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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 02:20 pm

Hello, Kitty!

When cats go wild, volunteers get busy


Outside, it's a gray Sunday afternoon in November, and you are a cat in a box. Since you came into this world eight months ago, you have known only your mother and five brothers and sisters who share the back of an abandoned garage on Pasfield Street. About three weeks ago, Mom departed and never came back, and you've been living on bugs and garbage in the alley. Last week, from out of nowhere, bowls of cat chow and water began appearing daily, just outside the door.

On this morning, when you walked into a wire house for some more of that food, you discovered you couldn't get out. Then someone came, put you into the back of a station wagon and brought you here. In a few minutes, you will be given the first "name" you ever had: "Number 42," the number they placed on your box when you arrived.

Never in your life have you been so close to people. Your mind has been on fire, careening from stunned stupor to stark terror to brief moments of secure contentment. On the positive side, no dogs are barking, and all you hear around you are footsteps and pleasant conversation. If you ever see them again, your brothers and sisters back in the garage will never believe your story.

Number 42 has arrived at Parkway Veterinary Clinic on Dirksen Parkway, site of the volunteer-maintained Trap-Neuter-Return program. Feral cats like Number 42 - domestic cats that live in the wild -- are trapped by TNR volunteers, brought to the clinic to be spayed or neutered, treated for minor medical problems, then returned back to where they were found. The TNR program's goal: Humanely cut the feral cat population while curbing the disruptive behavior of sexually active felines.

Dr. Richard Speck, a veteran veterinarian and TNR director, launched the program three years ago in cooperation with the Animal Protective League of Springfield and Sangamon County. He drew his inspiration from an article about a similar effort in California. Now, Springfield's program serves as a model for other communities.

All the people you see are smiling and gentle. Even when they took you into the room to be weighed (so they would know how much anesthesia to administer), described you in the day's activity log, and gave you your number, they were smiling and unhurried.

You began to panic when they took you into a room with a big steel table. When your carrier door was opened, you ran out, only to find yourself in another big wire box. There was no way out. Gradually, a volunteer pushed a wall toward you that forced you to the opposite end of the box. During the brief moment when you were held so tightly between the two walls you could not move, you saw, more than felt, a woman put a small needle with some medicine into you. And then the curtain came down over your eyes.

Starting at 8 a.m., one Sunday per month, feral cats are brought to Parkway in boxes and pet carriers from all over Sangamon County. The cats are arranged in neat rows in the waiting room. As the day begins, carriers and feline occupants are taken one at a time to a processing room where each cat is given a "toe tag" with a number placed on the container. Number 42 was one of 49 cats brought in on a recent Sunday.

Though you were temporarily unconscious, you were pliable and flexible, not stiff. Only in such condition could you endure the next station on the passage through the TNR program. Down the hall, a volunteer in rubber gloves felt your lower rear area to determine your sex. Unlike dogs, the only way humans can determine your gender is to feel for the presence of the reproductive organs.

To prepare female cats for surgery, a small portion of the belly is shaved and cleaned. Male cats are shaved in a small area just under their tails. As a volunteer explains, "Feral cats, if not anesthetized before coming to us, would never submit to a sex check." All cats are put under anesthesia to minimize the risk to everyone and to make it easier to shave and clean them.

Some cats encountered in the wild turned feral after being taken into the country and dumped or simply abandoned in the city. "Sometimes all a kitten has to do is urinate on the owner's bed sheets to be placed outside the house and abandoned in the city. This is a terrible punishment for an animal whose minor infraction was committed without malice," a volunteer says.

Number 38 was "under the knife" on a surgical table in the hallway as you were taken into an operating room. On one of the two tables in the room, Number 41 was being spayed. As Sharz Heidari, a third-year veterinary student sutured Number 39, another vet relieved you of your spherical miracles. Compared with what happens to the sisters, what happens to you and other brothers is pretty uncomplicated. You're in and out in just a few minutes.

Feral cat colonies of three or more animals form when they find a common shelter that's out of the wind and rain. No matter how cold it gets in central Illinois, if they are out of the wind and dry, and fed and watered, cats will survive. Often a recently abandoned cat mates with a cat that has never been touched by a human. These colonies grow, and their impact on surrounding pet and wild life is inevitable. Females in search of a mate shatter the peaceful night as they howl to the darkness and keep the neighbors awake. Males, competing for their respective paramours shred the stillness with noisy combat.

There's no exact census of feral cats in Sangamon County, but volunteers are aware of several colonies, including ones at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and the CWLP power generating plant at Lake Springfield. Many are in city neighborhoods. More than 50 caretakers regularly feed feral cats in Sangamon County. For some volunteers, it's just a routine of keeping cat food and water close to known feral cat living quarters. Others adopt additional feral cats and construct special shelters for them. (See "Case study" on page 13)

On Nov. 9, two veterinary students from the University of Illinois Veterinary School at Urbana-Champaign worked under the supervision of Drs. Sean Snyder from Capital Illini Veterinary Services, Sherri Williams from White Oaks West Animal Hospital, and Speck, plus almost a dozen support personnel. On a typical TNR Sunday, 15 to 20 volunteers will spend the day treating area cats.

