Feline advocates suggest their work 'a drop in the bucket'

A large feral cat sits on an air conditioner.

ELKHART — Feral cat advocates are again struggling to get the kitten and feral cat population under control this summer, and unless municipalities and pet owners make some changes, they say their work will remain fruitless.

Currently, the Humane Society of Elkhart County has just over their goal of 180 cats, and many of their animal welfare partners are at maximum capacity as well. The shelter only has 72 available for adoption right now though, as many are strays or in temporary holding for other reasons.

“We’re trying to educate people not to toss their cats outside, not to let them have three liters a year. Especially this time of year – kitten season – our numbers are so high,” said Janet Graham, executive assistant/volunteer coordinator at the Humane Society.

CatSnip Etc., a Goshen not-for-profit that tries to reduce the free-roaming cat population through trap-neuter-return practices, collected 951 cats last year to get altered. This year they’ve got a goal to fix 1,000 cats.

Taking 25 to the humane society every Monday, they expect to reach that goal in the coming months.

“That’s a drop in the bucket, unfortunately,” said Gail Monroe with the non-profit organization. “We’ve been doing this for five years and it’s never lower. We don’t ever stop. We can always do 900 to 1,000 cats and still get calls begging us to take kittens. The only answer to it is to stop the population.”

‘A better chance of survival’

The Elkhart Humane Society says that, compared to dogs, cats are rarely reclaimed by their owners once lost or abandoned. Since Jan. 1, only 19 cats have been reclaimed by their owners, compared to 343 dogs.

“It’s sad because cats are second-class citizens,” said Graham.

Graham recalled an instance this month in which a mother and her kitten were dropped off at night, two days in a row.

“We have so many adult cats here,” she said. “It’s harder to adopt adult cats when people see kittens, so the majority of our rescues take them. If we put a kitten in a rescue it goes quickly.”

That still doesn’t alleviate the problem for overcrowded adult cats, though.

“The most important thing is to get your pet cats altered, because we run into a lot of cats outside that are friendly and not altered so they can get beat up pretty bad,” Chris Bralik of the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition said. “It happens a lot where people abandon them or leave them and they end up outside, or they get out a door or window. They have a better chance of survival if they’re altered.”

The humane society, when possible, encourages owners to keep their pet cats. By scheduling owner releases, they have the opportunity to ensure they have enough room for the cat, and find out why they’re being turned in.

“Maybe it’s something economic and we can give them some food and send them home, or maybe it’s something behavior. We want to solve the problem and create a solution to keep that animal in their house if possible,” Graham said.

CatSnip and other nonprofits help with this by altering cats at low costs for anyone in need of it.

This summer the organization is entering its third neighborhood in Goshen, combining efforts with Here Kitty Kitty, to get all strays and neighborhood cats altered and improve the populations for the communities.

“If you don’t give people the option to do this at a low cost, they will usually throw them outside because they can’t afford to keep them when they start spraying and crying,” Monroe said. “All those behaviors that come with hormones and not being fixed, once they’re stabilized they become a much nicer cat.”

Since last summer, they’ve controlled populations at the Historic Millrace District and the North Side, and are currently working in the Chamberlain District. CatSnip also visits residents to offer them low-cost alterations to their felines, regardless of income, and so far, they’ve been pretty successful.

“We have a lot scheduled already this year,” Monree said. “We’re booked out about four weeks now. We pretty much stay that way throughout the summer.”

Grant money used to keep the costs low generally runs out by fall, but CatSnip keeps working regardless, because the need doesn’t stop there.

“The idea is to stabilize the colonies,” Monroe said. “We don’t want to increase the number of cats in any area, we want to decrease it.”

‘One less animal at the shelter’

Stray animals that are reported to the humane society may also be kept in the home if wanted while the humane society confirms lack of ownership. It’s a strategy the humane society uses in the hopes that the finder will fall in love with the animal and choose to keep it.

“If they’re staying in that house that means one less animal coming to the shelter, and that’s a good thing,” Graham said.

The humane society also advocates an online adoption program called ReHome, by Adopt-A-Pet.

Since January, more than 1,500 cats have come through the shelter doors for adoption.

“People tend to keep puppies or you can rehome then. You don’t see as many roaming dogs as you do cats. People feel like a dog needs a little more structure, which it does, but don’t just move and toss your cat out, please, especially if it’s unaltered.”

Cats can multiple quickly, and with the ability to birth three liters per year, one unaltered female cat can have upward of 15 kittens per year.

Advocacy groups like the Feral Cat Coalition and CatSnip offer their services to the many stray cats in Elkhart County using a trap-neuter-release program, so that cats can still be outdoors, without affecting the population.

“We’re still pretty busy, but we’ve got several colonies throughout the county that we’ve seen on a smaller scale. Each colony has been reduced quite a bit and have stabilized and their populations are under control, so we do know that the program works and the caregivers stay on top of it,” Bralik said.

