In Fairfax, feral cats are managed, not euthanized

By Kali Schumitz
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, April 8, 2010

With an estimated 195,000 homeless and feral cats in Fairfax County, animal shelter officials have come to believe in recent years that trying to eliminate cat colonies is neither practical nor humane.

The cat population estimate, which is based on formulas developed by veterinary colleges, provides "an unlimited supply of cats," said Michelle Hankins, community outreach program manager for the Fairfax County Animal Shelter. So removing a cat colony from an area often does not solve the problem.

"When you just remove them all in a short period of time, the food sources still exist; the environment can still support a certain number of cats," Hankins said. "What happens is new cats move in."

In the past, feral cats delivered to the shelter were euthanized. They cannot be socialized to humans and so are not adoptable.

Now, the shelter focuses on educating and training residents to manage outdoor cat colonies rather than removing the animals. The goal is to decrease the number of kittens and cats the shelter takes in and, in turn, the number that must be euthanized.

Through the "trap-neuter-return" program, volunteers learn to trap cats and bring them to a county clinic for free spay or neuter surgery and rabies and distemper vaccinations. The sterilization services are funded through Fairfax County's share of the "Animal Friendly" Virginia license plate fees.

Since its inception in October 2008, the program has trained more than 150 volunteers and processed more than 500 cats, Hankins said.

"There's a pretty amazing network of interested and compassionate and concerned citizens who really want to try and solve the issue of outdoor cats," Hankins said.

During two-hour training sessions, volunteers learn how to manage a colony, trap cats and work with neighbors who might have concerns about the cats.

"We're trying to work with neighborhoods and communities and individuals so that the cats can remain where they are and the residents can peacefully coexist with them," Hankins said.

A colony caretaker is responsible for ensuring that the cats have adequate food, water and shelter. The volunteers can choose to provide veterinary care or, if a cat is seriously injured or sick, the animal shelter will euthanize it.

Tame cats and kittens that can be socialized are removed from outdoor colonies and placed for adoption, reducing the number of feral cats. Sterilizing the animals then curbs further population growth.

The results of a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association in 2003 found a 66 percent population decrease in a managed cat colony on the campus of the University of Central Florida over an 11-year period for which researchers monitored the animals.

Because of anecdotal evidence and such scientific research, more municipalities are formally embracing trap-neuter-return methods, said Elizabeth Parowski, a spokeswoman for Alley Cat Allies. The Bethesda-based nonprofit promotes trap-neuter-return programs nationally and helped Fairfax establish its program.

"There's definitely been a trend over the past 10 years where animal control offices have become more receptive," Parowski said. "They're finally starting to figure out that [killing cats] is an endless cycle."

The public also favors letting the cats stay outdoors, Parowski said, citing a 2007 Harris Interactive poll conducted for Alley Cat Allies. More than 80 percent of respondents in that survey favored leaving cats outdoors rather than euthanizing them.

"Most people aren't so angry at the animals that they want them killed," she said.

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