No purr-fect solution to feral cats


Eleanor Ricchuiti holds one of the 12 feral cats she has taken in on her Pearsons Corner farm. Ms. Ricchuiti says the area has become infested with feral cats and she can’t afford the cost of food, and veterinarian bills for any more.  (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Eleanor Ricchuiti holds one of the 12 feral cats she has taken in on her Pearsons Corner farm. Ms. Ricchuiti says the area has become infested with feral cats and she can’t afford the cost of food, and veterinarian bills for any more. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — It’s not that Eleanor Ricchuiti dislikes cats.

It’s the numbers that bother her.

“It’s bad,” Ms. Ricchuiti said. “These cats are taking over our neighborhood. There are hundreds of them roaming out there and it’s frustrating not knowing what to do.”

Ms. Ricchuiti, who lives on Pearsons Corner Road, said she has exhausted her resources in dealing with the feral cats that have made her neighborhood their territory. She’s not alone. Delaware’s large feral cat population is a common issue in the United States.

Hetti Brown, executive director of the Delaware Office of Animal of Welfare, said the problem persists because there hasn’t been a comprehensive statewide program to resolve the issue.

“We’re not unique,” Ms. Brown said. “The problem persists on the East Coast. There are resources like different shelters or non-profit organizations that are trying to fix the problem, but it needs to be more of a statewide approach…”

She pointed to neighboring Maryland.

“Through it’s new statewide Spay and Neuter Grant Program it is awarding nearly $475,000 in grants to 14 nonprofit and governmental organizations across the state to provide low-cost spay and neuter services targeted to low-income pet owners.”

“I think that’s the approach we need to take,” Ms. Brown added.

Feral cats are not socialized to people and live on their own outside. They are usually too fearful to be handled or adopted.

They often live in a group of related cats, called a colony, but if food is scarce they roam solo.

Kevin Usilton, executive director of The First State Animal Center and SPCA in Camden, said the problem is due to a state law that only allows dogs to be provided for in animal-control contracts with counties. First State has the animal-control contract for all three counties.

“There aren’t any agencies that will pick up free-roaming cats,” Mr. Usilton said. “There aren’t any shelters for these cats, as the public needs a place for them. When there isn’t enough space in those shelters, we can’t take them in. That’s the case with other shelters in the area, too.”

But Ms. Brown said she’s happy that a law isn’t in place.

“These cats are fine and healthy on their own,” she said. “They would round up of these cats and euthanize them. It’s a good thing that isn’t the case.”

She thinks the public agrees with her.

The problem

Dr. Stacy Waters of Spay Neuter Clinic in Dover said the number of free-roaming cats in the area is large.

“We get about 150 cats a month,” Dr. Waters said. “I haven’t seen an increase, as the amount of cats we see every month is about the same, but I will say the cat population is pretty high in this area and that’s due (to there) not being a place for people to take them.”

A female cat can become pregnant as early as 5 months old. The number of feral cats in a community can increase rapidly if cats aren’t spayed or neutered.

To spay a cat is to remove the ovaries from a female; in neutering, a male cat is castrated.

A colony typically occupies and defends a specific territory where food and shelter are available, such as dumpsters or restaurants, beneath porches or in abandoned buildings.

The high volume of cats can be a nuisance for residents: Ms. Ricchuiti had to get her heating duct replaced after she found cats under her air conditioning unit.

“These animals are getting very aggressive,” she said. “They sit on my car. I can’t leave my barn open because they will come in and mark their territory. It’s costing money and I’m on fixed income.”

Some people feed feral cats, but what often happens is that the food attracts more cats, the cats have more kittens and the number of cats to feed continues to increase until it can become overwhelming.

Dr. Waters agreed.

“Some people think they’re doing a good deed by feeding these cats, but that may be the problem as well. The more food, the more the cats will come to a specific area and the more they will continue to multiply.”

One town’s solution

The city of Harrington historically had a problem with a growing feral or stray cat population.

About two years ago Harrington resident Danny Tartt approached City Manager Teresa Tieman to complain about the number of stray cats he saw every day in the southern Kent County town. Ms. Tieman urged him to help find a solution.

He and other concerned citizens, including Harrington City Councilwoman Amy Minner, formed a group called the City Cat Crew.

The volunteers worked, with resources of other partner agencies and the city of Harrington, to raise awareness about feral cats. The city and the Crew started a pilot trap, neuter and release program and went to work.

“It’s a very successful program,” Ms. Tieman said.

The cat population decreased, and Ally Cat Allies, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for community cats, presented Harrington its Architects of Change for Cats award in October 2013.

Other efforts

The lack of shelters in Kent County is one of the main reasons Karli Swope founded the Grass Roots Society, which sprays or neuters and provides life-saving veterinary care for rescued dogs and cats.

Ms. Swope was a volunteer at Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary in Georgetown when it closed its doors in 2013.

“It’s just a shame there aren’t places for these cats,” she said.

Society volunteers foster, transport animals to veterinarians and handle fundraising and administrative activities.

“We are committed to minimizing our costs so we can save as many lives as possible,” Ms. Swope said.

Mr. Usilton said the most effective method is the trap-neuter-release philosophy.

The idea is to trap feral cats, spay and neuter the animals so they can’t reproduce and then release them back where they came from to live out their lives. Instead of a cat colony that continues to grow and reproduce, the effort allows the colony to shrink as each generation dies off.

“The best thing you can do for the feral cats in your neighborhood is vaccinate them, prevent them from reproducing and then leave them where they are,” Mr. Usilton said.

“If the cat has a notched ear, it is a sign that it has already been spayed or neutered and vaccinated.”

That’s the approach used by Harrington’s City Cat Crew.

“PetSmart Charities funded the program, as the grant we used to have ran out,” Ms. Tieman said. “We’re always looking for money. We need the money for TNR fees, as we pay half and the citizens pay the other half.”

Ms. Brown also said that’s the best approach of dealing with issue. She suggests people reach out to local shelters, as Delaware offers a low-cost spay and neuter program for income-eligible applicants.

“Those who are eligible may have up to three pets spayed or neutered every fiscal year for $20 each,” Ms. Brown said. “We also work with local organizations and shelters to help solve the issue. We’re doing everything we can to reduce the problem.”

Ms. Ricchuiti already took matters in her own hands by trapping and neutering feral cats at local clinics in the past. But the situation has stretched her resources.

“I let it go for far too long,” she said. “I called many different organizations to try to solve the problem. I bought traps and started trapping them.

“I’ve spent over $1,000 spaying and neutering 20 cats,” she said.

Now, she hopes more will be done to solve the problem.

“I’ve paid my dues.”

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