barn cats


TNR is Trap Neuter and Release. Last week I wrote an editorial comment for our local paper about our local Humane Society shelter's program of TNR. This will be the longest post I've ever done, which may be the TMI --too-much-information part.

Cat eating bird

Late Monday afternoon, a friend and I went out to the Mendocino Coast Humane Society to photograph the “feral” cats that they have been releasing from the shelter. Coincidentally, Monday’s mail contained the MCHS’ fundraising newsletter with their mission statement printed boldly at the top of the first page. It reads: “—we are here (to find) secure, loving and permanent homes for the homeless pets in our community.”
For a community the size of ours, we should be proud of our Mendocino Coast Humane Society (MCHS). The main facility is nice and the “Kitty Cottage,” which I saw for the first time on Monday, is truly beautiful.
            I’m always saddened by the plight of animals, especially those at our mercy, so I was there after-hours with an ulterior motive. Friends in this community, who have dedicated their time and a great deal of their financial resources to help stray and deserted animals, alerted me to the fact that as good as our shelter is, it has a policy related to abandoned cats that I find appalling.
            Also from their newsletter: “We are a No Kill Shelter. We provide shelter and food for all medically treatable animals for as long as it takes to find them a loving home.”
Apparently, there a few holes in this policy.
            It has been creditably rumored that to maintain this no kill policy, animals deemed un-adoptable are routinely transported to a kill facility—like animal control. I understand this on one level. Some animals have been so abused and traumatized by their relationship with humans that we’ve destroyed any chance of successful rehabilitation.
            I said “creditably rumored” because our Humane Society is a secretive, closed-door, autocratic organization. However, since they are licensed by the city and get some of their funding from the city (our taxes) they are required to hold one public meeting a year. The last one was over nine years ago. Their Board goes to great lengths to keep out anyone who doesn’t agree with their policies—including volunteers, some of whom are routinely threatened with denied access if they dare to raise concerns.
 I am not a volunteer, and have had limited, but very negative experiences with their policy-makers. Most of my encounters have been with staff, and research-related. Those times, the Shelter Director and Board member, has always been helpful, and appears dedicated to her job of many years.
As a city licensed, publicly-funded, 501(c)(3), non-profit facility, the community served by the Humane Society has a right—and an obligation—to know what is going on with regard to their “Barn cat” program—which, by letting nature take its course, is another way of keeping their no kill numbers at a minimum.
  Cats deemed feral are routinely released into the woods that surround the facility. These cats are first kept in the Kitty Cottage to bond them to the location, then set “free.” One of the cats, Mow, was recently advertised in the Fort Bragg Advocate (3/1/12) as “a very sweet young lady who has lived strictly indoors all her life.”  This “strictly indoor” cat is now living in the woods with the tip of an ear cut off, the shelter’s way of marking a feral cat.
            A week ago, I sent out an e-mail about the release of Frankie, a cat advertised in a March 2011 “Take Me Home” flyer, as “a handsome 1 year old boy who has overcome his shyness as a kitten to become a really friendly feline.” Frankie was adopted as a barn cat but was seen killing birds. He was returned to the shelter and subsequently “set free.” I’ve gotten a couple of responses to that email informing me that Frankie is happier outside at the shelter. Perhaps he is, but that isn’t the issue. There is an excellent facility in Sonoma County called Forgotten Felines. They deal almost exclusively with feral cats. (As does the national organization, Alley Cat Allies.) Here is how Forgotten Felines defines feral:
  • Total Feral: A wild cat with no previous human contact or only negative contact.
  • Semi-Feral: A shy or fearful cat that has had some positive human contact.
  • Converted Feral: An abandoned domestic cat that has reverted to semi-feral behavior.
Monday afternoon, when my friend and I arrived at the shelter, two cats came running. We could pet them, pick them up, and tickle their bellies. There was nothing feral about either of them.
From the parking lot, we walked around the Kitty Cottage. Other cats appeared: some were indeed too frightened to approach—which made me wonder if this was result of conversion to feral from living in the wild where, out of necessity, their survival instincts take over and they become hyper-vigilant.

