Ypsilanti Township looks for creative ways to solve growing feral cat population
Photo courtesy of the Humane Society of Huron Valley
Ypsilanti Township Trustee Mike Martin and his wife, Wendy Martin, fit the definition of "cat people." They own five cats who are a part of the family, along with several other pets.
But last summer, the Martins also got acquainted with several other cats they named “Ariel” and “Chunky Butt” among others. That group is among the neighborhood's feral cats, and through the Martins’ efforts, they were all trapped, sterilized at the Humane Society of Huron Valley, vaccinated and released back into the neighborhood.
Feral cats - or “community cats, as the HSHV refers to a broader population of outdoor cats averse to human contact - have particularly been an issue in Ypsilanti Township. On more than one occasion, township ordinance officers have encountered vacant homes sheltering up to 60 cats.
As he walks his dog through the neighborhood each day, Martin said he continues noticing a growing number of feral cats, though there are no solid figures from the township or HSHV on how many community cats live in Ypsilanti Township.
"Let’s say I’m seeing 10 of them on my walk now, then that means there are more I don’t see. Those are going to multiply, and soon we’re going to have a lot of feral cats,” Martin said. “What we’re trying to do is be proactive and prevent the situation from escalating by controlling the population.”
The “Trap-Neuter-Return” approach to controlling the cat population is the most humane and best solution, HSHV officials say. It involves live-trapping community cats, sterilizing them, treating them for disease and releasing them back into the colony where they were found. Their ears are tipped so officials know the cat has been treated.
The HSHV put the program in place in 2007 and has seen a 23 percent drop in the number of strays brought in since then while assisting more than 8,500 cats.
The method is so successful that cities like Calgary and Long Beach created their own large, controlled feral cat colonies to help control the population, and Martin is hopeful something similar could be established in Ypsilanti Township. While there are multiple smaller colonies now, Martin envisions something larger, though he said it’s only being discussed as of now.
Brittany Keene, the HSHV’s community cat coordinator, said the agency is working on a study to at least get a clearer picture of what areas have higher populations of community cats. Keene said she believes Ypsilanti Township might hold more than other communities because parts of it are rural while other parts are more urban, and vacant homes are a good spot for a cat colony to grow.
Regardless of the location, Keene stressed the TNR program is the only humane way to control and address a burgeoning community cat colony in any part of Washtenaw County.
“TNR is the only method proven to be humane and effective at controlling community cat population growth,” Keene said. “The goal of any community cat management program is to maximize the quality of life for the cats, stabilize the colony population, reduce unnecessary euthanasia, and elevate the worth of community cats through education and awareness.”
Martin explained the way he and his wife live trap the cats. For a week, Wendy feeds the cats and lets them get comfortable coming to the dishes. They then place food in live traps without setting the traps. After several days, she leaves the traps empty so the cats get slightly hungry. Wendy then puts the food back in the traps and sets them, which catches all the cats.
The Martins then take the cats to the HSHV and pay for them to be sterilized and receive vaccinations. Their ears are then tipped to signify they are sterilized and vaccinated. Females receive a dose of penicillin to aid in recovery and the cats are held overnight to recuperate before being returned to their original habitat.
The problems associated with community cats or feral cats in a neighborhood don’t threaten humans’ safety but the yowling, spraying and other similar behaviors can be a nuisance.
Keene said cats, for reasons that are unclear, are often considered “second-class pets” and are dumped by owners to live outside. They also are targeted for elimination and killed by some people who simply don’t like feral cats.
Among other tactics, some will try to starve the cats out of a colony by not feeding them, though Keene points out that is ineffective because cats are able to find other food sources. Others call animal control companies that Keene said almost all euthanize the cats, some inhumanely through gassing.
If someone is successful at clearing a cat colony, Keene said, then often new cats will move in or any cats that weren’t “cleared” will continue breeding, but become more cautious.
“Simply put, eradication is only a temporary fix that sacrifices animals' lives unnecessarily, yet yields no positive beneficial return,” Keene said.
She stressed the importance of cat owners spaying or neutering their own pets, and pointed out that cats are fertile animals, producing up to three litters annually.
If residents see stray cats roaming the neighborhood, Keene suggests contacting the HSHV if their ear is not tipped. The HSHV can send out a TNR specialist. They also offer classes once a month to train people to become TNR specialists who can take care of a cat colony. Yet another option is the "Barn Buddies" program, which offers cats for free to farms that will provide a good outdoor home for them.
"The bottom line is that no matter how they came to be outside, community cat overpopulation results from owners who have dumped or lost or let their unsterilized cats roam," Keene said. "This is a problem caused by people. HSHV is committed to protecting and improving the lives of community cats. By spaying and neutering, and vaccinating these cats, we can all do our part to ensure they lead the healthiest lives possible."
Contact the humane society at 734-662-5585.
Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com.