July 9, 2007

Ferals and kittens, oh my

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals, feral cats, rescue at 12:19 pm by nevavegan

Here’s what happened this weekend.

We had agreed to trap a feral cat who’d recently had kittens. Our neighbor had taken the kittens to a shelter in Annapolis (where he works) and was trying to get the mother cat in to the shelter as well. He told us the shelter had said the kittens would probably find homes but the mother cat would be killed as a feral on arrival.

We had tried to find someplace for the kittens, but he’d only told us 24 hours before he took them to the shelter. So sadly that all happened too fast.

We then told him we’d trap the mother and take her to the feral clinic. It seemed the best option since having him kill her sounded bad, and the other alternative, that he’d never catch her and she’d keep having kittens also sounded bad.

I made an appointment at the feral clinic and Saturday evening she was in the trap in our tiny 1/2 bath in the basement. Then I decided to walk the dogs.

As I went past the main area where most of the ferals congregate, which is also where the poisonings have occurred, I saw an orange kitten just sitting in the sidewalk. Then nearby I saw two other orange tabby kittens just like him. He didn’t move out of the sidewalk as the dogs and I approached. In fact he just lay there. I was worried he’d been poisoned too.

When I got closer I was able to just scoop him up and carry him in my shirt while still holding the dogs. I took him home. Luckily once he was back at the house he ate some food and drank some water. He still seemed awfully weak.

Then I went back to check on the other kittens. They were stronger, but still totally friendly, not feral, so I scooped them up too. They were so tame I could carry the two of them home with me, about 2 long blocks. So then we had an adult feral in a trap and 3 kittens in the tiny bathroom.

The kittens kept jumping in my lap, but they also had URI and needed some antibiotics. We’re so crowded in our home that keeping infected cats separate is very difficult. Plus, not being with any official rescue group, it’s really hard for us to adopt out kittens. Because of the feral situation Sean said I might really have to take the kittens to the shelter. We felt we could not put them back out, since they were very tame and trusting, and we have a bad person hurting cats in our neighborhood. Also they needed treatment. I cleaned their ears and flea combed them. I found not one flea, and no flea dirt. To me that indicated that they’d been dumped outside that day–it doesn’t take very long for fleas to get started.

It was a terrible night. Crying over the kittens, furious at our stupid neighborhood, and furious at people who dump kittens outside, and furious at myself for thinking I had no options except the shelter. I did some searching online and found that the kittens would have a much better chance at the DC shelter than at our county shelter. So I planned to transport them to the DC shelter when I took the feral in to the feral clinic.

Then I didn’t sleep.

The next morning we all went off to the feral clinic, Sean and I, and four cats. Quite luckily at the feral clinic many of the cat caretakers there wanted to help us. A young man from Homeless Animal Rescue Team was helping with the clinic and made a quick phone call. To our joy HART would take the kittens, so I gave them a donation to help out (yeah, the money I was going to give to Second Chance, but maybe this will force me to sell some art for Second Chance).

So that was a very nice thing.

The downside was that we trapped the feral cat in a brand new, deluxe, really beautiful trap that we’d just bought and someone stole our trap from the clinic, even though we’d attached Sean’s business card to it. I guess the temptation was just too much for someone. Still we really saved no money going to the clinic since it cost us a $100 trap. The clinic said they thought they knew who took it and they’d call him and ask him to give it back. But they wouldn’t give us his information and we still haven’t heard anything. So that was a downer. We bought the nice trap because we thought we might be rescuing a lot of cats. Between that and the donation to HART it was a really expensive day.

Low quality kitten pictures to follow.

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June 19, 2007

Updates and a brief break from real blogging

Posted in feral cats, real life, update at 2:17 pm by nevavegan

I find myself struggling to finish essays on many topics, so I have nothing in finished form to post today. Some will be pretty heavy topics though, so maybe it’s best to get my thoughts completely together. I do however have some loose ends to tie up.

