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Compassion in Action:
Operation Catnip's
Trap-Neuter-Return Program

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by Mia Austin Scoggins

Feral cat - a stray or abandoned household pet who has reverted to its wild nature; the offspring of a feral mother.

It is estimated that some 60 million feral cats live in the United States. They can be found in barns, parks, alleys, abandoned buildings, near dumpsters, restaurants, or other sources of food and shelter. Wary of humans and defensive, the cats form colonies. Bleak lives are shortened by malnutrition, disease, trauma (cars, catfights among males) and high kitten mortality. Often these cats are euthanized as a public nuisance; a large portion of a shelter's resources must go to destroying stray and abandoned pets. As cats die or are removed, other strays move into the territory, and the cycle of breeding, misery, disease and death continues and the number of cats increases.

Eschewing a "pest control" perspective for a "population control" model, the trap-neuter-return (TNR) program has evolved in recent years as a non-lethal alternative for controlling the feral cat population. The futile extermination of cats in an attempt to eradicate the problems posed by ferals is replaced by "population control" via the TNR program. This humane alternative involves spaying or neutering feral cats, which are then returned to their colonies. Caretakers agree to provide food and shelter for the sterilized, vaccinated cats.

The overall health of a "managed" colony of feral cats improves. The population is decreased, birth rates are lower, disease is less prevalent. A measure of the program's success is found at the animal shelters, which report fewer cats euthanized. Animal lovers, as caretakers for a colony, can experience the satisfaction of improving the lives of creatures too often forgotten or scorned.

Trap-neuter-return programs are used successfully throughout the world. England and Denmark are among countries which prefer this method of feral cat population control. In the United States, groups such as Alley Cat Allies, Friends of Feral Felines, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, and the Feral Cat Coalition dedicate their resources to improve the lives of feral cats.

In 1994, Operation Catnip was founded in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1998, the program expanded to Gainesville, Florida. Modeled on San Diego, California's Feral Cat Coalition, Operation Catnip joins other groups nationwide in an effort to reduce the numbers of feral and stray cats through low-or-no-cost TNR programs.

Operation Catnip, Raleigh, holds its monthly Spay-Neuter Clinic at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Operation Catnip loans out humane traps to caretakers for trapping and transporting the cats to and from the clinic. Trapped the night before, the cats arrive at the clinic early in the morning to check in. The cats are registered, caretakers fill out paperwork, and the cats are taken into the clinic.

The clinic is run entirely by volunteers - veterinarians, veterinary technicians, vet students and lay people. In the clinic, licensed veterinarians perform all the spays and neuters. Veterinary technicians and NCSU veterinary students provide technical skills. Lay people serve as volunteers in a variety of support and administrative positions. All volunteers have been vaccinated against rabies. The clinic, run as a highly organized and specialized "assembly line", can sterilize up to 150 cats in a few hours. The clinic is free of charge, and all services are made possible by donations.

While still in its trap, each cat is anesthetized. Females go to "Spay Prep". Secured to a spay board, each soundly sleeping cat's belly or flank is shaved and bathed in Betadyne solution in preparation for the spay surgery. Another team of veterinarians neuters the male cats. Medical conditions, such as ear mite infestation, lacerations, and abscesses can be treated while the cats are under sedation.

The tip of each cat's left ear is cropped using a laser. The ear crop is the internationally recognized sign of a sterilized feral cat. The cats receive routine vaccinations, including rabies. The newly spayed or neutered cat is closely monitored in the "recovery room". On a large, soft quilt, under heat lamps, the anesthetized cats sleep off their anesthesia. Before they awaken completely (these are feral cats!), they are returned to their newly cleaned, freshly paper-lined traps.

In the afternoon, the caretakers pick up the traps, each containing a sterilized, vaccinated cat. The cat will remain in the trap until the caretaker sees that it is awake and alert; this can take as long as the following morning. The cats are released at their colony location and fed. The caretaker will attempt to observe all of the cats daily to ascertain that all are recovering well.

"Trap-neuter-return is a major step in addressing feral and stray cat issues in this country. We are happy to see the program expand, and would like to see programs throughout the United States," said Operation Catnip volunteer and Board of Directors member, Ronnie Mea. At a recent Spay-Neuter clinic, Yvonne Boisseau and Marie Gatton, who come from Richmond, Virginia, each month to volunteer at Operation Catnip, reported that "OC/Richmond" would soon be a reality. A group of veterinary students, U-PAWS (University of Pennsylvania Animal Welfare Veterinary Society) participated in the recent Operation Catnip Clinic. Robin Valentine, a third-year veterinary student, sees education about TNR programs, such as Operation Catnip and the "Spay a Stray" monthly clinic, as a means to encourage interest and support within the local veterinary community. NCSU veterinary student, Rebecca Meyers, plans a career in shelter medicine. She has volunteered in the Operation Catnip clinic since beginning "vet school". Citing the number of animals euthanized weekly in her home county, Ms. Meyers said, "We need to educate people about a better way (TNR) to deal with stray cats."

At the end of a recent Spay Neuter Clinic, 124 cats had been spayed or neutered and vaccinated. Caretakers, who will "manage" (provide food, oversee the cats) the colonies gently load the traps containing drowsy cats into vehicles. Among the caretakers are Sylvia and Frank Dyson, from Ivanhoe, North Carolina. They have made the 200-mile round-trip each month since November 1999. "People shoot or drown ferals. Half our job is to educate the uneducated. We explain how the cat will look, why the ear is cropped. We are a liaison," they stated. This month, the Dysons brought in a feral cat "sent by an 83-year-old lady". Next month, and the month after that, these caretakers, compassion in action, will trap, transport, and treasure cats considered unlovable by many.

Trap-neuter-return programs, such as Operation Catnip, succeed in reducing the feral cat population at the least cost to the public, and in providing the best possible life for the cats. Operation Catnip's mission is "to reduce the population of feral cats by sterilizing as many as possible". Tamara Cappelson, President of Operation Catnip, Raleigh, notes, "To date, the combined total of cats sterilized through the Raleigh, North Carolina and Gainesville, Florida clinics exceed 7,000." Operation Catnip's ultimate goal? "We want to put ourselves out of business one day."