When it’s a frigid night and you’re bundled up in your living room watching a weather report warn about freezing rain, it’s hard not to have your heart go out to the feral cats who live in your neighborhood. Though you might assume they want nothing more than to curl up with you on your couch, the truth is that the majority of them are quite different from our pet felines. Feral cats have lived their entire lives outdoors without direct human contact other than possible feeding and monitoring by a caregiver.
These felines form strong bonds with one another and with their home territory, which define their daily existence. Their survival instincts actually include wariness of humans in general, an intense fear of confinement and a contentment with living outdoors.
SO HOW CAN A WELL-MEANING PERSON TRULY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THESE CATS’ LIVES?
Through trap-neuter-return, or TNR for short. With TNR, feral cats are humanely trapped and spayed or neutered so they stop reproducing. They are returned to their home area to live out their lives with the help of human caregivers, who provide food and shelter. Over time, the number of cats in the area decreases. Friends of Animals has been donating spay/neuter certificates to TNR efforts in the U.S. for years.
One of the success stories is the Euclid Beach Feral Cat Project in Ohio, which has assisted thousands of cats. It provides TNR services, medical care, socialization, adoption services and community awareness.
In FoA’s home state, David Brensilver, a longtime Connecticut member of Friends of Animals, recently became involved with TNR efforts after being inspired by the efforts of Stacy Attenberg and Brigid Cleary, two dedicated TNR experts in the New Haven area.
“Since Spring of 2018, I’ve helped care for several colonies and have served as a transport service for cats who’ve been trapped by Stacy and then neutered, vaccinated and ear-tipped by a veterinarian,” Brensilver said. “I bring them from the vet to Brigid’s house (who is a vet-tech), where they recover in her able care.” Brensilver is adamant TNR is the best method to reduce the number of cats euthanized in shelters each year.
“Feral cats are often demonized by people, who then call local animal control agencies that typically trap the cats and hand them over to shelters. Then they’re euthanized because they aren’t socialized and because the shelters have to make room for more unwanted cats,” Brensilver explained.
In addition to reducing the amount of feral cats in shelters, Brensilver has found that the practice of TNR alleviates reproductive stressors and makes for more peaceful colonies.
“Instead of killing healthy, community cats, we can easily help care for these animals while preventing their numbers from growing,” he said.
Attenberg couldn’t agree more.
She has been involved with TNR for the last nine years. It all began when a friend alerted her to an emaciated and seemingly pregnant feral cat walking around their neighborhood. Attenberg started reaching out to local shelters to see if anyone could help.
The Greater New Haven Cat Project offered to teach her how to safely trap feral cats to bring them to clinics to be spayed or neutered. After a brief tutorial, Attenberg took to the streets and succeeded in catching not only the female feline, but another one as well. She took both to a veterinarian after transferring them from the traps into pet carriers. She later learned transferring them in carriers is not recommended by vets and rescues.
“Looking back on it, I definitely didn’t know exactly what I was doing,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure how to answer when the vet asked me if the cat was feral or not and didn’t understand the difference between a feral and a stray. So it was a huge learning process and a roller coaster, but also really rewarding. After the first experience, I knew right then and there that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Feral cats are those born in the wild or have had very little contact with humans at all. Strays were formerly pets who are lost or abandoned.
With those first two cats, Attenberg decided to work on socialization, a time-consuming process which requires devotion, patience and attention. The decision to socialize feral cats should not be taken lightly.
Her efforts were fruitful so she kept the cats, and they still live with her today. Attenberg has since expanded her TNR efforts and takes care of eight different colonies in New Haven, driving a half hour from her home every day to put out food and water for the cats who depend on her for their survival. She’s witnessed changes in each of the colonies after using TNR methods with them.
“They’re much healthier and they coexist with each other much better. You can definitely tell that numbers decrease exponentially over the years,” she said. Attenberg emphasized how crucial the “return” part of TNR is. When people just remove feral cats from their territory a vacuum will be created and other cats will just move in. Only returning spayed and neutered cats back to a colony will prevent the population of cats in an area from increasing. In addition to TNR, humans must act responsible with their own pets to prevent the millions of animals from suffering a life and eventual death on the streets, Attenberg says.
“If you let your pet cat outside and they’re not spayed or neutered, it just perpetuates the cycle with these feral cat colonies. It’s not going to end until everyone spays and neuters. It’s really the only humane solution,” Attenberg said.
This article originally appeared in FoA’s spring 2019 edition of Action Line.