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Communities turn to volunteers to help manage and control population of feral cats

A feral cat recovers after being neutered during a day-long clinic sponsored by the city of St. Louis, Operation Stop Pet Overpopulation and St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach. Volunteers cover the cages of the feral cats to calm them.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
A feral cat recovers after being neutered during a day-long clinic sponsored by the city of St. Louis, Operation Stop Pet Overpopulation and St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach. Volunteers cover the cages of the feral cats to calm them.

Linda Braboy explained her method for trapping feral cats, as she pushed her walker down an alley near Fairground Park on a chilly November Saturday.

She uses the wheeled walker to help her get around, but it also comes in handy for this mission. She has stuffed the pouch with cat food and stacked a couple of wire traps on top.

Braboy likes to call to the skittish alley cats, as she rolls along:

“Kitties, come on kitties … Come on kitties… I know you’re hungry.’’

She laughed.

“They’re probably looking like, ‘That’s that crazy cat lady with those traps on her walker.’ ’’

Sometimes, she leaves a trail of food to lure the cats into cages while she waits out of sight, listening for the traps to spring shut.

She is working with the nonprofit St. Louis Feral Cat Outreachto stabilize the feral cat population in her neighborhood. Volunteers with the group take the cats to clinics to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies — and then return them to their colonies.

So far, she’s trapped about a dozen cats.

“I do this because I love cats. I love animals,’’ Braboy said. “And I don’t mind helping them. And it also helps the community keep down the cat population. Basically, if they get neutered they tend not to destroy or tear up as much.’’


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Linda Braboy spends hours feeding and trapping feral cats that live in alleys near Fairground Park.

“If you feed them, fix them”

Alley cats. Feral cats. Doorstep cats. Community cats … No matter what you call them, there are millions of cats living in outdoor colonies in U.S. cities and the countryside. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that, nationwide, there are between 30 and 40 million "community"  cats.

Some are strays that once had homes but were lost, or dumped. Others are feral cats that were born and have lived their entire lives in alleys or woods.

To control their numbers, communities in the St. Louis area are enlisting the help of volunteers to trap, neuter and then return the cats to their environments. It’s called TNR. Animal advocates say it’s a humane alternative to rounding up stray cats and taking them to the pound, where most were euthanized.

The city of St. Louis adopted the approach in 2014. The program relies on an army of unpaid volunteers, like those with Feral Cat Outreach. They work with city residents who agree to feed and serve as caretakers for cat colonies.

Feral Cat Outreach has helped trap and neuter more than 1,000 outdoor cats this year, preventing thousands of offspring, said Terri Zeman, executive director. Over time, managed cat colonies will decrease in size because cats are territorial and won’t allow new cats into their group.

The group made headlines last summer when volunteers found the "Rally Cat” that had sprinted across the field at Busch Stadium during a St. Louis Cardinals game. Although that case ended in a public relations tussle between Zeman’s group and the Cardinals, she said it helped raise awareness about feral cats and the work her group does. The Rally Cat has found a home with one of the organization’s volunteers.

Zeman has a message for well-meaning people who feed strays.

“If you feed them, fix them,’’ she said. “Because if you're feeding them you are making it easier for them to sustain a pregnancy and a litter of kittens, which is only going to multiply and get worse for you. Feed your cats, but bring them to us or to your vet or make whatever arrangements you can and get them spayed or neutered and break the cycle.’’


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Veterinarian technician Brandi Moore works with a feral cat that has been sedated for surgery in the Operation Stop Pet Overpopulation (OpSPOT) mobile clinic.

One feral cat and 67,000 kittens 

On a recent Monday, volunteers took shifts during a special daylong spay-neuter session held at the Thomas Dunn Learning Center in Dutchtown. Thirty-six feral cats, trapped throughout the city the day before, hunkered down in their cages, waiting to be carried to a mobile clinic parked outside.