Volunteer Sharmin Doering explained that testing of feral cats for feline diseases such as Feline Immune Deficiency Virus (FIV) is done only for cats intended to be re-socialized and placed in a home. "The cost of testing feral cats is prohibitive," she said. This also accounts for why rabies vaccinations are not given to feral animals. All cats are given distemper shots, and treated to eliminate worms and fleas. Cats that are returned to a wild environment outdoors have a tip of an ear clipped off, so that previously spayed and neutered cats can be identified on sight.

When you awaken in the holding room, it's like you had just had a good night's rest, though you're hurting a little down where the sun doesn't shine. While you were sleeping, someone trimmed your toenails, but did not remove them. Your ears have been cleaned, too. No more itchy ear mites! Before you opened your eyes, you sensed that someone was watching you pretty closely, and as soon as you began to move, a woman whisked you back into the box you arrived in. That's where you will be for the rest of today and tonight, and that's good. During this time, you'll be given as much food and water as you want. By the time you get back to the family, you'll have had some time to get your thoughts together and heal some from what you went through when you were asleep.

For too many cats, their transit through the TNR program is the only contact they will have in their lives with a veterinarian. "This is their 'spa day,' volunteer Doering noted. "We try to do everything we can for them when they visit our one-stop shop. And we don't leave here until the last cat has awakened from the anesthesia, indicated that there are no problems coming out of the surgery, and been picked up by the person who brought him in."

TNR day volunteers are not all connected to veterinary care. "There are three of us here who work for the State of Illinois," Doering said. One man works for the State Journal-Register. "If we know people who are interested in helping, we invite them to come along, but there's no real recruiting effort under way." Most volunteers are regulars. Donna Vaughn has been a part of every Sunday's activities since the program began in 2000. "I'm an animal lover," she explained. When she's not taking care of four feral cats that live on her property, she drives a city bus for Springfield Mass Transit.

Participants in the TNR program discourage people from adopting feral cats. "If you do bring a cat in from the outside," Doering says, "it may already be infected with FIV and you run the risk of exposing your own animals to that disease. If you do bring them into your house, you want to keep them separated from the rest of your animals until they are tested." Participants emphasize that the TNR program is not a "drop off" service. "These surgeries must be scheduled so we can better prepare for the day," Doering says.

To stabilize their condition, cats living in feral colonies should be fed and watered regularly. Speck says feed the cats only during the day to discourage other animals from raiding their food. If feeding the cats isn't an option for a person who knows the location of a colony, the Animal Protective League may provide a volunteer.

Wouldn't it be simpler to solve the cat population problem by using up their nine lives? "We're into humane control, not just control," Speck says. "And you can't kill them all.

"The ones you don't kill will go into hyper-reproduction and quickly fill that space. The way to succeed and control the population over time," he says, "is to spay and neuter and return the animals back to that location.

On a sunny Monday morning, you were released beside the same abandoned garage where this adventure started. Even though you were missing a piece of your right ear, the family recognized you and welcomed you back. With luck, you'll live to a ripe old age in this cat house humans call Springfield, Illinois. Chances are better here than in the country, at least. You will never understand how lucky you are, and that's okay. After all, you are a feral cat, alive and healthy, and that is all you ever wanted to be.

To arrange spaying and neutering, and to learn more about the TNR program, call the Animal Protective League at 217-544-7387. If you're caring for a feral cat, but are unable to trap or transport the animal to Parkway, assistance is available.

Case study

Nancy Skaggs lives in the country between Rochester and Edinburgh and drives a gravel hauling truck for a living. She has been active in the Trap-Neuter-Returnprogram for about three years. When she moved to her present address, Skaggs personally trapped the feral cats she had been feeding and sheltering and moved them with her. "I was up to 32 adult cats at one time," she remembers. "One Halloween I had 17 black kittens. When I decided to move, I could not stand the thought of leaving the cats alone where they were."

Skaggs has built shelters for cats in her backyard using scrap lumber and straw from her nearby horse barn. Today, she cares for 15 adult cats. Some of them are moderately socialized, but others just come in for the food and disappear into nearby brush and meadows the rest of the time. "They can hear you coming, so some you hardly ever see."

Recently, she became aware of a feral cat who, along with a fresh litter of kittens, had set up housekeeping in an open-sided storage building, and she started placing food on a shelf regularly. "Then I put up wire mesh to help protect them from dogs that run out here, and we hear the coyotes at night." She also regularly traps raccoons and relocates them away from houses.

When possible, after weaning is over (about six weeks), Skaggs separates kittens from their mothers to get them "tamed." She runs ads in the newspaper at her own expense and personally interviews those who respond so she can be confident they will be going to homes that will care for them. This fate does not await the current new arrivals in the storage building. "These kittens are about four months old now, and their behavior is so feral, I can tell they will never be domesticated. Sometimes, it's obvious."

Over the years, the "cat Samaritan" has been scratched, bitten and infected by cats whose intentions have not been in harmony with hers. Asked why she is so devoted to cats when there are so many human social concerns asking for support, Skaggs answers, "There are so many tax-funded agencies for people and so little going to projects like this. I see real progress out here as cats become healthier, thanks to regular meals, put on weight and interact with the others. I think it's important for people to get involved with these animals."

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