Cute, quirky and cuddly cats may dominate the Internet, but the sad reality is that millions of stray and feral cats live harsh and stressful lives in the streets or are brought to shelters to be euthanized. In downtown Greensboro clowders of cats can be spotted near dumpsters in parking lots and behind restaurants. Several volunteer and donation fueled organizations in the Triad are dedicated to addressing the overpopulation of free-roaming cats through the increasingly popular trapneuter-return method.

It is hard to estimate exactly how many free-roaming cats there could be in Greensboro. Feral and stray cats prefer to be close to people where food scraps are more easily found. Dr. Julie Levy at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida estimates that within a community, the number of feral cats is equal to roughly six percent of the human population. This would mean that a city about the size of Greensboro would have an estimated feral cat population of about 15,000.

According to the Humane Society of the United States these free-roaming cats originate from pet cats that were not sterilized by their owners. The unsterilized cats either escaped or were allowed to roam and eventually mated with other unsterilized cats. Bob Barker was right, “Help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.”

Executive Director of the Humane Society of the Piedmont points to irresponsible pet ownership as the cause of feral colonies. “The reason cats end up being feral is because people don’t spay and nature their pets, or they are picking up kittens and dumping them once they become adults,” said Payne.

Feral cats are not the same as stays. Strays are cats that have been tamed, but are either lost or have been abandoned by their owners. Feral cats are felines that have lived their entire lives in the wild and have never been tamed, so they are often too fearful or wild to be handled. Once a feral cat has reached adulthood it is typically considered unwise to try and domesticate it.

Free-roaming cats naturally establish groups called colonies that stick to a defined area. If a caretaker does not monitor the colony or provide food and shelter for the felines then the cats will most likely experience brief and difficult lives. While the average life expectancy for a pet housecat is 12 to 14 years, cats in unmonitored colonies usually only live two to four years. Seventy-five percent of feral kittens born to free-roaming cats do not make it to adulthood.

Free-roaming cats may starve, succumb to untreated injuries, or end up being struck by cars, but one of the biggest threats they face is euthanasia at the hands of people. People annoyed by the presence of colonies may request the assistance of Animal Control services without fully comprehending that they are sending most of these cats to their grave.

According to the HSUS, “From a human quality of life standpoint, people are bothered by free-roaming cats for many reasons, including: the loud noise from cats fighting and mating; the pungent odor of unneutered males spraying urine to mark their territory; the disturbing presence of sick and dying cats and kittens; predation on birds and other wildlife; the unwanted intrusion of the cats on private and public property; and concern about the role of cats in transmitting diseases to people and other animals.”

“Unfortunately people view feral cats as a nuisance and we’re trying to change that,” said Payne.

Overcrowded shelters may take the feral kittens hoping that they can be adopted and domesticated quickly, but the adult feral cats that can’t be adopted are often destroyed. This trap and remove method of dealing with colonies can be a tremendous strain on the resources of a shelter. The HSUS estimates that about 25 percent of financial resources in shelters nationwide are used to trap and either hold or euthanize free-roaming cats. The HSUS also estimates that at least half of the nearly four million feral cats brought in to shelters each year are ultimately destroyed.

Jan Flowers, a volunteer and board member for the Feral Cat Assistance Program in Greensboro, is one of the many people who are upset by this. “It’s a terrible waste of life,” said Flowers.

This method of reducing free-roaming cat populations is not only heartbreaking and costly, but also ineffective. Once a colony has been removed a new colony often fills the vacuum.

Guilford County Animal Shelter assessments indicate that the shelter received about 16,000 animals in 2013. Of the animals brought into the shelter approximately 7,000 were adopted while 7,500 were euthanized. About 1,100 pets were reclaimed by owners while others escaped or died from causes other than euthanasia. The shelter received $1.97 million in funds from Guilford County in 2013 while Animal Control received $1.18 million. The shelter was able to start a mobile low cost spay/neuter program in addition to offering subsidized pricing for pet sterilization. These efforts allowed the shelter to perform 4,000 spay and neuter surgeries in 2013 with the shelter’s goal being to try to reduce the number of animals coming into the shelter.

Guilford County Animal Shelter Director Marsha Williams said that the shelter has staff and volunteers who try to work with feral cats and that adults are not always euthanized. “Sometimes we send them to farms,” said Williams. “We have individuals looking for barn cats in the area who will take them.”

The free-roaming colonies can be a public health concern as unvaccinated cats may contract and spread rabies. Guilford County Animal Control saw 30 positive reports of rabies in 2013, compared to the 21 cases reported in 2012.

Guilford County Animal Shelter has made a considerable effort to use both low cost vaccinations and mobile clinics to vaccinate between 7,000 and 8,000 animals against rabies each year.

Executive Director at the NC Veterinary Medical Association Claire Holley said that vaccinating cats is a top priority. “For domestic animals, cats are the primary concern for contracting rabies,” said Holley.

Some cat lovers have been able to peacefully coexist with their feral feline neighbors. Dawn Chaney owns several properties in downtown Greensboro, and some of them have come with cats. Chaney, who has owned cats since she was a child, isn’t bothered by colonies that may hang around her buildings. “People who know me know I’m a cat lover,” said Chaney. “I can hardly manage to see a cat that is in distress.”

