Times are tough for domestic cats. This year, some people in the midwestern region of the United States have even argued for their reclassification as wild animals so they can be hunted. Several years ago, Marie Ansari incorporated the Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART) as a non-profit effort to meet the needs of feral cats, as well as abandoned dogs and cats in New Jersey, and to solve the related problems that cause so much controversy today. Here, Marie talks to Friends of Animals about the “trap, neuter, return” method of feral cat care.
Friends of Animals: Marie Ansari, could you tell us something about feral cats?
Marie Ansari: Yes! Ferals are the result of both the failure to neuter and outright abandonment. Feral cats are domestic, so a docility and a certain need for care is bred into them; yet they are homeless and wary of humans. They often live behind buildings where they can find discarded food.
When ferals have kittens outside, a colony starts. These kittens might be chased by children, maintenance workers, or even joy riders. In our culture, it’s having an owner that protects a domestic cat from abuse. A cat indoors might live 20 years. A feral cat without any care might, with luck, make it to two years.
Friends of Animals: What is the best approach to addressing this? Should it be addressed?
Marie: Yes, it should be addressed. I work in projects called “Trap, Neuter, Return” — commonly called TNR.
Friends of Animals: How did you get started in this work?
Marie: The story takes so many twists and turns, it’s hard to know where to begin. I had been working in the animal adoption and rescue world, where I observed a real crisis. We were saving animals by working with pounds who are happy to relieve their crowding, but with few acceptable adopters, and the backlog is overwhelming. Acceptance of TNR as a viable alternative would make a huge difference for all concerned, but most municipalities are still living in the world of “trap and kill.”
Friends of Animals: Why would people oppose TNR?
Marie: Some property owners dislike cats and consider them vermin. I argued with a Plainfield church for years to try to stop them from rounding up cats and having them killed. An elderly local resident was spending his veteran’s pension to care for those cats. Caring for the cats gave him a reason for living, and he was so kind to them. The church officials repeatedly called the authorities to have the caretaker fined and the cats rounded up.
Friends of Animals: Is the acceptance of killing animals your main obstacle?
Marie: Yes. In my view, killing is not only immoral, it’s a temporary response. People continue to abandon cats and permit them to go outside where they reproduce. Without public education, and without a permanent caregiver to monitor the area, the breeding cycle quickly starts up again.
Friends of Animals: Do cats outside pose a health concern?
Marie: They don’t pose any significant extra risks, and a monitored colony is generally better off than breeding groups and in places that allow cycles of trap-and-kill. A well-researched report from the University of Florida showed fewer than 5% to be infected with feline leukemia or immunodeficiency — about the rate found in pet cats. Both viruses are harmless to humans, affecting only the cats. Rabies is practically non-existent in feral cat colonies.
Cats who show no active illness are properly returned to their colony. TNR stops the cycle of mating and conflict and this is the best form of disease prevention. In collaboration with generous veterinarians, our Homeless Animal Lifeline does as much as possible to provide for the colony’s health.
Friends of Animals: Do you find them homes?
Marie: Sometimes. Some ferals become sociable in a monitored colony, and adoption can supplement TNR to phase out a colony. But cats are unique individuals with their own preferences, so it is impossible to know with certainty how that transition will work out. If you aren’t a seasoned caretaker, and want to help cats, consider adopting a cat from the pound.
Friends of Animals: Where homes are not available, what happens?
Marie: The next best thing for homeless domestic cats born outdoors is to return to their colony where they have consistent access to food and water. Neutered cats are free from the deadly stress and dangers of constant reproduction: pregnancy, crossing busy streets looking for mates, and trying to look after numerous kittens. Neutering also relieves the local human community of the influx of domestic cats into the world of birds and squirrels and people’s prize flower gardens.
Friends of Animals: And what about those birds? Aren’t cats an introduced species?
Marie: Cats do occasionally kill birds and other species; however, the main cause of bird and wildlife decline is habitat loss, which is caused by humans, not cats. Rather than blame and persecute cats (and we put them here), I think the best answer is to take active responsibility for what we do.
Plus, domestic cat population control in a given area should be undertaken with care and an understanding of the role the cats have developed in the local ecosystem. Cycles of abrupt trapping and killing, rather than phasing out the population, can actually harm the local balance.
Friends of Animals: How do they wind up outside in the first place?
Marie: Apartment dwellers constantly replenish the strays as people come and go. We recently took in a beautiful young tortoise-shell cat who was found in a closet of an apartment a week after the human moved out.
In fact people everywhere relocate, and many seem to find it a burden to take a cat. Come spring, you wouldn’t believe how many “allergy calls” I get. The first thing doctors say is “Take up the carpeting and get rid of the animals.”
Often, the reasons involve impatience of one kind or another. Some cats scratch the furniture, and the people do not want to take the trouble to clip the cats’ claws.
Friends of Animals: What about products that stop furniture scratching?
Marie: A product called “Sticky Paws” — that’s just wide, double-sided tape — goes on the item you wish to protect. Cats avoid sticky substances. As it takes a cat between one and three months to get used to acting in a new way, occasionally renewing this tape will help.
Friends of Animals: What is the product some vets talk about, called SoftPaws?
