Where the Wild Things Are
Southwest New Mexico is suffering a plague of feral cats. And well-intentioned efforts to help these helpless creatures may just be making the problem worse.
Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder
It all started with cat poop. Twenty-five pounds of it, right under the tree in my front yard. No, I'm not kidding. It killed all the grass and native dichondria.
I started shoveling and bagging—snow-shovelful after snow-shovelful of decaying, smelly cat feces. I figured the shovelfuls easily added up to 25 pounds. Clearly, too many cats were roaming this little square of residential neighborhood!
High Desert Humane Society office manager Gigi Shoaf demonstrates a humane animal trap.
I had seen and chased some cats away. Several times over the past year, I had removed the accumulated waste and put down all manner of animal repellents—crushed chile peppers, mothball powders, cilantro-based granules, even desiccated coyote urine—to no avail. The guy at the feed store told me I was fighting an uphill battle: Scents were established and there were just too darned many cats around.
Then there was the blood. I repeatedly found blood spattered on my front walkway—the blood of birds killed by cats lying in wait under my feeder. I took the bird feeder down.
There are spots in my backyard vegetable garden where nothing will grow, laid waste by acidic urine from armies of roaming cats. I have not seen lizards, once plentiful around my property, in my yard for more than a year.
I began talking to my neighbors about the feral cats—felines born wild—and found a mixed bag of attitudes. Let me admit right here that opinions differed, personalities clashed and tempers sometimes ran high. I heard everything from "at least I'm doing something" by feeding them to "I just wish I could fire my gun within city limits." Some neighbors were putting down poison—horribly cruel but perfectly legal—and others were trapping cats and abandoning them in the hills, both cruel and illegal.
Compounding the problem and the controversy were the numerous domestic cats that also were out prowling after the lizards and birds, and that poop just as much as feral cats, after all. I heard things like, "I have a right to let my cats run free! It's my choice." and "Leash law? Just try to enforce it!"
A litter of feral cats was born at the back of my neighbor's property and she started feeding them. Another neighbor had a history of feeding the ferals around her house, which were having repeated litters. I now counted more than two-dozen cats roaming through my property on a regular basis, some with the kinked tails and short front legs that are signs of inbreeding. Many looked mangy. Some had ripped ears, scars and running sores, evidently from fights with other wild animals or each other. All ran at the sight of a human being and none had medical care for their injuries or a place to get out of the rain or cold of winter.
Let me say right here that I love cats. We have two cats of our own, Luna and Skye, both rescued animals. Except for my nervousness around some of the larger dogs I've met, I'd have to say I love all animals. I've been known to move snails off sidewalks so they don't get stepped on. Certainly, I don't want any animals to suffer.
Pained by the frightened, sickly lives of some of the feral cats I observed around my house, frustrated with the destruction to my own property and decimation of the local wildlife, I decide to arm myself with information and launch a neighborhood cat-education campaign.
I begin by talking to animal-control officers, Humane Society and shelter staffs, veterinarians and animal-relief program representatives from Silver City to Las Cruces. What are the laws? I ask. What resources are there to handle this huge problem? What is the right thing to do?
I call Sherwood Nance, Silver City's new animal-control officer, and he shows up at my house in his big, white Animal Control truck. After the town of Silver City went without an animal-control officer for months, Nance took the job this past March. The feral cat problem in Grant County is "huge" in his estimation.
Raining Cats. . .
According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), two uncontrolled breeding cats, with just two litters of two to three kittens per year, can theoretically create the following:
12 cats the first year
66 cats the second year
2,201 cats in the third year
3,822 cats in the fourth year
12,680 cats in the fifth year
. . .and so on.
While feral cats are a problem throughout southwest New Mexico, Grant County seems to be the epicenter of the crisis. Nance admits he's still trying to catch up.
"It could be all I do," he says with a frustrated shake of his head. He pulls out his clipboard and flips through his daily list of animal-control calls. Dogs found wandering, dogs running loose and menacing people, a dead fox. In between, he's setting and retrieving traps, trying to catch roaming cats.
"All I can do is set traps on your property," he says, noting that there is an ongoing effort to trap cats from two large feral colonies in my neighborhood. I ask to be put on the waiting list.
