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Feature Stories

Cat Activists Are Purring

Feral cats and town programs get ‘fixed’

When Janet Fine first moved to Great Neck, she looked forward to setting up a bird feeder and watching cardinals, chickadees and finches enjoy tidbits.

But there was a problem, and it was birds’ worst enemies—cats, and worse yet, feral cats at that.

“Along with the birds, I noticed a few stray cats without collars and thought, ‘maybe they’re hungry too’ and so I started putting out some food for them … And then later, I noticed that one of the cats was getting really plump. I was so ignorant that it took me a while to figure out that she was pregnant.”

Fine is one of hundreds of Long Islanders who has had to grapple with a hairy problem: what exactly to do about feral cats. Some feel compassion for them. Others, however, complain of damage to their gardens, cat spray around their homes, and seemingly endless breeding, and more cats.

But municipalities and volunteer organizations are reacting to the issue more and more these days. They say the only effective and humane way to reduce and eventually eliminate colonies of feral cats is through programs that trap, neuter and return (TNR) the cats to their locales.

For many years, there was no systematic government supported program for helping address the ever-growing populations of feral cats on Long Island. The burden of vet bills for spaying and neutering was borne by volunteers and volunteer organizations.  Euthanasia may seem a simple answer. But it engenders passionate protests from the public, and it has been found to be more expensive to run and operate than TNR. And it becomes impossible to keep up with the kittens since it has been estimated that one breeding pair of cats and their offspring, if left unchecked, can multiply into 400,000 cats in just seven years.

As far back as 2007, the Nassau County Legislature hosted a public hearing on the plight of feral cats. The room was crowded with activists who were struggling to patch together volunteer services to reduce feral cat populations and frustrated that local governments were not taking responsibility and providing financial support to stem the population explosion. But little action was taken.

As recently as January, 2012, Hempstead Town issued a press release saying the feral cat problem “has reached epidemic proportions.” It warned that “Feral cats that are not spayed or neutered may wander from place to place throughout our region, resulting in pockets of feral cat overpopulation.”

Dr. Gay Senk, a respected veterinarian who founded the Long Island Cat Project and has long treated ferals and provided low-cost spay/neuter services for domesticated cats, says change has taken place.  

“We have come a long way in Nassau County,” Senk said. “All the towns now have programs that are working very nicely. Each has different protocols and procedures, but the point is that they’re working … and that’s a big change.”

Senk said that there is need for more affordable spay/neuter providers for cat owners. Private vets charge up to $250 for spay/neuter, which many pet owners cannot afford.  Senk believes that it is reasonable to charge no more than $100 and adds that often pet stores or private shelters sell or give away kittens that have not been sterilized. Kittens that weigh at least 2 lbs. or are 8 weeks old may be safely fixed.

“We need to address the underlying issues to prevent feral cat colonies from re-emerging,” she concluded.

Town of North Hempstead

Andrew DeMartin, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, says, “When I took this job in 2011, Supervisor Jon Kaiman met with me and said, ‘You’ve got to fix the feral cat program.’” There was a waiting list going back two years, with 286 requests for spay/neuter services and a very dissatisfied and vocal group of cat advocates and volunteer organizations who felt the town was unresponsive and its program dysfunctional. DeMartin met with Sue Hassett, director of the town’s animal shelter, to brainstorm with her about the program and how it could, along with the cats, be “fixed.”  

The feral cat program had not been under her purview as the shelter only accommodates dogs. But the shelter now provides support services for the feral cat program. “It became apparent,” said DeMartin, “that there were communication problems and that we needed to hit the reset button.”

There was a swift change in personnel and a volunteer at the shelter, Lisa Studley, whose work ethic, commitment and communication skills were known, was hired to coordinate the program. People in Great Neck who used to complain and write letters to the editor about what they called the “so-called feral cat program” are now full of compliments for the town. Activist Jane Totura said, “Not only is Lisa understanding about the cats’ needs, she’s good with people too.”

Janet Fine, employed at the Great Neck Library as head of the circulation department, started meeting and talking with members of the community who have by necessity developed expertise on the care and control of feral cats. She became determined to do the right thing for her backyard feral cats, getting them spayed and neutered, and realized that it would be at her expense.

