Trap, Neuter, Return

CARE seeks to give vet care to feral feline friends

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Chatham Animal Rescue and Education, also known as CARE, has a reputation of helping all animals, including feral cats. The organization has its own “Trap, Neuter and Return” program in which people can bring in feral cats to be spayed or neutered for a discounted rate.

CARE Board President Joan Cunningham said the program was developed in an effort to help lower shelter populations and in turn, lower the euthanasia rate of feral cats.

“We work with people who have found themselves in a situation where they have more cats than they can handle and want to do the right thing and don’t want to take them to the animal shelter,” Cunningham said.

Feral cats differ from the typical stray — they aren’t socialized with humans and are fearful of people. Once they reach a certain age, these felines are unlikely to become social, loving pets and are much happier outside with less human interaction.

“In the case of feral cats, once the cats go to the animal shelter, they never come out,” Cunningham said. “You can’t adopt feral cats out, so they end up being euthanized, and they end up accounting for the largest percentage of animals euthanized at any animal shelter these days.”

These felines tend to lash out when humans approach them, which makes adoption difficult. According to the National Feline Research Council, it is estimated there are between 50 and 70 million wild or feral cats in the United States. The large population can be explained with the way cats reproduce — females can have three litters of kittens a year, with each litter normally four to six kittens.

“We work with individuals who have sometimes multiple cats in a farming situation where they’ve just allowed the cat population to get out of control,” Cunningham said. “People just wake up one morning and find a pregnant female cat who just had six kittens under their front porch, and they don’t want to take them to the shelter, but they can’t afford to fully vet that cat ... So we work with them to try to help them get vetted and taken care of.”

Feral cats can be helpful to humans, despite their lack of socialization. Cats are hunters by nature, so some people will house feral cats in their barns to hunt for mice and other vermin. These are called working barn cats, Cunningham said.

“Some animal shelters … have a working cat program where they try to place them in greenhouses and farm settings where they can live and not necessarily have to have a lot of contact with humans,” she said. “They do their job of catching vermin and sort of pay their way by being helpful around the farm … or wherever they’re placed.”

Cunningham said she and other board members discussed creating an initiative to help vet feral cats in need of care. She said there were conversations about having a working cat program, but board members felt it wasn’t a permanent enough solution.

“That can only handle a small number of cats, so it’s not the only effective solution,” Cunningham said. “It can work in conjunction with other more progressive programs.”

Instead, CARE developed what Cunningham calls a Community Cat Program, which provides Chatham residents a way to trap feral cats to be spayed or neutered to prevent overpopulating the local shelters.

The program helps to provide discounted vouchers — $30 for adult cats and $15 for kittens under five months — to members of the community to spay or neuter feral cats in their neighborhoods.

“There are thousands of stray and feral cats in Chatham County, and without a progressive, active, positive program to deal with the overpopulation, the population is just going to increase dramatically,” Cunningham said. “And not only is it healthier for cats to be spayed and neutered, but it cuts down on overpopulation.”

The program is dependent on the public reporting potential feral felines to CARE. From there, CARE creates a profile for the individual cat, creating for them a voucher to present to one of the partnering veterinarians with CARE.

“It’s up to them to make the appointment and to do the transporting and the trapping,” Cunningham said. “If trapping is necessary and if people don’t have traps, or have never used traps, we consult with them — they come to our office, we let them borrow as many traps as they think they need in order to get the cats.”

The program so far has been an overwhelming success, she said. CARE helped more than 220 feral cats with vet care through the community cat program in 2021, according to its annual impact report. Cunningham said she hopes the organization can continue to help any cat in need through the spay/neuter program she and her board instated.

In fact, Cunningham said she would like to see more programs like this at the county level, since it would help Chatham’s community cat population even more.

“[I want to see] a public-private partnership, where the animal shelter once or twice a month, provides a spay-neuter clinic for feral cats,” she said. “That’s been extremely successful (in other communities) and has reduced significantly the number of feral cats that have ended up at the shelter. That’s the sort of thing that I think Chatham needs.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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