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Feral Cat Meeting, Claws and All

“Everyone wants something done about the feral cats,” said Park District Commissioner Robert Lincoln, “whether out of concern for the animals or whether they are regarded as a nuisance and that’s why we are discussing the situation tonight and looking for humane and effective solutions.” Approximately 40 people had turned out last Thursday to discuss the cat colony at one of the park district’s commuter lots. It was acknowledged at the meeting that the situation goes far beyond the colony of cats near the Long Island Rail Road and is a peninsula-wide problem. It is estimated that there are at least 11 feral cat colonies spread throughout town.

As the meeting evolved, it became clear that the numerous cat activists who attended have been frustrated at getting any help from the Town of North Hempstead and as one put it, “We want to see results, not excuses.”

Among the people specifically invited to attend the meeting was Joan Phillips, president of the Animal Lovers League of Glen Cove, who runs a municipal shelter, which was privatized in 1995. Ms. Phillips, well aware of the feelings of frustration, urged the group to “open pathways to productive solutions.” She discussed the successful strategy at Glen Cove for dealing with the feral cat situation, which now has “zero population growth.” She said, “The best way to go is to organize low-cost, mass clinic days in which 20 to 50 cats are spayed and neutered at a time … this is the only way to really see an impact on the population … and in  the fall, when cats are not pregnant, is an ideal time to conduct such a clinic for Great Neck.”  She went on to add that their small clinic sterilized 1,012 cats last year alone. This was done with local vets who worked in two-hour shifts from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for two days treating 130 cats at a time. These weekend clinics were held several times during the year. She said, “If you do it piecemeal, one cat here another cat there, it just won’t work.”

In the past, the Town of North Hempstead contracted with Humane Urban Group (HUG) to trap and transport ferals to selected vets to “fix” the cats. According to Jack Housman of HUG, who attended the meeting, the town was not willing to pay for the full cost of care. He said, “Any responsible vet will also treat feral cats for ear mites and give rabies vaccinations to them…our organization had to supplement what the town was reimbursing us for.” The town would appropriate $10,000 at a time to cover the costs and some years paid out up to $20,000. The arrangement with HUG ended last year.

The town then hired Jen Lieber in a part-time position to coordinate the feral cat program. A number of cat activists, who are loosely networked, but not officially organized, met with Ms. Lieber, shortly after she was hired last year. A the time she told them that they should call the 311 line, get a case number and get in line for service. The cat activists say that they followed the procedure, but that no service was forthcoming. Janet Fine said, “The town has the agency, the staff, the budget, but my experience with them has been totally negative.”

Ms. Lieber, who attended the meeting, defended herself and the town’s situation by saying that they have been unsuccessful in finding vets who would participate with them. She did announce that the town has just signed a contract with a trapping firm, Arrow Exterminators, which provoked a swell of consternation from the audience. Ms. Lieber emphatically said that the town would not be exterminating the cats. She said that the town had issued an RFP (request for proposals) to trap, spay/ neuter and inoculate feral cats and had had only one response.

When asked about her budget, she responded that she did not know what her budget was for feral cats. A town attorney, Shawn Brown, who also attended the meeting, said he did not know what the budget was either.

In the town’s RFP, it was stated that since the trap/neuter/return (TNR) program was started in the town in 2002, 1000 cats have been treated.

Ms. Lieber said that the town had sent out an IMA (an inter-municipal agreement) to all the villages because the town needs such an agreement in order to send trappers to private properties.

The town also encouraged the cat advocates to organize and form a not-for-profit organization to address the problem, but that idea did not take root.

Meanwhile, the cat volunteers in town are feeding the cats, trapping the cats and paying out of pocket to have them spayed/neutered, treated for mites and inoculated. One such volunteer, Dawn Bechtold, said that she and others have spent about $30,000 in the last three years to care for the feral cats near the train station. Volunteers are also taking any kittens born after four weeks and socializing them so that they can be adopted. Ms. Bechtold reports that they adopted out 14 kittens this past season.

Although Ms. Lieber made a point of stating that the town could not keep feral cats in a shelter, none of the feral cat experts we have interviewed have ever suggested sheltering ferals. The only time a cat shelter would be helpful would be in providing space for mass spay/neuter clinics and housing female cats overnight just after sterilization procedures before releasing them back to their respective terroritories.

Cooky Blaha suggested that the town utilize the low-cost mobile clinic run by PAWS that was featured in the Record last week and make a concerted effort to deal with the problem.

Town Councilwoman Lee Seaman, who attended the meeting, said that she didn’t realize the situation was so bad in terms of the town’s response to the problem. “I will look into this,” she said.

Village Officials Association President Leonard Samansky, who also attended the meeting, said that he would make sure that villages moved promptly to deal with the IMA, so that the town could go forward.

County Legislator Judi Bosworth also sent a representative, Rachel Brinn, to monitor the evening’s activities and help with any coordination needed in the future.

Joan Phillips said, “You need to form a collaboration instead of an adversarial situation. Solving this problem is not as hard as you think.”