Don’t think of them as stray cats.
Instead, call them “verminators.”
The Humane Society for Tacoma & Pierce County wants to change how you think about free-roaming cats.
Instead of considering them a neighborhood nuisance, the Society wants you to think about the benefits, such as controlling rodents, that such felines provide.
“Feral is an old term that we’re trying to get away from,” said Patty Rusnak, who heads the society’s year-old Community Cat program. “Feral is a type of behavior, not a type of cat. Many are wild; they can’t be picked up. Some are scared. Some are shy. Some are sweet.”
Free-roamers can be unowned or semi-owned. People often feed them. Some consider the animals arm’s-length companions. Neighbors might let them live in a garden shed or unwittingly provide shelter for mama cats and kittens in alleyways overgrown with blackberry bushes.
Few people want to see them killed, Rusnak said.
The goal of the Community Cat program is to humanely trap such animals, spay or neuter them and return them to either their original territory to live out their nine lives or place them with someone who wants a barn or outdoor cat to catch rodents.
Trap-neuter-release is a better strategy for controlling burgeoning cat populations than merely killing healthy shelter animals, Rusnak said.
“Trap and kill doesn’t work,” she said. “We’ve been doing that nationally for 100 years. Stopping the population at the source does work.”
The local humane society offers “cat stats” to back up that assertion.
Comparing last year’s January-to-July numbers — the program began last summer — to this year’s at the Tacoma shelter shows a marked decrease in the number of cats coming into the shelter and the number euthanized.
The reduction is even greater when current figures are compared with those from five years ago.
So far this year, the shelter has euthanized no healthy adoptable cats, including Community Cats. A total of 18 of the community free-roamers who were brought in ill or hurt were euthanized. Five years ago, 610 were put down.
Free-roamers aren’t all born in the wild. Some are left behind when owners move. Others are lost pets.
Rusnak says there’s a common denominator: “Those Community Cats have a huge impact on the shelter. They produce the majority of kittens that come into the shelter.”
Often, she says, well-meaning neighbors will bring a litter of kittens to the shelter for adoption, but leave the mama cat behind to produce more. Cats can breed before they’re a year old, and female cats can bear several litters of three to four kittens each in a single year.
And as for tom cats — let’s just say their reputation as prolific breeders is well-deserved. Females can mate with more than one male, and give birth to kittens from multiple fathers.
“We are trying to stop the breeding at the source,” Rusnak says.
MORE ABOUT COMMUNITY CATS
Humane Society staff members and volunteers use traps that essentially are small cages.
Traps are never left alone.
Whoever sets the trap opens the door, places a dab of canned cat food inside as bait and then waits to see if a free-roamer enters. When the cat steps on a certain spot on the floor of the trap, it springs the door shut.
The cat then is taken to the Northwest Spay & Neuter Center.
Marked for life
While the cat is under anesthesia, a tiny nip is made in the ear — left ear for males, right ear for females. That allows volunteers and staff members to know which free-roamers already have been caught and altered.
The cats are vaccinated against rabies and common feline diseases before being released.
What if they catch my pet?
If a trapped cat has a collar and license, and is obviously someone’s well-cared for pet, it’s released.
One positive trend, according to the national Humane Society: An estimated 70 percent of cat owners now keep their animals indoors at least at night. That’s up from about 20 percent in the 1970s.
Where is the Community Cat program active?
Because of limited resources, the program can’t respond to every Pierce County neighborhood.
It began last year in the Parkland-Spanaway area. This year, it’s focused in Tacoma and Lakewood. Concentrated efforts do better at eradicating cat overpopulation, Rusnak said.
If you live outside those cities, the program can advise you on how to operate humane traps so that your area’s free-roaming cats can be caught, altered and released.
For the birds
There’s a lot of discussion about outdoor cats killing songbirds and other wildlife. The national Humane Society says there’s no easy solution, but that reducing the number of outdoor cats can help.
“I am an avid birder and a member of Audubon,” Rusnak said. “I also support trap-neuter-release.”
Besides limiting overpopulation, what are the other benefits of altering free-roamers?
Cats that can reproduce exhibit certain mating behaviors — urinating, howling — that are reduced or stopped when they are spayed or neutered.
I don’t mind cats around the neighborhood. But I don’t want them in my garden. What can I do?
Some retailers sell mats with plastic spikes, designed to deter a cat from stepping in certain areas but not hurt the animal.
Another device is a motion-activated system that squirts a cat with water when it enters a forbidden zone. Rusnak also suggests placing decorative pebbles or boulders in bare spots around the garden to keep cats from digging.
Falling feline figures
Comparisons for the period of Jan. 1 - July 30 of each year:
SOURCE: Humane Society for Tacoma & Pierce County