Fine had been critical of how the situation had been handled in the past. But in a recent email, Fine wrote, “HUG (Humane Urban Group) and other spay/neuter advocates worked hard to bring to the town’s attention the need for a humane and effective way to control the feral cat population.  Supervisor Kaiman met with us and listened to our concerns and suggestions.  Mr. Kaiman then assigned his dedicated, knowledgeable staff to create and put in place a very effective TNR program.  The Town’s TNR program is a shining example of what can be accomplished when government and private citizens work together toward a common goal.”

When Studley took over, her first task was to reach out to the people on the waiting list, who by that time were “hopping mad,” discouraged or distrustful and to deal empathetically with all the negative feelings.  

Within the first year of her employment, the town was caught up with the waiting list along with new service requests. Part of the job of coordinating the service is that Studley, Hassett and all of the shelter staff, who help on clinic days and with the aftercare, are dealing with people’s feelings about the cats. In 2012, the town provided free spay/neuter services along with rabies vaccinations, flea treatment and ear-tipping for 354 feral cats and they are prepared to increase those numbers if residents call in requests for service.

Here’s how the program works

To get help with feral cats, the first step is to call 311. The case will be assigned a service request number and the information will be forwarded to Studley. In many cases, the town will send someone to trap the cat(s). Untrained people are discouraged from trapping because while feral cats are not aggressive or dangerous to humans in normal conditions, they will claw back when cornered.

Studley says that she advises residents who are feeding ferals to halt the feeding for 24 hours prior to the trapping. Ferals can become quite wary of failed attempts at trapping, making the task more difficult. Trapping cages are loaned out either by HUG, All About Spay Neuter, or by Dr. Diane Levitan, who founded the mobile clinic Helping Paw in 2009.

Levitan brings her mobile unit to the town’s shelter at 75 Marino Avenue in Port Washington usually on two Sundays per month to perform the surgeries. Studley says, “We set up the clinics based on need … how many referrals we have. If we need it, we may schedule another vet to help.” The animal shelter provides care for the cats starting on Fridays because they learned that successful trapping depends on the weather and the odds for appointments being kept increases with extra lead time. When Sunday rolls around, it is very orderly with all the cats to be spay/neutered in place and ready for the surgery.

DeMartin said that the budget for the feral cat program is $75,000, but the town also contributes in-kind services because “it’s a lot of work and everybody chips in to help...it’s a real team effort.” DeMartin, with a background in fire and emergency services, is quick to point out the positive attitudes of the employees in the program. “Nobody says, ‘that’s not my job.’”

Town of Hempstead

Cindy Iacopella, who is the relatively new director of the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter and Adoption Center, affirmed that the town also has an active and successful TNR program. The shelter’s vets can provide free spay/neuter services for feral cats  five days a week by appointment. They, too, give rabies shots and flea treatments at the same time. After-care is provided by the shelter.

For residents who are inexperienced in trapping ferals, the town will arrange for trapping services to be provided. There is a waiting list for this service, but she assures that it is not a long wait. The town also provides training in safe trapping techniques with the help of Neighborhood Cats.

The town received a $55,000 grant from Petsmart which has supplemented its budget for the services. The TNR program began in December of 2010 and since its inception, Iacopella reports that, “We have altered approximately 3,613 feral cats.” The statistics for the month of Feb. 2013 reflects that 213 ferals were spay/neutered.

In order to request services, first call the shelter at 785-5220. It is located at 3320 Beltagh Ave. in Wantagh.

Town of Oyster Bay

Spokesperson for the Town of Oyster Bay Marta Kane reported that the town’s new surgical facility at the animal shelter is fully equipped to provide free TNR services for feral cats on a first come, first served basis. They also provide rabies and distemper vaccinations and ear-tipping at the same time. Ear-tipping is a universally recognized way of indicating that a cat has been sterilized, so that cats will not be unnecessarily trapped and brought in for a surgery twice. The contracted trapper brings feral cats in on Mondays for treatment. Residents who are able to trap the cats bring them in on either Wednesdays or Fridays for TNR, but appointments are needed.

It is hard for most of the towns to pinpoint exactly how much money is being spent specifically for TNR because staff working in shelters provide other services as well. This town pays trappers $30 per cat to catch, transport, recover and release the cats back to where they were caught. Last year, the town’s TNR service fixed a total of 504 feral cats. To request services, call the shelter at 677-5784. It is located at 150 Miller Place in Syosset.