Discussions about catch and release of feral cat colonies to continue at City Hall

photo by: AP File Photo/David Gard

In this AP file photo from August 2007, feral cats gather for mealtime at Douglas Memorial Park in Cape May, N.J.

The conversation at City Hall will continue about potentially allowing colonies of feral cats to live in the city as long as the cats have been vaccinated and spayed or neutered.

Though Lawrence city commissioners didn’t provide much input on the “community cats” program proposed by the Lawrence Humane Society as part of its meeting Tuesday, they indicated that they were interested in continuing the conversation and directed city staff to put the topic on a future agenda. City staff indicated that the topic would likely come back to the commission for review in February.

Outgoing LHS Executive Director Kate Meghji told commissioners that intake of stray and feral cats increased for three years in a row, and that the animal shelter needs to change its strategy to control the population. The shelter euthanized all feral cats until 2016, when it began a working cat program to adopt the cats out to farms or industrial properties in the county for rodent control.

However, Meghji said that when feral cats are just removed from colonies, the cats breed to fill the void. She said that trapping the cats, vaccinating and spaying or neutering them and then releasing them back to where they were collected will stabilize the population and then decrease it over time. She said it would also reduce the number of stray kittens the shelter takes in, which number more than 900 so far this year. She said the community cats program would be more effective and reduce costs for the shelter.

“We’re pulling them out of the community either by euthanasia or by removing them, and the populations aren’t decreasing,” Meghji said. “So until we have the opportunity to be proactive, they’re never going to decrease and the shelter will continue to have to bear the financial burden of taking care of these animals.”

Prior to the initiation of the working cat program, the humane society previously told the Journal-World that dozens of cats were euthanized annually. However, Meghji noted that the working cat adoption program uses a lot of resources because the feral cats typically stay at the shelter 38 days before adoption, as compared with 13 days for socialized cats. She said it costs the shelter more than half a million dollars annually to house the feral cats as part of the working cat program.

Currently, allowing cats to roam free is against city code. As part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission considered various changes to the animal control ordinance. The shelter is requesting the city change its animal control code to enable it to operate a community cats program that aims to reduce the feral cat population over time without the use of euthanasia.

The commission heard about an hour of public comment about the proposed changes to the animal control ordinance. Several people spoke in favor of the trap and release model, which they said has been effectively used by other communities. Some commenters, however, expressed concern that allowing feral cats to roam free would negatively affect bird and mammal populations.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said that as the discussion about the code changes and the community cats program continues in coming weeks, he wants to make sure the city focuses on whether there are mechanisms to enforce those changes.

“If you look at the red-line copy (of the ordinance), this is a substantial change,” Herbert said. “I have to ask the question of whether or not we have a strategic plan moving forward to actually implement the new language on an enforcement level.”

The other proposed changes to the animal control ordinance include sections that limit the number of cats a person can own to four and that create a three-tier approach to identifying animals as a nuisance, dangerous or vicious, among other updates and clarifications.

Some members of the public were opposed to the animal limits — there is already a limit of four dogs — and asked that the city strike that provision and only limit the number of pets if they are creating a nuisance for others or allow permits for people who demonstrate their pets are receiving adequate care. The commission did not want to strike the limits, but asked that city staff bring back more information about a potential permitting process at a future meeting.

City Commission Work Session 12/11/18


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