Nance tells me that in the meantime I can rent traps from the animal shelter or buy them at the feed store. Maybe some of my neighbors would like to pitch in and buy traps together; create a cooperative feral-cat trapping effort.
I decide to hold a community meeting at my house, to share some of the information I've been gathering and to enlist help. I also want neighbors who are letting their housecats roam to know that trapping is going on. An animal-loving friend who lives up just a few blocks, who has lost a number of fish from her backyard pond to roaming cats, helps me distribute 100 invitations to houses between hers and mine.
"If you care, please be there," my note implores. I include my phone number on the note, asking those who cannot attend but who are interested in the topic to please call.
In the days before the meeting, I receive more than two-dozen phone calls expressing support. Regretting they cannot attend, the callers ask for information and share their own stories and express exasperation over the out-of-control cat population in the neighborhood. All thank me for my spearheading efforts and request follow-up.
I also receive a few anxious phone calls. These are from neighbors who let their domestic cats roam outdoors, afraid of what will happen if their cats are trapped by animal control. I stick to the facts in answering their concerns, sharing what the officers and shelter personnel have told me. I can tell that more than one of these callers is not happy when we hang up.
And so, on a pleasant mid-summer night, I find myself welcoming about a dozen neighbors and one veterinarian into my living room. Tired of being a one-woman cat-information hotline—and a sometime-punching bag for delivering unpopular information—I have invited a veterinarian from the local shelter to speak and answer questions. Dr. Donald Dykhouse (recently retired) from High Desert Humane Society shows up with a kindly smile and a stack of photocopied sheets. (Grant County Humane Society in Silver City recently changed its name to High Desert Humane Society.)
What you can do:
For assistance with altering your domestic cats, call SNAP at 534-4725. For SNAP assistance in altering your dog, or help with a feral cat situation, call 534-1296.
Other important phone numbers:
A number of the faces in the room are new to me. Do they own cats they let outdoors? Are they fed up with the ferals and those who feed them? What are they expecting? Some faces I recognize. My good friend who has lost the pond fish is present, and a neighbor I know to be feeding feral cats sits to my left.
Aiming to welcome everyone, I read an opening statement I've prepared: "Some of you may be here over your concerns for cats, your own or wild ones. Others of you may have come because you love your home and are concerned about property destruction by animals. Others may be concerned for their neighborhood, and the impact on it by feral cat overpopulation. Whatever your reasons, thanks for coming. This evening is designed to be educational and to foster good communication between neighbors."
I introduce Dr. Dykhouse, who begins by giving a brief history of his long career in animal medicine. He then describes his responsibilities at the shelter, which leads into some pretty harsh statistics and facts.
To be sure, the shelter does the best it can to find homes for the unwanted pets that are deposited there. In the first stages of my research, I called High Desert Humane Society and asked about their success rate and what they're up against. Buddy Howard, animal control officer at the shelter, went over the statistics—posted on a big whiteboard facing the front desk—and shared the grim news. "July seems to be the worst month," he said. In just that one month, 117 cats were brought to the shelter. Of those, only 19 found homes. Do the math, if you dare. That's 98 cats euthanized in July 2006 alone.
With so many abandoned domestic cats and unplanned, unwanted litters of kittens arriving constantly, the shelter simply has no room to harbor feral cats that are trapped and brought in.
Besides, Dr. Dykhouse explains, a majority of feral cats are found to have "some pretty serious diseases." Many prove to have feline AIDS and leukemia, diseases 100 percent communicable to other cats—and fatal. Also, feral cats' wildness makes them largely unadoptable. Some feral kittens are healthy and able to be tamed, but with so many domestic cats needing homes, most feral cats are just destroyed.
Dykhouse goes into a laundry list of the illnesses carried by feral cats, some of which will sicken and kill domestic cats that associate with the ferals, some of which are even transmissible to humans. Of special concern are some diseases that can be transmitted through the cats' fecal waste. There are pathogens that can infect humans who simply breathe in the contaminated air from handling the waste. I think back to my scooping and bagging of all that cat poop, wishing I'd thought to put on a protective mask first.