The bright yellow unit is called the “Waggin,” and it’s operated by another local nonprofit — Operation Stop Pet Overpopulation. That organization, known as OpSPOT, provides affordable spaying and neutering services throughout the region.

Inside the mobile clinic, a veterinarian fixed the felines, then snipped off the tips of their left ears to identify them as neutered. The cats were also given rabies vaccinations.

The event was a collaborative effort by OpSPOT, Feral Cat Outreach and the city Health Department.


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Veterinarian Kris Clements spays a feral cat in the OpSPOT mobile clinic.

“There are statistics that show that one unspayed and unneutered cat can produce 67,000 cats in its lifetime,’’ said Liz Rudder, executive director of OpSPOT. “Now that is that cat breeding and then its babies breeding and then the grandbabies breeding and the great-grandbabies. They come into heat about twice a year, and they breed twice a year so every cat that we're spaying and neutering is saving so many lives that aren't going to be out there in the feral communities and getting killed and getting hurt and all the things that can happen to a wild or a feral cat.’’

The veterinarian and two technicians were being paid by OpSPOT. Volunteers monitored the cats as they recovered from anesthesia. The cats would be returned to their colonies the next day.

Danielle Faulkner-Schaffer, who volunteers with Feral Cat Outreach, believes TNR is making a difference.

“I've seen firsthand stabilizing a colony and how much healthier the cats are because they're no longer fighting,’’ she said. “And we help the colony caretakers get shelters for their animals; make sure they have sufficient food. And then, over time, the numbers go down, but at least then they're not being euthanized simply for existing.’’


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
A neutered feral cat that lives in a colony in south St. Louis. Caretakers who adopt colonies agree to feed the cats and look out for their welfare.

“They’re a part of our city”

The Trap-Neuter-Return concept was first introduced in Great Britain in the 1950s. The national organization Alley Cat Alliesformed in 1990 to advocate for TNR in the U.S. In 2008, Jacksonville, Florida, was one of the first major U.S. cities to put it into practice.

St. Louis and St. Charles counties work with TNR groups. And advocates are working with metro-east cities to establish new programs, thanks to legislation that now allows Illinois counties to target some of their animal population control funds toward reducing feral cat populations.

No one knows how many community cats live in the city of St. Louis, but Health Services Manager Jeanine Arrighi believes TNR is having an impact. She says the number of cats taken in by animal control has dropped considerably — from 1,400 in 2009 to just over 200 last year. 

Arrighi oversees a feral cat task force, which includes animal advocacy groups. The task force addresses funding issues and also responds to complaints from residents. In some cases, feral cats have to be trapped and relocated.

Arrighi understands that some people consider outdoor cats to be a nuisance, but, she said, they do help keep the rodent populations down.

“Sometimes, people think some of these wild creatures don't belong in our city,’’ she said. “But they're a part of our city. We have hawks, and we have squirrels and raccoons and opossums. And feral cats are just among those.’’

The city provides about $30,000 a year to TNR groups to pay for spaying and neutering of cats trapped in the city. The groups work with veterinarians and clinics that provide discounted rates for feral cats — $35 to $40 per animal.

Feral Cat Outreach gets about $5,000 from the city per year, but the organization relies heavily on private donations to cover its costs, Zeman said.


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Terri Zeman, executive director of St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach, returns a spayed cat to a neighborhood in south St. Louis.

Back to the streets

On a recent Saturday morning, Zeman returned a spayed calico cat to its south city neighborhood. Her group is assisting two sisters who are managing a feral cat colony.

“You know where you are, don’t you?’’ Zeman said to the meowing cat as she set the cage on the sidewalk. “Are you ready to get released?”

She opened the trap’s door, and the cat bolted.

“It is a little heartbreaking when we return the friendly ones,'' she said. "But there’s only so many homes. There’s only so many rescues. There’s only so many places we can network cats to. And that’s just the best we can do.’’

For more information: The Humane Society of the United States has compiled a guide for people who want to learn about TNR and the care of community cats. 

To follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.