We finally got in touch with animal control regarding the cat poisonings, though we don’t know what they’ll be able to do. It turns out that Sean had been put through to the voicemail of an animal control officer who was on vacation and that’s why nobody had investigated or called back.

Knock on wood, there have been no further poisonings since Sean spoke to our main suspect and also knocked on many other doors, spreading the word that the poison is cruel and illegal, in fact a felony. When Sean spoke to the main suspect he denied even owning any poison, but dumped out a tray of liquid he had on his porch. Hmmm. We hope that we’ve seen the last of it. I spoke to some neighbors too. It seems few people here have much faith in animal control or in the police. One neighbor told me “Animal Control, like the cops, is just a cushy position people give to their friends, so they can collect a salary. They won’t do anything, but if I find out who is putting out poison, I’ll do something about it.”

The cat situation still feels overwhelming. Sean in speaking with animal control noted that we are about a block and a half from the cats. He said that people get irritated because the cats tear apart their garbage, but we don’t have that problem since we do something strange and unheard of: we put our garbage in a container. Sigh.

There are so many kittens right now, and so many different feeding stations tucked in back yards, behind shed, or even just out in the open on porches and in driveways.

One of the strangest observations we’ve made is the differences from our prior neighborhood to this neighborhood. The last neighborhood was even less affluent, but there were no feral cats really at all. There was a tame stray or two, one of whom now lives with us permanently. But there were no feeders in that neighborhood, and with tiny lawns, close together houses, and no park nearby, I guess a large population of feral cats just never got established.

Also it seems there was just more cooperation and communication among neighbors in the old neighborhood. I remember when there was a break-in, one of our neighbors went up and down the street to warn everyone. There was a similar distrust of the police there, so when there was rash of car windows broken, it was strange to see armed neighbors sitting out in front of their houses all night, but it did seem to put an end to the problem. I guess with the high crime rates there we had this feeling that we were all in this together.

In the new neighborhood we feel a sense of community with our immediate neighbors. The kids next door come over to pet the rabbits, and the people across the street have been very welcoming and helpful. But other than that we don’t know many neighbors and attempts to get to know them have been rebuffed at times.

Funny though that last year we had some people over for dinner and someone opened the back door and left it open and Liam (cat) got out. I was sick with worry and out all night looking for him. During that I met some neighbors coming home very late and they turned out to be great people, but I didn’t know that until I walked up to them at 2:00 AM as they got out of their car to ask if I could search their back yard for my missing cat. We did eventually find Liam (at 6:00 AM) so that story has a happy ending.

But aside from these few examples, our neighborhood has almost no communication and no real sense of community. That makes it harder to address the issue of all these feral cats.

June 14, 2007

Poison in my neighborhood

Posted in companion animals, cruelty, feral cats, real life, stupid neighborhood at 1:29 pm by nevavegan

Please Note: Poisoning cats is a felony in most states. It is cruel and inexcusable. It also does not reduce feral cat populations, since the cats who see the other cats die will not eat poisoned food, and will quickly breed back to the original numbers.

To learn about humane ways to manage feral cat populations visit:
http://www.alleycat.org/

Now for my story.

For the second time this week Sean found a feral cat convulsing with seizures while walking the dogs. This time a kitten, Monday it was an adult cat. When he found the first cat he rushed him to the emergency vet and the vet said he had no pupil response and euthanized him. Today with the kitten the tests also indicated brain damage and had to euthanize, but now Sean and the vet are both convinced that someone is poisoning the cats. The vet said it’s most likely rat poison.

I have a suspect in mind, as there is someone right by where both cats were found who has repeatedly told me he hates cats. Plus he behaves in ways that worry me, like following me after dark while I walked my dogs. He was in his car and kept a distance, but for blocks he stopped when I stopped, made every turn I made, and just in general frightened me. But I have no proof at all that he’s poisoning the cats. Just saying he’s seriously creepy and scares me isn’t much help.

