CATS NIPPED

Trap, Neuter, Return program starts right meow

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Kilgore City Council gave a thumbs up – or “paws up” – to a new ordinance regulating how the city will deal with its feral cat problem.

On Tuesday evening, Ordinance No. 1728, an amendment to the city’s animal control policies, was unanimously approved. Drafted at the end of 2018, the ordinance calls for designation of feral cat caretakers and feral cat colony caretakers in Kilgore, who will help the city keep an eye on the wild felines while also turning over captured cats to the city as part of a TNR program – Trap, Neuter and Return. Captured feral cats will now be spayed or neutered, vaccinated against rabies, ear notched for identification and then returned to their colony instead of being euthanized or placed into animal shelters.

Not only does the new program aim to reduce feral cat numbers, it’s expected to lower the financial burden of the kitty conundrum as well.

Kilgore Special Services Director B.J. Owen spoke to the council Tuesday, describing the ordinance as the best bet for reducing the city’s feral cat population.

“Tonight we’re going to talk about something we’ve been talking about for a couple years. It’s cats, feral cats,” Owen said, noting nearly all cities have a feral cat population. “They’re prolific breeders. A healthy female can have three litters per year and they average four kittens per litter. That’s a lot of animals.”

Owen referred to a slide showing a conservative estimate of feral cat population growth. A female cat bearing just two litters per year with only 2.8 kittens surviving per litter can be the matriarch of two million furry descendants in as little as eight years.

Many options for dealing with the problem are time-consuming and expensive, he said. Relocation and adoption work to some extent, but it takes time capture cats and transport them to local shelters. Also, many feral cats will never be socialized enough to make good house pets. Even capture-and-kill programs fall short because of a phenomenon known as the “vacuum effect.” This occurs when rapidly reproducing felines quickly move into areas left vacant when existing cat colonies are captured and euthanized. The new cats then continue to breed until there is no more room for them, Owen said.

“That’s what most animal control organizations do,” Owen said, referring to catch-and-kill programs. “We’ve tried it for years and years. Even one Humane Society put it, ‘We know now that after 30 years of trapping and killing cats, it’s done nothing to reduce the feral cat population.’”

Owen said, in some years, Kilgore animal control officers captured as many as 800 feral cats, 90 percent of which were euthanized, the rest were claimed by owners or adopted. A few years ago, a change in animal shelter contracts created a new per-animal sheltering charge of $142, racking up as much as $113,000 in costs to the city per year. By comparison, under the new program, unpaid volunteers would help monitor and catch the animals and local vets have agreed to charge $59 to spay and vaccinate female cats and $49 to neuter and vaccinate a male.

“Catch-and-kill is not only ineffective, it’s cost-prohibitive. We’re at a point where we have to make some type of change,” he said.

Owen said he was apprehensive about TNR programs at first because animal control officers are trained to place captured animals in shelters for adoption or euthanization, not to release them. However, he said other TNR programs have proven successful at stabilizing feral cat populations. In addition, spayed and neutered cats are less aggressive and territorial.

Volunteers will be necessary for the program, he said, and he’s been recruiting volunteers for the last year and a half. Gatos Amigos, a Longview organization specializing in TNR programs, will help to train program volunteers in Kilgore.

As the program begins, pilot colonies will be estabilshed in Kilgore, one of which is located downtown, to determine if the new program is feasible and fiscally responsible.

“We will track and report progress back to council. I don’t know if it’s going to work or not. We don’t know until we try it but I can’t even try it without this amendment that’s before you tonight,” Owen told the council.

The amendment defines feral cats, their colonies and the roles caretakers will fulfill in feeding, monitoring and capturing them. Under the new ordinance, cats will not be fed indiscriminately. Only a person who applies to the city to be a feral cat caretaker will be allowed to care for the animals and only a feral cat colony caretaker will be tasked with capturing them. Abandonment of animals will still be prohibited within city limits.

“Just to clarify one point, we’re not encouraging cat colonies,” said City Manager Josh Selleck. “I think B.J. said this enough but I really want to stick to this point: they’re already there. You’re talking about multiple colonies. We’re identifying, tracking and managing them in a more humane and less disruptive way.”

Selleck added he also did not believe in the efficacy of TNR programs at first. However, in his previous job in the city of Cedar Park, similar ordinances were not passed and residents began employing their own TNR program without waiting for permission from the city.

“The benefits of the program were extraordinary,” he said.

Council member Victor Boyd asked when, if approved, the program would begin. Owen said the next meeting of the TNR program volunteer group would be held on Monday, Jan. 14.

Council member Merlyn Holmes made a motion to approve the ordinance and the board voted unanimously for its passage as TNR volunteers and Gatos Amigos members in the audience applauded.

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