One woman at the meeting says she learned the hard way about ferals transmitting disease to healthy cats. She says that after allowing her domestic cats to roam outdoors, they repeatedly became ill. After several visits to the veterinarian, she was told this would be an ongoing problem as long as she let her cats out. The vet warned her that there is a "known sick feral cat colony" in the vicinity.
"Why don't they tell you this when you're buying a house?" she asks. "How are you supposed to find out that an area is dangerous to your pets?"
A Tale of Three Kitties
People who allow their cats to breed often give the excuse that they "find good homes for them."
"Nonsense," says Gigi Shoaf, officer manager at High Desert Humane Society in Silver City. From her six years at the shelter, Shoaf speaks with authority born of experience and heartbreak.
"The statistic is that 95 percent of those are dead before the first year," she says. Often people make a too-quick decision to adopt, taken in by the universal nature of kittens to be both adorable and helpless. "People mean well, but the statistics show that a lot of cats are abandoned, handed off and worse."
Shoaf's co-worker, Shirley Wiegel, concurs: "Sad to say, we get a lot of them back in a few months."
Kittens born feral face even grimmer odds against being successfully adopted. People who take on feral kittens should know some very important facts. Many feral kittens have been born with diseases, transmitted from their mothers. Be cautious when capturing a found kitten, and take it to a vet before bringing it into your house.
Kittens' brains and personalities form early. Research shows kittens that live to more than 12 weeks of age completely "wild" may never bond normally with humans or other cats. They may be frightened of humans all their lives, even the people who feed and house them. They may not know how to groom themselves. They sometimes have abnormal behavior patterns.
Though people attempting to adopt ferals mean well, they often are disappointed. Last year, a litter was born to one of the feral cats being fed in our small neighborhood. The feral mama cat was completely wild and unapproachable. It gave birth to the standard three kittens in a neighbor's garage. One of the neighborhood feral cat feeders prevailed upon some of her kind-hearted neighbors to adopt the wild babies. This is a non-scientific study of their progress.
The male of the litter was adopted into a household with another domestic cat. It turned out healthy—well, after an abscessed infection was treated—and has tamed down, becoming completely domestic and affectionate. Its owner says the cats are indoor pets, with closely supervised forays into the backyard. She credits being an indoor cat and having another domestic feline around—along with intensive TLC from the humans—with turning the key to give this kitty a happier life.
The two female kittens of the feral litter went to a neighbor up the street. "I'd never seen kittens like that," she recalls. "They were just so frightened." Admitting she is "the type to buy the 'Charlie Brown Christmas tree,'" she says she wanted to take the ferals on because she was looking for kittens to love (now that her cat-allergic son had moved out) and she didn't think anyone else would adopt these frightened balls of fluff.
At first, she and her husband had the kittens in the house. The frightened and extremely shy animals ran and hid every time she and her husband came into the house or moved from room to room, but eventually tamed down to the point where they would come to the couple. The woman admits some disappointment with the kittens' behavior, as she'd wanted "lap cats" and it became clear that's something these cats never would be.
Complications arose. The woman's son had a son of his own and started making more frequent visits to her home. Seeing him suffer miserably from the cat hair—no matter how clean the place was, dander is a fact—the couple made the decision to turn the cats into outdoor pets, making as comfortable a life as they could for them (even providing heated beds!) on their mostly enclosed patio. The walled-in enclosure contains a fountain and lots of plants, which the cats love, she says.
Though the cats run and hide from strangers, they will come to their owners if they kneel down and coax them, she says.
Though not the cozy "lap cat" scenario she'd envisioned, the woman says she is glad she has been able to give two needy cats "at least a shot" at a good life.
Dr. Dykhouse shakes his head. "No one can tell you that," he says. "It's a risk you take when you allow your cat to roam."
A woman on the couch offers that her cat is mostly an indoor cat, and that she puts it on a leash when she takes it outside. She says the cat loves to go outside, and that it does not seem to mind the leash, being quite used to it.
