City wants public input on trap-neuter-return for feral cats ahead of City Commission discussion
photo by: Associated Press
Whether Lawrence should allow feral cat colonies — and the effects that could have for neighbors, wildlife and the cats themselves — will soon be discussed at City Hall, but the city is looking for input from the public before that.
On Friday, the city put out an online survey, via the Lawrence Listens platform, to gather input from the public about the proposed “trap-neuter-release,” or TNR program, under which cats would be caught, neutered, vaccinated, and then returned to where they were collected and allowed to roam free. The Lawrence City Commission is scheduled to consider the issue at its Feb. 19 meeting, and the community feedback gathered in the survey will be provided to the commission.
Though the proposal has raised some concerns among the public, leaders with the Lawrence Humane Society say a TNR program is the best choice for cats and neighbors.
Meghan Scheibe, the interim executive director of the Humane Society, said her shelter’s current tactics have not succeeded in lowering the number of stray and feral cats being brought in, and that the TNR program has shown results in other communities. Scheibe said that while results won’t come overnight, it’s the only solution that’s been shown to work.
“A program like this does take some time, but ultimately the results will have a much bigger impact than continuing to do what we’re doing now and expecting it to make a difference,” Scheibe said.
In addition to asking residents whether they would support a TNR program in Lawrence, the Lawrence Listens survey notes that TNR programs rely heavily on volunteers to inform the Humane Society of feral cats, help capture the cats and transport them to be neutered, and it asks whether residents would be willing to personally participate. The survey also asks residents which neighborhood they live in and how often they notice feral or stray cats in their area, and it gives them an opportunity to add their own comments if they want.
A nearby TNR program
Some area communities have had “trap-neuter-release” programs in place for years. The Journal-World recently sought information from a TNR program that’s been operating in Topeka for nearly five years.
The Topeka Community Cat Fix program began in the fall of 2014 and has since neutered more than 3,000 cats, according to TCCF board member Susan Schmitz. Schmitz said that while the program doesn’t have a count of the number of feral cats, it gauges its progress based off how many total stray cats are brought to the local shelter.
Schmitz said the Topeka program uses a community hotline to receive information from residents about the location of colonies and has also been systematically trapping cats block by block. She said that since the program started, the intake number for all cats and kittens at the shelter has dropped by more than 20 percent.
“You’re not going to see an immediate decline, but you will see a decline,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz said that even though she sees the program as a success, one of the challenges has been educating the public about what TNR really is and the positive effects on the community. She said those include less undesirable behavior associated with breeding, less cat excrement, and less demand on the resources of animal control and the people caring for the stray cats.
Currently, Lawrence city code does not allow cats to roam free, and complaints and strays are handled by animal control. Lawrence police Capt. Trent McKinley, who supervises the city’s animal control operations, said the most common complaints regarding stray or feral cats relate to cats trespassing and upsetting, antagonizing or attacking domesticated animals.
McKinley said the department has also been contacted about damage to screens and other property; cats urinating or defecating on private property; and cats killing wildlife or livestock, mostly birds. He said cats also attract their own predators, such as coyotes and large birds.
However, neither the Humane Society nor animal control specifically tracks the number of feral cats present or captured in the city or the number of complaints associated with cats. McKinley said that complaints are broadly classified as “animal at large,” “animal vicious” or “animal injured.” He said that while the type of animal is noted, the number of complaints associated with cats would have to determined by manually going through the notes.
The city heard some more specific concerns about the TNR proposal when the Humane Society originally proposed the idea of changing city code to allow a “community cats” program in December. City leaders received public comment and correspondence both for and against such a program, with concerns including the effect of feral cat colonies on birds and other wildlife, neighborhoods and the quality of life of the cats themselves.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has questioned whether TNR programs are truly in the cats’ best interest. PETA’s position is that TNR programs are only acceptable when the cats are isolated from roads, people and other animals that could harm them; regularly attended to by people who not only feed them but care for their medical needs; and situated in an area where their contact with wildlife is limited and where the weather is temperate.
When asked about those concerns, and particularly the cold winters in Kansas, Scheibe said that feral cats are essentially wild animals and are savvy about surviving in our climate. In addition, she said cat colonies tend to have human caretakers and the TNR approach includes community education for the public and caretakers. That includes providing information and resources to active caretakers about how to make simple winter shelters, insulated with straw, for the cats.
Regarding the concern about feral cats killing birds and other wildlife, Scheibe said that while cats do have an impact on the ecosystem, humans themselves have a big impact, as well, through habitat loss and climate change.
Current practices vs. TNR
Ultimately, Scheibe said, the Humane Society’s practices need to change, because its current strategies aren’t keeping the population of stray cats in check.
The shelter euthanized all feral cats up 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, shelter leaders previously told the Journal-World that this program isn’t that useful for managing the shelter’s cat population, because there simply isn’t enough demand for the working cats.
Neither euthanasia nor adoption will work, shelter leaders have said, because the colonies of cats will just keep breeding, replacing any cats that are taken off the streets.
Over the last three years, the number of stray cats hosted by the Humane Society grew by 12 percent, according to numbers the Humane Society previously provided the commission. The Humane Society now hosts more than 1,100 cats annually, with about 10 percent of those cats generally being unsocialized or feral, and sheltering stray cats cost the shelter about $570,000 in 2017.
A TNR program wouldn’t immediately resolve these concerns, Scheibe said. It would take time before the population of feral cats started to decrease, although she didn’t have an estimate of how long that would be. However, in the interim, neutering the cats would have some more immediate positive benefits — including a decrease in problematic behaviors such as yowling, fighting and territory marking that are associated with breeding.
On the animal control front, McKinley said he doesn’t think a TNR program would have much effect on that department’s work. Most of the changes would impact the public rather than creating new work for the department’s staff, he said.
The deadline to participate in the online survey about the proposed Lawrence TNR program is 12 a.m. on Feb. 4. The survey is available at lawrenceks.org/lawrence-listens/.