Most cats lead a cozy life, curling up in warm laps and slurping yummy food. But for New Jersey’s thousands of feral cats, life can be a daily struggle for survival against a hostile environment.
Unlike strays, feral cats have never been domesticated. They live outdoors, scavenging food, fending off predators and falling prey to—and potentially spreading—disease. Ferals tend to run in packs and gravitate toward populated areas where they can find dumpsters and other sources of food, including occasional handouts from people. In the United States there are an estimated 50 million feral cats, according to the Humane Society.
Many view feral cats as a noisy, smelly nuisance and a health threat, potentially spreading rabies and other diseases to pets and people. Wildlife advocates say the cats threaten birds, which they kill for food—and sport. Others are more sympathetic and seek to improve the lives and health of ferals, even caring for them in colonies, which in some cases are registered with local municipalities.
For most in the latter camp, the humane solution is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), a program of immunizing and sterilizing (or fixing) free-roaming cats and then setting them free. The alternative for most captured ferals is euthanasia.
More New Jersey towns are using TNR as residents recognize the value in controlling the population of feral cats. Some favor TNR because they consider it more humane, but many towns turn to the practice because it can be more cost-effective than trapping and killing.
“Residents are happier, and cats are safer and healthier,” says Michelle Lerner, an attorney and policy specialist for Project TNR, an Animal League of New Jersey program (projectTNR.com).
In New Jersey, where towns are responsible for local animal control, more than 150 municipalities practice some form of an officially sanctioned program; more than 35 have passed ordinances creating TNR programs. In some towns, TNR is the responsibility of animal-control officers; in other municipalities, the programs are run by nonprofit clinics, some in partnership with local governments. In such cases, the municipalities typically provide a shelter for the cats while volunteers manage everyday tasks such as bringing in strays and ferals.
After the cats are vaccinated and spayed or neutered, new homes can be found for the strays. Adoption is not in the cards for most ferals, which are descended from other free-roaming cats (strays and ferals), and typically display an aversion to human contact. (Some experts say feral cats were introduced centuries ago in North America from Africa and the Middle East.)
Not everyone thinks TNR is the answer. In addition to trapping and killing, certain municipalities have imposed feeding bans, on the theory that depriving ferals of sustenance will thin the population. Yet the cats still reproduce, and more emerge to replace those that don’t survive.
“Where are [the cats] going to go?” asks Lerner, who sees feeding bans as ineffective, unless there are exemptions for TNR cats. “They don’t just disappear or starve to death…. They still reproduce.”
With an estimated 147,000 feral cats in New Jersey, Lerner says destroying ferals and strays is not only cruel, but costly. For example, in 2008 in Mt. Olive, 81 cats were impounded and 141 killed, costing taxpayers more than $20,000, plus labor to trap and transport. The town implemented TNR in 2009 and is saving $15,000 annually in impoundment and euthanasia costs, Lerner says.
Despite the efforts of cat lovers and the potential savings of TNR, euthanasia is still widely practiced. According to a state Department of Health and Senior Services report, more than 28,000 cats were killed in New Jersey shelters in 2009.
“It’s really a tug and pull because there are so many people who want to kill them,” says Rose Reina Rosenbaum, president of the NJ Coalition for Animals, who assists in forming TNR groups.
Linda Cherkassky, a Voorhees resident and outspoken opponent of TNR, believes that feral cats should be trapped, fixed and adopted into loving homes if possible. If not, they should be put to sleep.
“If the cats cannot be socialized and given a home, I truly believe that euthanasia is a better outcome than sending them back outside to live and die in colonies,” she says. “To me, TNR is equivalent to re-abandonment.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Cherkassky’s view is shared by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a leading animal rights group that opposes TNR. “Horrific fates await most homeless cats—they do not die of old age,” states the PETA website in explaining its position. On the other hand, the Humane Society endorses the practice.
Christie Rogero, a TNR proponent who runs the TNR program at Camden County’s Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees, educates people on how to safely trap, care for and release feral cats—typically in towns where there is no TNR.
For $35, the Animal Welfare Association fixes feral cats and administers a rabies vaccine. The animals are ear-tipped, which involves clipping off 3/8 of an inch of the cat’s upper right ear under anesthesia to identify the cat as feral. As of September, 1,050 feral cats had gone through the Camden County program this year.
Rogero also works with towns to pass ordinances that make it legal to care for ferals that are part of groups or registered colonies. Volunteer caretakers feed and vaccinate the animals in the colonies and work with TNR groups to trap, neuter and return additional animals. Little by little, they aim to make sure each feline in the colony cannot reproduce.
Patti Ascolese, cofounder of Point Paws, Point Pleasant’s TNR program, cares for a registered colony of cats along the Manasquan Inlet in Point Pleasant Beach. She says the community has been supportive of her efforts to care for the cats because they keep rodents away. Ascolese pays for food for the colony out of her own pocket but gets financial support for medical care through Point Paws. She believes the most important thing a colony caretaker can do is make sure newcomers to the group are trapped and fixed before they can add to the population.
Studies indicate that colonies of neutered ferals become smaller over time. One study found a 66 percent decrease in a managed population over 11 years. Another showed colony size declined up to 32 percent over a 10-year span. Because female cats can have as many as three litters per year, consisting typically of three to five kittens, fixing can prevent population explosions.
In addition to receiving a rabies vaccine, the treatment cats receive under TNR boosts their overall health and helps them fend off conditions such as toxoplasmosis, ringworm and cat scratch disease, all of which are communicable to pets and humans.
The cost of TNR can vary. At People for Animals, a not-for-profit clinic in Hillside where more than 6,000 stray and feral cats have been spayed or neutered since 2010, it can cost up to $55 to fix and vaccinate a free-roaming cat—often much cheaper than a vet’s office.
According to Lerner, municipalities can spend up to $150 per animal to trap and kill, along with the fees for animal control’s seven-day hold policy, which gives owners an opportunity to find and reclaim lost pets. Due to the expense, most towns only trap and kill in response to complaints, so other cats are left to reproduce and quickly replace those that have been removed.
The city of Bayonne recently obtained a $16,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to pilot a TNR program. Kathleen Henderson, founder of the Bayonne Feral Cat Foundation, hopes the city will adopt an ordinance making it legal to feed feral cats in registered colonies once the effectiveness of TNR has been demonstrated.
In Point Pleasant, Point Paws uses a municipal building that doubles as an adoption center. “Towns are more than happy to cooperate because volunteers are doing this service for them,” says Ascolese. In addition to volunteering their time, Ascolese says local residents donate funds to support TNR and promote the service.
In Mt. Olive, the TNR program that launched in 2009 has lowered the number of cats in 14 town-registered colonies by 60 percent. Lerner, who helped start the Mt. Olive program, says Englewood and Morristown TNR efforts have reduced the free-roaming feline populations in those municipalities by more than 70 percent in less than five years.
And in Atlantic City, where ferals were notorious for prowling under the Boardwalk, Alley Cat Allies, which began in 2000, has reduced the population from almost 300 cats to about 125, says program manager Amanda Casazza.
“It’s such a necessary service,” says Ascolese. “All these other towns wouldn’t be coming on board if it wasn’t.”
Kristen Fischer is a copywriter and author living in Point Pleasant. She is a volunteer for Point Pleasant’s Point Paws program.