Being a cat lover, I have had feline companions as long as I can remember. Growing up, I lost a few to the great outdoors—a couple got hit by cars on the road near my house and one was mauled to death by a marauding dog. As an adult, I decided to keep my cats indoors. Statistics and my veterinarian—as well as those painful childhood experiences—brought me to my decision: To me, it just wasn't worth the risk of subjecting my cats to death by tires and teeth. Here in New Mexico, add "talons" to that list of risks. Even in my little residential neighborhood, a friend recently lost her beloved kitty to a bird of prey, and my neighbors just a few doors up have an owl living in a tree in their yard. Owls are especially fond of gray cats, I hear, though most cats of any shade are catchable size, and therefore prey for the big birds.
Dykhouse talks about these risks that outdoor cats are subjected to. Furthermore, he adds, not only is it risky and inconsiderate of your neighbors to let pets roam, it's even against the law. A few eyebrows raise, but he's not telling me anything I didn't already know.
In my research, I discovered that city ordinances are quite clear in regulating pet ownership, both in terms of numbers of pets and owners' responsibilities. In Silver City and Las Cruces, a person may have two pets in the household, dogs or cats or one of each. In Silver City, households with three to six animals need a private kennel permit, paying a $10 annual fee on top of the animals' annual licenses. With seven or more animals, the owner must get a breeder's permit and pay an additional $75 annual fee. In Grant County, all dogs must be licensed yearly. In Silver City, both dogs and cats must be licensed annually, from the age of three months, when they are able to receive their first rabies vaccination.
In Las Cruces, owners must obtain a kennel permit and pay accompanying annual fees for three animals or more. Las Cruces allows a maximum of seven animals per household.
The town of Deming allows four pets per household, maximum, and they can be any combination of cats, dogs and, believe it or not, pot-bellied pigs.
But while the numbers of pets and licensing requirements vary slightly from town to town, proper care of the animals is standard across the board: All must be neutered or spayed (unless you have a breeder's permit), all must be fully vaccinated and given adequate food, water and shelter and—now, here's where people go crazy and get in my face—contained on the owners' property or restrained on a leash.
"Yeah, people think it's different with cats," Gino Jimenez, animal-control officer for the town of Las Cruces, had told me. "Let's face it—when the cats run wild, they leave feces all over, they kill all the wildlife. They can be worse than dogs that way.
"You can't make people considerate of their neighbors, but you can tell them what the laws are," he added. "These rules are for everybody's good."
At the neighborhood meeting, I notice Dr. Dykhouse has drawn some raised eyebrows at the mention of "containing and restraining" cats to the owner's property. He goes on to bring the subject back strictly to feral cats.
"The law also says that if you feed an animal for three days—three days!—that you own that animal. You are then legally bound to all the other responsibilities of pet ownership," Dykhouse says. "That includes providing shelter, getting them vaccinated and neutered or spayed. It means you need to keep them restrained to your property, clean up their waste, and that you are liable for any damage they cause to anyone else's property."
Eddie Diaz, a longtime Silver City animal-control officer who left that post last year after nearly five years on the job, had told me that when it comes to feeding feral and stray cats, defining "ownership" is one of the trickier aspects of enforcing the town's pet ordinances. "When you've got it in a trap, they come crying, 'Oh, that's my cat. Don't take it to the pound,'" he said. "When you ask about its license or tell them that it's destroying other people's property and they're responsible to pick up the waste or restrain the animal to their property, then they say they don't 'technically' own the animal. They admit they feed it and look out for it, but they don't want to bear the full burden of actually owning the animal."
Getting the alleged "owner" to, well, own up, often takes a wicked turn, he added, when they're told of the laws surrounding feeding feral animals.
When asked how feral-cat feeders respond to hearing the ordinances, Diaz gave a little laugh and replied, "Oh, they pretty much stop talking to you at that point."
Dr. Dykhouse goes on to talk about another effect of feeding feral cats: It encourages reproduction. As one animal-control officer told me, "Their sex drive just goes turbo!" With a ready food supply available, an ancient hormonal survival mechanism inside the animal says, "Times are good. Food is plentiful. Make kittens while the sun shines!" So when a kind-hearted person feeds a feral cat, the wild critter actually produces more offspring than it would have otherwise, exacerbating the feral-cat problem.
One of the arguments my feral-feeding neighbor has given me is that she's been responsible for "her" feral cats by having them neutered and spayed—well, they didn't get to the calico until it'd had at least one litter. She trapped and altered the ferals with help from the Spay/Neuter Awareness Program (SNAP) of Grant County.
