.

"Don't worry about the bill," Clarke assured one woman. To another: "Nobody wants the cat people against them."

More than 20 cat people testified in favor of the bill, which would add a category in the city's health code dealing with feral cats, defined as cats that have "a temperament of extreme fear and resistance to contact with humans." The changes provide exceptions to animal-abandonment rules and kennel laws limiting the number of pets a city resident may keep for "feral cat caregivers" working with an approved feral cat program.

Baltimore Animal Control director Robert Anderson estimates that there are 185,000 cats kept as pets in the city, and about the same number on the streets. He said at the hearing that his officers had received about 1,800 calls about feral cats last fiscal year and handled approximately 6,750 of the animals-enough work to occupy two of his 16 full-time officers.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, whose department helped write the bill, says the change in law has the potential to reduce cases of rabies (he points to recent case in Harford County spread by a feral cat) as well as free up Animal Control officers. Sharfstein says the Health Department would work to come up with specific guidelines for the program (it's not just "everybody go out and feed feral cats," he says), and that the city's animal shelter is working on increasing the volume of cats that can be spayed and neutered there.

Killing the cats, according to Alley Cat Allies President Becky Robinson and other TNR advocates, merely makes room for new ones, while vaccinating and sterilizing them allows the colony to remain stable and healthy. In written testimony provided to the committee, Robinson wrote that TNR betters the health of feral cats "through vaccination and ongoing management and improves their lives by eliminating the endless cycle of reproduction."

Felicia Nutter, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, conducted a seven-year study of feral cat colonies in that state, and found that colonies in which three quarters of the cats have been sterilized went steadily extinct in about 13 years. Colonies of unsterilized cats tended to increase in size. Alley Cat Allies points to similar programs in Washington, Buffalo, N.Y., Cape May, N.J., and elsewhere as evidence of success.

Dawn Rowley, a feral cat trapper, testified in favor of the bill. She has caught and released cats from Virginia to Baltimore, but nowadays she stays closer to her Crofton home, trapping between Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City (in a few weeks, she'll be concentrating on the Cherry Hill neighborhood). In her garage, next to her Harley, she keeps five cages lined up on an aluminum ladder set across two sawhorses and several more in the back of her car, although she can expand the operation to fit 60 cats, something she's planning on doing soon for a one-time large-scale trapping expedition. Most weeks she traps on Sunday, then on Monday brings the cats to MDSPCA. Twenty-four hours later she returns the cats to the wild, or what passes for it in an urban area. The rest of the week she works as a commercial airline pilot.

"I'm lucky," she says, "because my job allows me to do this-I can work three or four days a week and do this three days a week, and still have a day off."

Rowley drives a few blocks to take a look at a feral colony behind a strip mall near her house-she asks that the exact location not be disclosed. As her car pulls into the lot, a large gray cat between a Dumpster and an abandoned easy chair disappears into the woods. Even from a distance, Rowley can see that the tip of his ear has been cut-he has already taken the ride to her garage.

Usually she sets her traps at sunrise, then hangs out in her car-a plastic box holds a few books, crossword puzzles, and a stock of brochures produced by Alley Cat Allies ("Discover the Truth about Feral Cats" and others in English and Spanish). Rowley hands them out to people who ask her what she's doing. The hardest thing to get across is the fact that she's bringing the cats back.

"One lady, when I returned a cat here last week, she thought I was dumping the cat," she says. "I had to explain what I did, and show her the ones in the car and tell her they'd just been neutered."

The colony near her house is cared for by a woman who works nearby-large food dishes and makeshift silver shelters are barely visible from a distance but become evident along with the cats as one approaches. "There's probably about 20 cats back here, and this site-there's two more I have to catch."

TNR has its detractors, notably the Wildlife Society, an international advocacy organization, which points out that the cats are a non-native species, capable of damaging existing wildlife. Rosemarie Bauman, an Anne Arundel-based trapper who has worked extensively in the city, says she thinks the bill is a bad idea.

Bauman has trapped almost 900 cats over the past five years. The retired nurse practices TNR, and she gets word-of-mouth referrals mostly from people who want her to deal with their cats. She says she has a stock answer for people who ask her not to return the cats to the same area she traps them from. "I use reverse psychology all the time," Bauman says. "'If you want to kill the cats, go ahead.' Most people do not want to kill cats. I rely on that."

Nonetheless, Bauman calls the bill "a Band-Aid approach, and a bad one at that. . . . The city is full of cats and Trap-Neuter-Return will do nothing."

Bauman says the strategy works in some areas, where colonies have space for improvised shelters and can be kept away from neighbors' yards and cars. City living is just too close for cat colonies. Bauman says the distinction between feral and house cats is a false one-"Feral cat? What is a frickin' feral cat? I've never found one."

Bauman, who describes herself as "a very angry person with a lot of TNR experience," says the bigger problem is money-people who feed cats in the city have very little of it.

"The people who are feeding the cats are not the yuppies in Canton or Federal Hill," she says. "The poor people are the ones sharing a little bit of food."

By making TNR a city policy, she believes, the city will be able to shift the burden of dealing with these animals to the caregivers, who will end up being the ones to fund the sterilization. The result, Bauman believes, will be more abandoned cats. Instead, she believes the city and advocacy groups should increase funding for spaying and neutering programs around Baltimore.

"The bottom line is we are killing cats," she says. "They're not just living on the streets, they are dying there. . . . Most people think I'm crazy, but I do a lot for the cats."

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