Activists focus on fixing feral cat problem
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com March 9, 2013 3:12PM
A feral cat awaits a trip to a veterinarian for spaying and neutering. Feral Fixers has been responsible for "fixing" more than 4500 stray cats in an effort to control feral cat populations. | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media
to 80 million
Estimated unowned (stray and feral) cats in the U.S.
Estimate of birds and rodents killed by cats annually in the U.S.
Amount of suture used during 2012 by PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) Chicago, which provides nonprofits with spaying and neutering services in an effort to limit the killing of homeless pets.
Cats spayed or neutered through Feral Fixers since it was founded in 2007.
Sources: Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Feral Fixers, PAWS
Updated: April 11, 2013 6:02AM
The sturdy tabby was having none of it.
Its generous and thick-coated backside turned to a visitor, the other end clearly ignoring the cooing meant to soothe. The cat had other things on its mind.
The animal quite likely had been through worse things, but this adventure was something new.
Along with nine other captive cats — each in a cage or crate, shrouded with a blanket — the feline was about to head one recent morning to Chicago’s Little Village, home to a nonprofit veterinary hospital that would spay or neuter it. Most of the cats then go back where they came from.
That’s the TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) mission of Feral Fixers.
The late-February day’s relative smattering of kitties in the Lombard garage that serves as the nonprofit’s home base, and holding space for trapped cats bound for sterilization, was attributed to a forecast blizzard. Many caretakers, Feral Fixers president and garage owner Tammy McAuley said, are older people reluctant to drive on hazardous roads.
“In October or November, we would have 50,” said volunteer Judy Walker of Lombard, who helps with nearly every mission processed through McAuley’s crate-filled workshop.
The organization has seen a steady rise in trappings, and what follows them, since it was founded to serve DuPage County in 2007. In November 2012, its interventions took 232 ferals and “friendlies” off the mating prowl.
There are plenty more where they came from.
Out in the ‘hood
Sometimes family pets that either ran away or were turned out of the house, other times felines that have never known the great indoors, feral cats are abundant in Naperville.
“It’s always been something that we’ve dealt with, ever since I’ve been here, which is about 20 years,” said Joanne Aul, supervisor of the city’s Animal Control Department.
Concentrations of non-domesticated house cats vary over time. Right now, Aul said, the largest number of reports are coming from the downtown neighborhoods.
The primary separation between ferals and their home-residing counterparts is “approachability,” McAuley said.
“A feral cat, you can’t touch it. It won’t let you near it,” she said.
While some have always lived on their own, others were once household companions, but were then “either lost or kicked out of the house last week,” she said.
Jack Graff, executive director of the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, sees clear distinctions between house and true feral cats.
“A feral cat is different from a cat that grew up in a home,” he said. “It has become a wild animal. It’s very hard to get them to adapt to living in a house with humans again.”
Aul said that when cats come to her department, they’re passed along to a local shelter if they’re deemed good candidates for domestication.
“There’s always going to be a few that aren’t going to come around,” she said.
City codes don’t enable the animal control workers to practice TNR, Aul said. That would entail ordinance changes that enable people to capture animals at large and feed them without legal exposure.
“How the ordinance reads now, if they feed a feral cat, then they would be considered the owner,” she said.
That means if the cat bites somebody, the person doing the feeding can be held liable.
In their accustomed fashion, cats can be unpredictable when it comes to living in the wild. People who do TNR know it’s not for every one. Although factors such as previous declawing can affect the success, McAuley thinks all cats instinctively have the ability to go feral. But it’s always up to them.
“Sometimes the ones that have been in houses revert to feral very quickly,” she said. “Not all of them can come back, once they’ve been (living) outside, to being the totally huggable, sleep-with-you-at-night kind of kitty.”
And sometimes it’s anybody’s guess. Every now and then, McAuley said, a “totally hissy kitty” will decide it’s OK to live with humans after all.
“We’ve had cats that, yeah, have made a transition right away, (while) others three years later have said ‘OK, I’m done with this, let me come inside,’” she said. “We do not force coming inside on cats, because they will make you pay. You end up with absolute chaos in your house.
“There are people who think, ‘This cat just has to come inside.’ Well, no. They’ve been outside all their lives.”
Feral Fixers fields calls from numerous caretakers, typically people who’ve been feeding cats that might have been feral, or maybe are strays, in some cases giving them shelter. But then they see the writing on the wall.
“They’ll say, ‘I’ve got one, two, 20 cats here. I don’t want kittens. Help!’” McAuley said.
The organization always needs more families willing to foster cats that might be good prospects for adopting into homes, and it passes along the affordability provided by the Pets Are Worth Saving (PAWS) clinic in Little Village. A potential adoptee, or a stalwart feral, can be spayed or neutered and given rabies and distemper shots, dewormed, protected against fleas and injected with a microchip, for $55.
“We try to make this as affordable as possible, so that it gets done,” said McAuley, whose organization is funded entirely by donations.
They understand how cats often become homeless — and the impact that can have on a region’s feline head count.
“What happens when your female goes into heat?” McAuley said. “You can’t stand the yelling, so you throw her outside.”
The prevalence of feral cats, most of which hunt for the majority of their food, can put a chink in the food chain.
“In general, feral cats have been an ecological problem for a couple decades,” said Brook McDonald, president and CEO of The Conservation Foundation in Naperville.
The felines catch ground-nesting birds — certain breeds of sparrow, bob-o-links, pheasants, quail and others. A recent literature survey done by the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds in the continental U.S. fall prey to cats every year.
The Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, based in East Dundee, has commissioned a study into the ecological impact of feral cats. The project is being supervised by Dr. Stanley Gehrt of Ohio State University, the same wildlife biologist who two years ago studied the number, lifestyle and impact of coyotes in the Chicago area.
Charlie Potter, president of the McGraw Foundation, hints that the study is concluding that the impact of these wild cats is far more malevolent than that of the Chicago area’s bigger — but far less numerous — coyotes.
“We have hundreds of thousands of feral cats now in Illinois,” Potter said recently on “The Great Outdoors,” his Chicago-based radio show. “Sure, they might eat a barn mouse occasionally. But mostly they’re living on ground-nesting birds.”
They’re not lacking natural enemies. McDonald said feral cat sightings are few on the Knoch Knolls Road farm where The Conservation Foundation does its work. And he knows why.
“We have a nice set of predators here — and coyotes are probably the number one predator for cats,” he said. “With the coyote population sort of surging in the last couple of years, there are fewer cats now.”
Sun-Times media reporter Dave Gathman contributed to this story.