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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

We must find a humane solution for ferals

BY DENNIS SCHOCH, Guest columnist

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I attended the recent Hernando County commissioners meeting to lend a voice to the trapping of animals, specifically cats. I had expected a debate on the merits of lending traps to the merits of the managing veterinarian recommendation that the practice be discontinued.

Unfortunately, the decision had been made to continue the practice, as it was pointed out the county had done so for 23 years and would continue to do so in the future. They agreed they would purchase even more traps to continue what has been a total exercise in futility, but on an even grander scale.

In some of the comments I heard and in discussion after that segment of the meeting, I realized that while “TNR” has a nice ring to it and rolls off the tongue in a rather catchy manner it will lead many of those in the general public and those who are decision makers to have a total misconception of what trap-neuter-return actually entails.

Yes, the cat is trapped, but the trapped cat is then evaluated because while every feral cat may be free roaming, not every free roaming cat is feral. The cats who are deemed to be domesticated and been turned out by their human handlers to fend for themselves are properly vetted and placed for adoption. The cats that have not been sterilized are neutered, vaccinated, ear-tipped and then released into an approved managed colony, but it doesn’t end at that point.

Food stations are provided for the colony. As even the flawed but much ballyhooed Smithsonian report states, 69 percent of the wildlife mortality is caused by unowned cats. What is the difference between an owned cat and an unowned cat, other than one has been socialized to human contact and the other has not?

A reliable food source. That is provided in a properly run TNR colony by designated volunteer caretakers. Cats, like most other animals, will take the lazy way out and eat the food provided rather than expend energy on the hunt. Cats are monitored for predatory or nuisance behavior.The colony is monitored, and if other cats show up they are removed and the procedure begins anew for the latest arrivals .

So the trap-neuter-release aspect of a successful TNR program just scratches the surface of the work that is done to protect not only the cats but all other wildlife as well. Earlier I referred to the Smithsonian study and called it flawed,in part as they relied on a study in which a co-author of this damning report was Nico Dauphine, who was convicted in the District of Columbia Superior Court of misdemeanor attempted animal abuse for trying to lace cat food with poison.

The report itself gave little notice to the impact of man through loss of habitat or man-made objects. Yet as late as 2011 the American Bird Conservatory considered habitat loss and degradation due to human actions as the greatest threat to the avian population with some suggestions and models that over 70 percent of bird deaths come from loss of habitat and collisions with man-made objects, vehicles, communication towers, etc. Domestic and feral cats accounted for less than 17 percent of bird deaths, with the balance coming from hunting, pesticides and other causes.

Have there been TNR successes? Yes. In 2005 Indianapolis enacted one of the first TNR ordinances in the country and by 2007 the intake of stray and feral cats dropped by 37 percent

Burlington County New Jersey enacted a TNR program in part to slow the rise in the number of cases of rabies, and in the managed colonies 99 percent of the cats are estimated to have been vaccinated. The monitoring of the colonies has seen a reduction of their size from 20 to 25 percent, with an added benefit that one town reported a dramatic decline in complaint calls related to cats. In 2008, for the first time in 10 years there was a drop in cat intakes.

Have there been failures? Yes, but generally not attributed to a properly managed colony but rather to those two-legged creatures who like to evade their responsibility and, knowing cats are being fed, feel comfortable dumping their animal into the colony.

Now suppose those who are afraid of TNR could wave a magic wand and have all the cats disappear — what are the possible repercussions?

On isolated geographic locations such as an island it has been possible to trap and kill cats to protect the wildlife. The Falkland Islands were able to do so for the most part despite a 2008 report that suggested that for every bird killed by a cat up to 1.9 ship rats were killed and that ship rats posed an even greater danger to the bird population.

The net result has been an ongoing and expensive effort, spanning quite a number of years, trying to eradicate the rats because their natural predator, the cat, has been eliminated.

On Macquarie Island, in Australia, the cats were removed to protect the birds, but that caused an explosion of rabbits when their predators were removed.

The rabbits, in turn, caused widespread devastation of the ecosystem and destruction of vegetation and bird habitat and upward of 11 million Australian dollars has been spent trying to fix the problem that nature had put into balance.

At Longwood Gardens, in Pennsylvania, they have introduced and established a colony of cats to control pests. They state, “They work for food, shelter and routine medical care”…TNR. Longwood Gardens has actually increased their bird population with this program and offer several weekly birding tours throughout the year.

I was disappointed in the meeting; I had hoped for more discussion and more debate and three minutes is hardly enough time to present pertinent facts. However, my greatest disappointment will be if those who represent us do not move forward in exploring all the options available and merely rely on methods that have proven both fruitless and unworkable. If, the intent is truly to protect wildlife will this mean we have seen the last golf course community or housing development in Hernando County approved, as neither promotes wildlife habitat?

Cats may be considered the problem, but it is a man-made problem, and it is up to man to find a humane solution.

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