We feel we have no choice at this point except to ask animal control to intervene. Even though I don’t have much confidence in their ability to investigate. Still if the poison is somewhere obvious, like in a tray on creepy-neighbor’s porch, hopefully AC is competent to handle that. AC has said to people in this area in the past that they don’t trap cats, so I’m not too worried that calling AC will mean they’ll kill the cats.

These poor cats, it’s such a terrible, painful, excruciating way to go. Especially since the problems here aren’t their fault and they’ve never done anything to hurt anyone.

Our prior plans to help sterilize this feral colony never got off the ground. Most of the families feeding the cats don’t speak much English and though I have clearly observed them feeding, only one woman would even admit it when I talked to her. Most just say the cats aren’t theirs and rush into their houses. One guy said the cats were wild and he ignores them, but wanted to know if Jesus was my personal lord and savior. The one woman who told me she did feed said it with a downward glance and a look of shame. “Just to keep the rats away,” she told me.

I’m terrified too because people have thrown food over our fence to our dogs and I worry all the time that it might be poisoned. I don’t leave the dogs in the yard for very long at a time, but it seems that every other week I have to run out and yank chicken bones or moldy bread from their mouths.

I’ll have to make a point tomorrow to go over a couple blocks and try to communicate with the neighbors who do speak English and let them know what’s going on. If nothing else there is one guy Stuart who seems to like cats in general and at the very least should be on the lookout for poison when he walks his dog. There must be 12 kittens just that I’ve observed right now, and we haven’t been able to try to trap and tame them because we’re overflowing already at our house. I’m good at taming, but it’s tough when there are so few good homes around.

May 17, 2007

Feral Cats

Posted in animal advocacy, companion animals, feral cats at 2:09 pm by nevavegan

I got into a pretty good discussion with Invisible Voices regarding her post about what people expect from animals. I hate to totally steal someone’s idea, but she got me going, and it’s going to be longer than a comment, so here goes…

One area where I find the disconnect between people’s expectations of animals and the reality and needs of those animals is in trying to help feral cats. Cats, as probably the most popular companion animal in the U.S., really bring out emotional reactions in people. We love to hug them, and pet them, and videotape them and put it on youtube… But despite this, cats are also probably the most frequently abandoned companion animals too. When they don’t live up to expectations, or exhibit an undesired behavior, or simply become inconvenient some people just drop them off at the shelter, still more simply turn the cats out of doors to fend for themselves.

After all these years of rescuing many types of animals, cats are still the animals I interact with most often, largely because there are just so many of them in need of help. Also of course, I’m qualified to provide some basic care to sick or starving cats, but when it comes to wildlife I don’t try because I’m not trained. So when I find wildlife in need of help (other than my mass fish rescue in which the fish merely needed to be put into water) I take injured birds, frogs, and squirrels to a wildlife rehabber.

The issue of feral cats really brings out divisions among the animal rights, animal welfare, and animal protection concerns. Those of us who have worked over a period of time with feral cat colonies have come to realize that feral cats, though they look just like every other house cat, are essentially wild animals, and this creates a whole different set of needs and concerns. When I find a tame cat, one who seeks out the company of people, living on the street, starving, my primary concern is to get that cat off of the street and into a home. A cat who trusts and loves people can become a target of violence and abuse from deranged people. A feral cat on the other hand will not only avoid people, but can be quite adept at avoiding capture.

When I’ve found a tame cat in need of help I’ve often just grabbed her up in my arms and carried her to safety. In the case of traumatized or stressed strays, I may have to scruff them and put them into a carrier. The only way to catch a feral cat is with a humane box trap, and even that is not a sure bet. One night Sean and I watched in disbelief as a female cat in a colony we were helping did incredible acrobatics to get the cat food out of the trap and still escape just as the door was shutting on her. They can be very clever, these ferals.

Even so, when I talk about managing a feral cat colony by sterilizing the adult cats and putting them back into the colony setting (actually the location nearly all of them have lived their entire lives) many animal-lovers will express concern to me that the cats might become victims of violence.