SNAP is a non-profit organization whose main mission is to provide pet ownership education and low-cost neutering and spaying services to help curb household pet reproduction. (See the August 2003 Desert Exposure.) The group recently held a fundraiser, the Boots and Bowser Bash.
"We had a great time and it was a financial success," said Mary Jane Friedler, recording secretary in charge of client services for SNAP. The organization uses "government standards for income in determining eligibility" for SNAP assistance, she explains: "Full-time students and almost all retirees meet the requirements," Friedler said, as do families with children on Medicaid. "We're more than happy to educate people about the importance of [spaying and neutering their pets] and that we are here to help them do the right thing and be responsible pet owners."
The organization has a strong education arm, getting information about the importance of early altering—neutering or spaying—out to the local population. SNAP representatives often sit at tables at the Silver City Farmer's Market and other local venues to educate the public and enlist volunteer support and donations to do their work with local families.
During its first three years of existence, SNAP assisted in the spaying and neutering of 110 household pets each year. The organization, now entering its fifth year, has a goal of reaching 150 animals in 2006, Friedler said. By early September, SNAP had assisted with the neutering or spaying of 95 animals so far this year.
SNAP also has a "sideline" effort, Friedler said, a trap-alter-and-release program designed to provide assistance with the local feral-cat problem.
"It's just such a huge problem, and such a heartbreaking issue, that we added this. It's not even part of our mission statement," Friedler said. "We just had to do something."
For the alter-and-release program, the organization sends out a van and traps feral cats, then takes them to a participating veterinarian for a health examination. Animals that are not healthy are destroyed immediately. Those not sick are spayed or neutered, given all the basic vaccinations and a heavy dose of antibiotics, and then released back to the place where they were trapped.
The theory is that this improves the situation in the cat colony by culling out the sickest cats, giving the rest a fighting chance at survival, and preventing uncontrolled breeding. Critics of the program point out, for one thing, that such feral colony cats almost never receive any additional medical care—no follow-up vaccinations, no annual exams or dental care or treatment when they become injured or ill in the future. Critics say that the "managed" colonies just prolong the cats' suffering.
The Web site of the national Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org) quotes a former alter-and-release colony manager from Florida. In a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the manager writes, "I was not helping these cats. I was only prolonging a terrible, lonely disease-filled life that I would not wish on anyone. The feral cat colony supporters need to realize that what they are doing is not humane or compassionate; it is a selfish act of the heart."
Friedler admitted that SNAP's feral alter-and-release program receives criticism from some corners. It is challenged, she allowed, by the fact that SNAP has precious few veterinarians who will provide altering services for reduced fees, or who will work with feral animals at all. Dr. Paul Wilmeth at Gila Animal Clinic and Drs. John Wenzel and Mandy Chandler of Arenas Valley Animal Clinic currently work with SNAP on the trap-alter-release program.
Dr. Wenzel at Arenas Valley Animal Clinic, who does the actual altering of the feral cats SNAP brings in, said that while this effort does keep ferals from reproducing, he has strong misgivings about the program. "You have to do something. After all, the problem here is rampant," he said. But the alter-and-release programs are nonetheless "a failure," in his opinion.
"Sure, there's a lot of fanfare coming out of places like Florida, saying that this is the humane thing to do," Wenzel said. "But controlled scientific studies following these colonies indicate that the animals suffer and the problem only gets worse. The thing that really bothers me and that people don't realize is that alter-and-release is just turning the disease loose in our neighborhoods."
Wenzel said that he knows of two local "managed" feral cat colonies with serious disease problems. Many cats in the feral colony behind Albertson's grocery store have feline parvovirus and the cats that live out of the dumpster behind Adobe Springs restaurant have feline leukemia, according to the veterinarian.
He added, "I know of one elderly couple who had a cat that they took very good care of. They kept it indoors and outside for supervised forays. That cat was jumped one day by a bunch of ferals— there was nothing the couple could do—and from that one attack, their domestic cat contracted feline leukemia and had to be put down. It was just the saddest thing."