Marie: Soft Paws are pieces of plastic, shaped like claws, which fit over the front claws. They’re glued on and replaced every 4 to 6 weeks as the cat’s nails grow. As they cost around $15 or more for a set, this can get pricey. Claws need to be trimmed slightly before the Soft Paws are applied anyway; so I vote for the nail clipping and an adequate scratching area. Try a sisal mat or the TurboScratcher (which they love). You can easily buy good organic catnip to rub into a mat where you want the cat to stretch.
The best investment I ever made was a multi-tiered piece of cat furniture. I would have saved many chairs and sofas if I did this long ago. Also, some cats don’t like carpeting, but do like the backing of the carpet or a wrapped sisal rope, available in home maintenance stores. I wrapped a few of the columns of the scratching condo with it, and it satisfies everyone. It must be placed squarely in an accessible spot, such as their eating or sleeping area. If it’s out-of-the-way, they won’t use it. Cats like to live where the humans do.
Friends of Animals: Would you have any nail-clipping tips?
Marie: Clipping every three to four weeks is fine, and holding the cat can be invaluable when the cat needs medical treatment. I sit the cat on my lap facing away from me. This allows me to wrap both arms around the cat from the back, and work quickly. With my really fussy cats, I ask someone to gently hold the back legs, talking to the cat the whole time. With all but the feral cats, I can do this easily each month. With ferals, each one needs a different approach, but all can be done.
Finally, cats “scent” with their paws, which is why they return to the same area to scratch. If that area is cleaned with a scent neutralizer it may help.
Friends of Animals: Should people feed cats outside?
Marie: Only if they want to encourage a breeding ground. It’s especially frustrating to get calls from those saying they’ve been feeding a couple of stray cats, but “they keep having kittens, and now there’s too many.” The animals pay a very steep price for the ignorance of humans, and most problems are preventable.
Call a TNR advocate and ask for help. It’s best not to try to trap a cat without first consulting an experienced person. Then again, it’s best to do something. If they are trapped by authorities, they will likely be killed. ]
Some shelters or rescues lend out “Have A Heart” traps to the public for a reasonable deposit; and these traps are also available for sale.
Feeding a stable colony of feral cats often gives a structure and purpose for many caregivers, especially among the senior population. Communities should encourage, rather than ban, such acts of kindness. But sterilizing the cats is crucial.
Friends of Animals: When there are conflicts over what to do with cats, you hear about relocating them to “barn homes.” Are they good places for cats?
Marie: Ouch! Relocating feral communities is usually a death warrant for them, unless done by a highly experienced person. At the very least, the cats must be confined to their new home for two to four weeks so they know it’s their new food source. Simply moving a cat to a different spot and leaving is the same as abandonment.
Because feral communities set up their own structure, an existing colony will often drive newcomers off. Unless carefully monitored, this could be a sad ending for feral cats. While relocation is sometimes the only option, it must be done with great forethought and planning.
Friends of Animals: One hears a lot about the feral cats in New Jersey. Is this state particularly full of feral cats? What’s the history here?
Marie: Any populated area, especially where there is housing turnover, is going to encourage abandonment of cats when people move. The “no-pet” rules of housing companies means cats get left behind. Many people conceive of domesticated cats as independent beings who can be left outside to take care of themselves. This is far from the truth. New Jersey is challenged by many issues related to rapid growth and destruction of animal habitat. While TNR has been encouraged for years by those in the field who see the benefits, it is still not sanctioned by the state as a viable alternative to killing. Caregivers of stable colonies have no rights if a municipality insists that the cats must be removed for any reason. In our state, Lawyers in Defense of Animals (LIDA), a non-profit, formed in 1990 for the purpose of bringing animal issues to public awareness. When each community is willing to take responsibility for animal issues, rather than leaving it up to the over-taxed health departments of their towns, we may begin to see some positive change for the well-being of our animals.
Friends of Animals: Are many people actively supporting your work?
Marie: Not enough, because TNR is one of the most controversial areas of animal advocacy. Even animal advocates themselves will debate this issue. To me, it’s just so simple: Stop the breeding and the colonies will self-limit! In my opinion, when community groups can openly advocate it as a first choice when the public calls about stray cats, we will have begun to make progress. Until then, many cats will pay the ultimate price for human ignorance or the urge for a supposedly quick solution.
Friends of Animals: Once a community accepts TNR, does the story get a happy ending?
Marie: The financial part can be harrowing, although I make money stretch to the max! I think every state should put funds into TNR. What a difference it would make for everyone.
And affordable neutering is a no-frills experience. Low-cost clinics sometimes use no pain medication, only anaesthetic during surgery but that’s it. In New Jersey and elsewhere, this aspect needs a lot of attention. I feel for the cats who are released back to their colonies on the same day of surgery. It must be so stressful for them. The shame is that there’s little alternative.
Friends of Animals: What is our key error? It seems that we have assumed that other animals are here for any whimsical use. We’ve manipulated other animals and unfairly created a dependency in them.
Marie: We have certainly made that mistake, and it’s not something we can cope with. It’s a dependency that we cannot meet. And in today’s fast-paced world, more and more dogs are growing up in crates, cats are outside “because it’s easier,” and as older parents die the adult children are not taking these animals, but rather looking for an instant answer to any inconvenience.
It’s widely documented that indifference to or cruelty to other animals indicates a potential for doing violence to other humans. For that reason too, we should do anything possible to encourage compassion in children and adults, and to stop using violence and killing as a way to solve animal issues. We need all the kindness we can get in this fast-paced, often violent world we live in.
You may contact Marie at 908.756.7521, or write a message to the attention of Marie Ansari.