Earlier this month Chaney purchased the historic Book Trader building at 312 S. Elm Street and was surprised by why some people seemed to criticize certain preexisting elements of the property. “When I bought that building people said, ‘you do you know that there are cats in there?’” said Chaney. Rather than report the cats to the shelter, Chaney plans to let the cats remain where they are while monitoring their well being. “You can’t disturb the kitties,” said Chaney.

Chaney said that she plans on becoming more involved with efforts to manage and care for feral cats. “My next thing is to become really involved with the cat society,” said Chaney. “I want to devote my next life to helping the kitties.”

Less feline-friendly owners might try to remove any accessible food for the cats in hopes that the felines will leave to scavenge elsewhere. The HSUS says that this method, along with legally enforced feeding bans, is ineffective. Once a cat has claimed a territory it typically will not leave for any reason. Instead of relocating the cat will try to hold off starvation by becoming more resourceful.

If Greensboro were to enact a feeding ban then the law would most likely fail due to the instinctive nature of cats, coupled with the compassion of cat lovers who would be happy to feed the cats.

There is a preferred method of humanely treating the overpopulation of cats. The trap-neuter-return (TNR) method is used by local organizations including Forgotten Felines of Forsyth, Feral Cat Assistance Program (FCAP), and the Humane Society of the Piedmont.

A true TNR program must have the cats in a free-roaming colony sterilized and vaccinated for rabies after they are trapped. While under anesthesia the cats have a quarter of an inch cut from the tip of their left ear. This helps to serve as a future indicator that the cat is part of a managed colony. After recovering, the cats are then returned to where they were found. Returning the cats to their original territory prevents new, unmanaged colonies from moving in. Over time the cats will begin to die of natural causes and the colony will slowly shrink in number.

The final and most critical aspect of a TNR program is to ensure that a volunteer is committed to monitoring the colony. According to Forgotten Felines of Forsyth, “In a TNR program, a feral cat colony caretaker, who is a volunteer rescue worker, feeds the cats on a daily basis and takes them to a veterinarian if they require medical assistance. The resultant group of cats, including any new cats entering the caretaker’s sphere, is known as a managed feral cat colony.”

Colony caretakers make sure that the cats have a warm, dry place to stay during the harsh winter months and provide plenty of water during the heat of the summer.

“I just think that the people who do that in Greensboro are wonderful,” said Chaney. “Think how many cats we save with their dedication.”

“It’s a pretty good commitment,” said Williams. “They have to make sure they are getting fresh food and water two to three times a day. They have to monitor the colony for any new cats that then need to be brought in for treatment, and they have to make sure the cats have adequate shelter.”

Forgotten Felines of Forsyth and FCAP are nonprofits run by volunteers. The Humane Society of the Piedmont relies on private donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.

“We have about 50 volunteers and we’re all feeding colonies,” said Flowers. “We pay for it out of our own pockets to provide meds and healthcare for these babies.”

FCAP also hold spay days once a month where local veterinarians volunteer their time to spay a total of 50 to 90 cats.

In 2013 the NC Senate passed the “Recodify Animal Shelter Law,” which clarifies that any animal brought into a shelter in the state must be held for at least 72 hours before the shelter may dispose of the animal. While feral cats are not exempt from this law, it is unclear whether or not a tipped ear indicating TNR treatment would prevent a feral cat from being euthanized. It is the hope of TNR advocates that Animal Services would refrain from trapping and removing cats with tipped ears or that the caretaker of a managed colony would notice any missing cats and contact nearby shelters to reclaim the cat before it could be euthanized.

In extreme cases, a colony may need to be relocated to an entirely new territory. The HSUS advocates against this practice and states, “Relocation should be a last resort because even when it is done properly, many of the cats will disappear after they are released, in search of their old territory.” Humane relocation requires intensive monitoring from a volunteer caretaker at the new location for at least two to three weeks.

Williams says that people do occasionally try to bring in cats with tipped ears.

“They still bring them in to the shelter,” said Williams. “But if we see an ear tip we will call FCAP and have them pick it up.”

Flowers said, “We do have a good relationship in Guilford County with animal control and the shelter.” Flowers also pointed out that the shelters in Forsyth County received a grant that has enabled them to microchip and register feral cats treated by the clinics. “We’d like to get something like that going here at some point,” said Flowers.

The Guilford County Animal Shelter is working to try and pass a spay/neuter law in the state, but North Carolina Department of Agriculture Director of Animal Welfare Dr. Lee Hunter says that there are currently no laws that address TNR programs. “There is no legislation at a state wide level,” said Dr. Hunter. “There is no law at a state level that says it is either a good idea or forbids it.”

Others maintain that TNR seems to be a viable solution.

“It is an effective way to deal with feral cat colonies, and definitely more humane,” said Holley.

“Obviously taking them to the shelter and killing them is not the answer,” said Flowers.

The HSUS reports that the number of animals euthanized in shelters has steadily declined since the 1970s, but it’s difficult to accurately measure whether the feral cat population has been on the rise in the Triad. “I have noticed an increase in feral cats, but also in the number we have spayed and neutered,” said Williams.

“The Triad has absolutely seen a huge increase in the number of feral colonies,” said Payne. “If we could have a special fund set up specifically for the feral community that would really push people to want to help this group.”

For volunteers like Payne and Flowers, the lack of legislation in Guilford County has allowed feral cat populations to continue to grow in spite of the tireless efforts of organizations like FCAP. “As many cats as we personally have done over the years, it’s hard for me to believe that there are still so many out there,” said Flowers. “We need to have legislation where people have to have their cats neutered or spayed and vaccinated at the very least.” !