In Canada, feral cats are becoming a “huge welfare issue” right across the country as municipalities and animal welfare groups attempt to make inroads on a problem that has so far proven resistant to their best efforts.
In Kamloops, BC, the SPCA is holding a free spay and neuter clinic next month in effort to reduce the feral cat population in the area. “Sterilizing feral cats – ownerless cats who are born out of captivity and without human socialization – is a key step to ending the cycle of suffering that is happening in Kamloops and in communities across the province,” says Kamloops clinic administrator Vivian Van Dorne, who hopes that the event will bring in as many as 50 feral cats for spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations and deworming.
Unlike your average stray cat found slinking around city streets (often runaways or abandoned animals), feral cats have never lived with humans and yet survive on the fringes of society, living as wild animals. There are health and nuisance issues that come with feral cats, from the hundreds of millions of songbirds killed every year to diseases that cats carry such as toxoplasmosis.
Left on their own to breed, cats can produce offspring at a rapid rate — one cat can produce as much as 420,000 felines in just seven years, according to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS). In fact, there are no clear numbers on exactly how many feral cats are in Canada, yet the CFHS say that the “homeless cat crisis” is affecting nearly every community in Canada, both urban and rural.
In Halifax, where upwards of 60,000 feral cats are thought to be living within city limits, City Council recently passed a motion to fund a $250,000 five-year trap, neuter/spay and return program which the city hopes will cut down on feral cat numbers. “That certainly is a positive step that Halifax Regional Municipality recognizes that there is a cat crisis and that spaying or neutering is the answer to resolve that cat crisis,” said Heather Woodin, SPCA’s trap, neuter and return (TNR) project coordinator, to the CBC.
In contrast to the decades-old practice of catching and euthanizing feral cats, now thought to be both inhumane and ineffective at reducing feral cat numbers, the TNR approach is being implemented in municipalities and regions across Canada and the US.
“There are probably more cats today than there have ever been, and so euthanizing and trying to get ahead of the population explosion that way just simply isn’t a good option,” says Shane Bateman, a veterinarian and member of the Guelph Humane Society in Guelph, Ontario, told the CBC. “And it’s a very, very unpalatable option for communities these days who are more and more concerned about animal welfare.”
But for many municipalities, TNR has yet to make a serious dent in their cat populations, something that comes as no surprise to ecologist Dr. Patrick Foley at California State University in Sacramento, who says that TNR is not an effective approach if done in half measures. Dr. Foley has conducted research on two of the largest and longest-running TNR programs in the United States — in San Diego, California, and in Gainesville, Florida — and found that the reproductive rates of the cat colonies outpaced sterilization efforts.
“Cat populations were not significantly going down, and that’s probably the single take-home lesson here,” says Dr. Foley in conversation with Reveal News. “Our calculations show that you need to have about 75% of the female cats be sterilized in order to make this work, and that’s maybe about 10 times as many, roughly, as their present efforts are making.”
And with the average cost for sterilization running between $50 and $150 per cat, both the funding along with the coordination effort needed to hit above the 75 per cent threshold all at once likely just isn’t there for many Canadian municipalities. And yet, with the only other option on the table being euthanasia, advocates will continue supporting TNR programs and hoping for the best.