Overall, I counted eight cats. Three were untouchable, but five came close enough (4 to 6 feet) to receive a treat, and three of those (including Frankie) let my friend pick them up and tickle their bellies.
At the back of the Kitty Cottage, we found food and water—guaranteed to attract raccoons, possums, and skunks if left uneaten. (Since staff had gone home and we were there until nearly , it’s unlikely that it all gets eaten before nightfall.) This is also means that once their vaccinations expire, these cats are exposed to diseases including rabies.
            Mow, the cat advertised as adoptable in the paper on 3/1/12 was not approachable, but stayed nearby. This population will, over time, live up to the tag the shelter has given them. In the meantime, they are living in a diminishing habitat. They are killing the wildlife and, in time, the wildlife will kill them.
            MCHS is calling this is a “barn cat” program, but there is no barn, or any other way for these cats to get out of the elements, or escape predators.
            The larger issue remains: who is making the decision to release these cats, and what guidelines are they following? Of course there are cats that can never live with a family, or are inappropriate house pets, but there are other recourses beyond opening up the Kitty Cottage door and shooing them into the woods.
            Cats are territorial. Problems can arise when a new cat is introduced to an existing colony. A new cat can find itself picked on by the other members of the colony, or the new addition can pick on an older cat and chase it from the territory.
            While researching this article, I had a long and informative conversation with a representative at Forgotten Felines. On their website are guidelines for successfully turning an un-adoptable cat into a barn cat. There are protocols for this but it means keeping the cat in a cage in the barn for a month before releasing it. (All that information is out there, if the Board and staff of MCHS didn’t bristle at suggestions from outsiders.)
            Another suggestion from FF was to fund-raise for fencing. Releasing un-adoptable cats into an outside sanctuary would be okay, if they were truly inappropriate for adoption, and were released into a space safe secure from predators. If the Humane Society pursued that option, they might well set the gold standard for dealing with truly un-adoptable cats.
            The MCHS needs a more transparent governing body with an open mind to help from the community, and someone able to tell the difference between a frightened cat and feral cat. The cats might all, with a proper chance, become wonderful pets, good barn cats, or at the very least, live out their lives in a safe environment.

The Challenge (from the American Bird Conservancy website)
There is no question that birds are better off when cats stay indoors. Exact numbers are unknown, but scientists estimate that every year in the United States alone, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, including rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. Feline predators include both domestic cats that spend time outdoors and stray cats that live in the wild, sometimes as part of a colony.

Life for outdoor cats is risky. They can get hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, coyotes or wildlife; contract fatal diseases, such as rabies, feline distemper, or feline immunodeficiency virus; get lost, stolen, or poisoned; or suffer during severe weather conditions. Outdoor cats lead considerably shorter lives on average than cats kept exclusively indoors.

Free-roaming and feral cats also pose a health hazard to humans from the spread of diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis. In April 2010, the Volusia County Health Department in Florida issued a rabies alert for 60 days following two unprovoked attacks on humans by feral cats within a month. Two cats had tested positive for rabies in the area. The CDC states that “Unvaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets exposed to a rabid animal should be euthanized immediately.” Even in ‘managed’ colonies all cats cannot always be vaccinated, and infected animals may be even harder to catch in a timely manner before they infect other animals or humans.

This interesting American Bird Conservancy video was filmed in my old stomping ground. My husband has a house at Ocean Reef, and I was on the Board of  the Tropical Audubon Society when I lived in Miami. GR

There are a many companies that supply kits for building outdoor enclosures for cats.
This is just one of them.

This is Mow, originally advertised as
"strictly a housecat"
This is Frankie, returned to the Shelter for killing birds, deemed unadoptable,
and released into the woods behind the Shelter

I don't know the name of this cat, but the 'dreadlock'
hanging from her side will eventually
come off leaving an open wound on her side.

“Holding this soft, small living creature in my lap this way. . . and seeing how it slept with complete trust in me, I felt a warm rush in my chest. I put my hand on the cat's chest and felt his heart beating. The pulse was faint and fast, but his heart, like mine, was ticking off the time allotted to his small body with all the restless earnestness of my own.” Haruki Murakami

“I hated cats. I was a dog lover," Des says with a shrug. "What's the point of a cat? They're not affectionate. But that's because it's not my cat. I mean, your wife wouldn't jump on my lap. That's because she's your wife, not mine. Until you have your own cat, you really don't understand.”
Rescue Ink, Rescue Ink: How Ten Guys Saved Countless Dogs and Cats, Twelve Horses, Five Pigs, One Duck,and a Few Turtles