In response to some alter-and-release programs' claims that sick cats are thereby culled from the colony, Wenzel said, "That just doesn't happen. These programs run on a shoestring and medical exams would not be cost effective. They just come in and get altered and we notch their ears so they can be identified. It's a fact that seriously sick cats are put back out there. People think they are doing something good, but these cats suffer."
SNAP also has 15 humane traps it lends out to individuals who want to try to trap feral cats in their area. Friedler noted that in Silver City, feral cats that are trapped and taken to the animal shelter will be euthanized.
"If we can at least keep them from reproducing, that's something," she said. "I just wish we could do more for feral cats."
At my meeting, Dr. Dykhouse quotes national Humane Society statistics and states that the official line of the High Desert Animal Shelter is against alter-and-release programs for feral cats. "There simply are too many animals out there," he says. "We can't find enough homes for the animals at the shelter, let alone putting feral cats into the mix. And having them neutered and spayed does nothing to prevent these animals from killing wildlife, destroying property and suffering a slow, miserable death."
Sadly, studies on feral cat colonies bear him out. Statistics on "managed" colonies of feral cats—those that have been trapped, altered, vaccinated and returned to the wild—from half a dozen states on both the east and west coasts, contradict the hopes of those supporting alter-and-release programs.
"The colonies have not decreased in size over time," says one study. "The established colonies do not keep new, outside cats from joining the colony or away from the food." And, of course, the other nuisances that accompany cat overpopulation—fighting with domestic cats, spreading infectious diseases, defecating in yards and gardens—continue.
Some advocates say that if the feral cats are not returned to the area from which they were taken, as they are with the alter-and-release programs, other wild cats will move into the community to take their place, anyway. Research over time and in diverse geographic areas shows otherwise.
Dr. Dykhouse adds that "nuisance wildlife," mostly skunks and rodents, often are drawn to the food people put out for feral cats. Several people in the room give knowing nods. One of my next-door neighbors has spent hundreds of dollars trying to eradicate the skunks that have taken up residence under her house.
Now, skunks are common enough in New Mexico. It's normal to see one now and again, nosing about at dusk or in the wee hours just before dawn. What is abnormal about this situation is the large number of skunks we are talking about, "drawn to the never-ending stream of kitty kibble put out for ferals," according to Grant County's professional "Skunk Buster" who was called to the case.
My neighbor actually has had to move out of her house for periods of time, so strong was the stench coming up through the floorboards. Last year, coyotes (who apparently love skunk meat and aren't put off by their stinky spraying) came down from the hills right into this residential neighborhood and slaughtered some of the skunks, with much screaming and stench in the middle of the night.
As if Dr. Dykhouse still feels he hasn't given enough reasons to not feed feral cats and to work together to eradicate them from our neighborhood, he brings up one more point: avian flu.
"Think about it," he says. "We have cockfighting in New Mexico. When this bacterium reaches our shores, where is it going to come from? Asia. Where do the most popular fighting birds come from? Asia. Right from Asia to here in New Mexico."
The likelihood of highly contagious and deadly bird flu coming overseas via fighting birds and being transmitted to the local wild bird population—birds that may be killed by feral cats—is "extremely high," he contends.
"I'm telling you," he emphasizes, giving a level stare around the room, "you don't want these cats around your home, and you don't want your (domestic) cats out there with possibly seriously sick cats and these deadly pathogens."
All my neighbors thank the doctor for his time and professional experience. He leaves and the neighbors stay to talk with each other. They look over the sheets of information.
A few share their resolve to look into traps, either purchasing them from the local feed store or renting from the humane society. Some take additional handout sheets to pass on the information to other neighbors. To me, it's been a worthwhile night.
This is not a happy story. But it is a story with hope. It's also a story of what anyone can do to help ease the drastic overpopulation problem of feral cats in southwest New Mexico.
I haven't included in this story the many tears I've shed over the somber statistics that are the script of the feral cat's life. If some kind-hearted but hitherto uninformed person out there stops feeding feral cats because of this story, then my own pain has been worth it—to end the pain of these wild, unhappy cats.
The whimsical old adage says cats have nine lives. To go through just one life as a feral cat seems more than enough to me. k
Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure and lives with Luna and Skye, two happy, healthy indoor cats, and one animal-loving husband.