I do believe that feral cats are more able to hide, and more able to defend themselves than other cats, but it is a possibility that they could be targets of violence. We actually hope to reduce that possibility through the neutering, because it will reduce the behaviors that attract attention to the cats, like territorial marking, or loud yowling during mating season.

However, there is still the possibility that some kind of harm may come to the cats. As much as that possibility distresses me, I have to take a step back and regard it much as I would the possibility that harm will come to raccoons, squirrels, birds, or any other essentially wild, outdoor-living animal. That is I have to let go of some of my expectations about cats, that they love people, live indoors, and get pampered. I have to instead take a good hard cold dose of reality and ask what is best for the cats, and what their needs and expectations are.

If I think about myself there’s naturally always the chance that I could die a horrible death tomorrow (or later today for that matter). The tragedy at VA Tech and the crime stats for my neighborhood demonstrate that most of us are at some kind of risk all the time. Yet, I’d still rather take my chances with that than get a lethal injection today.

When individuals or groups advocate rounding up feral cats, taking them to the shelter, holding them on the off-chance that someone wants to adopt them, and then euthanizing them, this shows how skewed their expectations of these animals are. For a feral cat any close interaction with a human is terrifying and stressful. Being held in a shelter is sheer terror for a feral. The painless lethal injection in this light becomes less humane. My husband and I always say that if someone was completely set on killing feral cats, it would be more humane to shoot them, or put out food laced with drugs to make them sleep and then somehow kill them there on the spot. Several days of being carted around and held in a stressful environment is honestly worse for them than even a couple minutes of pain.

Luckily though, there are non-lethal ways to control feral cat populations, namely neutering them and putting them back into the colony. True, catching them and taking them to the vet is incredibly stressful for them, but it improves their overall health, and since they have years left to enjoy their lives, we consider it a good trade off. We also take steps to calm them during the process, like covering the traps with towels or sheets so they won’t see a lot of people, they’ll feel somewhat hidden and protected. This definitely works as I’ve observed cats going nuts in the traps, only to instantly calm down when the trap is covered. We also make sure they have a calm, quiet place to recover, without many people or strange animals around. Instead the only other creatures they’ll see most of the time are their colony-mates, other cats they already know.

Of course people are also worried about the effect of feral populations on the ecosystem. I don’t want to be dismissive of concerns, but actually neutering the cats and leaving them in the colony has been shown in study after study to reduce the overall population of ferals. While removing and killing colony members has actually been shown to speed up the reproductive cycle of the remaining cats, so that the population typically continues to grow.

I do wonder how much harm feral cats can do in an urban environment. While we’re all concerned about preserving songbird populations, many of the birds in urban settings are ferals themselves, like house sparrows and pigeons. Additionally the common city rats (Norway rats) and many of the mice in urban settings are also introduced species. So a feral cat in Washington, DC is not the same as setting a bunch of cats loose on a small island inhabited by rare birds who have never encountered a predator before.

This area also used to have predators the size of house cats, roughly, in terms of the American Bob Cat. We however drove most native predators out of this region, and so they have been replaced with predators more adapted to living near humans, like feral cats and increasingly coyotes.

People should keep in mind that feral cats in urban environments help keep rodent populations (most of them as I said imported, non-native rodents) under control, without the use of poisons which pollute the environment and can kill other animals like birds and companion animals. Don’t get me wrong, I love mice and rats, they’re clever complex creatures, but within the urban ecosystem there’s always the chance of one population or another becoming out of balance.

Another concern people have about ferals is that exposure to harsh weather is cruel. But feral cats do not get cold during the winter in the same way humans do. Though it is always good to provide a colony of feral cats with insulated shelters for the coldest months, most cats find ways to keep warm. They huddle together for warmth when they rest, they go into the sewers where it’s warmer, and they are experts at finding warm spots. They also have fur to keep them warm of course.

Ok, some obligatory cuteness… Rescued kittens

So we have an obligation to help to reduce the feral cat populations, a problem we humans created through our own irresponsibility, while at the same time respecting the unique nature and needs of a feral population.