by Nicole Rivard
Stan Minasian's latest documentary captures the success of trap, neuter, return programs all over the world, even at the Coliseum in Rome.
There was once more than meets the eye at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. Home to politicians and government buildings, it also provided a sanctuary for a feral cat colony complete with kitty condos built by volunteers who embraced the felines.
As many as 30 strays at a time lived there since the 1950s after the government switched to a chemical-based rodent control program inside the Parliament Hill buildings, putting the cats out of work and rendering them homeless.
Spaying and neutering eventually reduced those numbers to just four in December 2012. By January 2013 volunteers had adopted them, and the sanctuary was dismantled.
This success story of humane feral cat management, which involves trapping, spaying/neutering, and returning of feral cats, is just one of several highlighted in a new documentary called, Ten Lives, written and directed by Stan Minasian, founder of the Animal Fund. The film was funded by Friends of Animals and the Summerlee Foundation.
“It’s what we hope all feral cat colonies will end up being—that they will just evolve into no more cats,” said Minasian.
“The Parliament Hill situation was very special because it became a tourist attraction. It was codified by the prime minister coming over and visiting the feral cats. The press went crazy. From that point on, the government practically gave the property to the Parliament Hill cats and to their caretakers. It wasn’t just a group of people trapping feral cats and spaying and neutering them and returning them. They built this humongous shelter to provide housing for the cats. It was a really spectacular thing for everyone to visit.”
The seed for the documentary was planted more than 10 years ago when Minasian was hired by the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to produce a nine-part video series titled 9-Lives: The Humane Management of Feral Cats. Each of the nine titles is a textbook on how people can get involved to help control the population of feral cats while making their lives better. The videos show how to humanely trap, establish feral fix days, set up shelters, properly maintain a colony, care for kittens, deal with legal issues and gain community support.
“According to then-president Ed Sayres, the series was very well received by shelters and clinics across the country, with more than 500 sets distributed,” Minasian said. “But they were instructional videos and the public never got to see them. As I maintained the rights to all of the material I decided that I had enough to form the basis of a documentary for public consumption. It just didn’t feel right to have it sitting on the shelf.”
Minasian’s other projects include the Emmy-award winning, Last Days of the Dolphins, the first film to reveal the killing of dolphins during tuna fishing operations and A Fall from Freedom, the first film to expose the controversial history of the captive whale and dolphin industry.
He points out that while his latest film covers trap, neuter and return TNR to a great extent, it also works to negate the claim by many bird groups that feral cats are a major cause of songbird decline worldwide.
“I am confident that the film disproves this claim, and in a big way,” he said. “The bird groups are adamantly against trapping and return. They are more in favor of trapping feral cats and putting them in shelters, which ultimately means that they will die because no one adopts feral cats. We found a number of people who have strong arguments that feral cat groups and bird people ought to be working in unison because it really is a positive thing.”
Individuals in the film talk about habitat loss, deforestation (for people, cattle, and coffee), global warming, massive city lights, pollution, wind power generators, pesticides and even intentional massive killing for human consumption as the real reasons for the decline of birds in general, and songbirds in particular.
The other critically important aspect of the film, Minasian says, is to show that feral cat spay/neuter clinics can be set up by anyone, anywhere and that veterinarians can be extremely cooperative, as well as students.
“They need the experience to do cat spay and neuters as part of their training. What better way to do it than a feral cat clinic,” Minasian said. “I think the public will go bonkers because they have never seen this kind of thing. You have 60 or 70 people working in unbelievable unison where in an eight-hour period they will spay and neuter 150 cats.
“So the public will get a real good idea that it’s not just, pardon the expression but I’ve heard it so many times I’m sick of it, ‘little old ladies in tennis shoes feeding feral cats.’”
Minasian points out people from all walks of life, men and women, are getting involved in trap, neuter and return programs.
“Once viewers see how prevalent it is around the world, especially in the United States, they won’t feel intimidated by starting it up themselves,” he said.
In addition to Canada, Ten Lives features footage from the United States; Havana, Cuba and even the Coliseum in Rome, Italy.
Minasian spent a day filming one of the most prevalent U.S. groups called Fix Our Ferals, a community-based, non-profit organization that promotes TNR in the San Francisco East Bay area. The groups Minasian features are unyielding about TNR and it being the only successful long-term strategy for humanely controlling the population of free roaming cats. A sterilized colony of feral cats will stabilize, and eventually decline in numbers through illness, accidents and old age.
They maintain that trap-and-kill programs do not work because of the territorial nature of feral cats. When all the resident cats are removed from an area, a “vacuum” is created, and un-neutered cats from nearby neighborhoods will move into the unclaimed territory.
In Rome, Minasian visited the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, home to about 250 felines sheltered amongst the oldest temples in Rome. Seven days a week volunteers feed, clean and look after them. The shelter offers a comprehensive sterilization and adoption program, and it also cares for sick, handicapped or elderly cats that are difficult to place in homes.
Minasian also includes footage from Animal Balance and its work in Cuba. Animal Balance works on islands where there is either a threat to biodiversity, human health, or the community is too impoverished to sterilize their escalating cat and dog populations. It currently does work on The Galapagos Islands, Samoan Islands, Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Cuba and Cape Verde.
Minasian hopes people will use his film as a tool to make a case for the trap, neuter and return method to manage feral cats. If there is a feral cat colony on government land, he says, very often a governmental organization will trap them and take them to an animal shelter.
“If people who don’t want that to happen can watch a film that instructs them on an alternative method that’s proven, then they can go in and create a better argument for not doing it that way,” Minasian said.
“After seeing a film like ours hopefully when people see a feral cat on the street they won’t turn away from it. They’ll know that there is something that they can do.”
To download the movie, visit www.feralcatsusa.org