Still, one new cat in the colony can have serious side effects, so it should be neutered as soon as possible.

“It does control the population, but you have to be willing to allow the cats that are already here to stay here, get them altered so it can be under control,” Bralik said.

Many organizations do not relocate cats once they’ve been altered.

“(Cats will) spend most of their time trying to get back to where they came from,” he said. “Their best chance of survival is staying where they were born. Relocation works part of the time, but it doesn’t always work. Relocation survival rate is 50 percent right off the bat, and a few years later it’s down to 25 percent. They prefer where they’re used to. They don’t like strange places. It’s the same way for other creatures too.”

Animal control laws

The city of Elkhart lacks a policy for managed care of feral cat colonies.

An ordinance had sat on the city council’s Public Health & Safety Committee for nearly a year before it was removed from the agenda entirely in Febuary 2018.

“They do not want to do anything to encourage people to promote this,” the council’s administrative assistant, Mary Jo Weyrick, explained of the council’s decision.

In 2010, the city’s animal control ordinance was completely overhauled; it took nearly a dozen people 25 meetings to create the new strategy, which came under controversy due to the number of pitbulls and feral cats living in city limits.

As a result, the city initiated several new rules regarding pet ownership, including a requirement to register pets, allowing single-unit homes to have up to four cats or dogs, and barring exotic pets.

Trap-neuter-release advocates attended several meetings around the new animal control ordinance, arguing that they should not be held responsible for the feral cats within the colonies they manage.

“Up until that point, they were doing (TNR in the city anyways) and no one was aware until they brought the attention on,” Weyrick said.

While the city still has no ordinance promote or discouraging TNR or colonies, they do not sanction it either. Therefore, caregivers would still be expected to register any animal they offer care to.

“The council’s position is that responsible cat owners and dog owners within the city have to take ownership and responsibility for the actions of their pets,” Weyrick explained. “I live next door to a cat lady and she feeds the feral cats in the county. Those cats will come to our house and you can smell them. You can’t hardly sit in your yard sometimes. Some years the population is down to two or three cats but other years it’s a dozen to 18 cats in our area. Those are the kinds of issues that, in town, you don’t want because the homes are so close together. People call a lot complaining about their neighbor’s cats. For the same reasons that we don’t allow exotic animals and farm animals, we don’t allow feral cats.”

Since there is no policy surrounding the feral cats in the city of Elkhart, it’s left up to neighbors to report issues with feral feline populations to the city police or to the humane society, who will then gather the cats and take them directly to the humane society.

“Because we don’t allow it, that’s what happens,” Weyrick explained. “Neighbors do get really up in arms about it. It just doesn’t work well in the city because your neighbors are close and you might love these cats, but your neighbors don’t.”

‘It’s unreal’

The Feral Cat Coalition hopes that in the future, the city will adopt an ordinance to help them with TNR efforts. In the meantime, they’ve decided to remove themselves from the largest city in the county.

“The largest majority of cats turned in to the humane society have been from the city,” Bralik explained. “We still believe that the only way to curb that is to get the cats spayed and neutered and returned to where they came from their because outdoor feral cats don’t make adoptive pets.”

CatSnip estimates that even if the city’s ordinance changes in the near future, it will take at least five years to get the city’s feral cat population under control.

“We get constantly calls every week,” Monroe said. “If nobody is helping, there’s a lot of strays, cats dumped, so you know if we do a neighborhood (in Goshen) and it has so many cats, you can just imagine the number in Elkhart – it’s got to be unreal.”

The town of Middlebury chose to not renew its agreement with the humane society this year. Unlike Elkhart, who brings their feral cats directly to the humane society, Middlebury’s cats cannot be taken to that location at all.

Both situations make a stressful Catch 22 for local feral cat advocates.

“The cats don’t know where the city limits and the county limits are,” Monroe said.

In the meantime, the Feral Cat Coalition is in the second phase of building its permanent location, a facility that will allow onsite alterations and two-day stays for cats following their surgeries. The building, around 1,400 square feet, has been raised and the next steps include adding air conditioning, finishing the interior, and installing a well and electric throughout.

Roughy 50 cats could be held in the building for days at a time before being released back to their habitats. Colony caregivers will still monitor colonies.

They hope to hire an on-site veterinarian to perform surgeries, and maybe even host spay days for the owned pets as well.

“If our plan in the future comes to fruition we will definitely be increasing spay and neuter out of there,” Bralik said of the new location. It’s at 29604 C.R. 10 West in Elkhart, just south of the Elkhart Airport.

The coalition hopes to hold an open house in the fall at its new location, if enough funds are raised to finish the property.

To raise the funds, the coalition will be holding a Christmas in July Craft Bazaar with more than 100 vendors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. July 27 at the Moose Family Center, 1500 C.R. 6.

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