The drive to reduce feral cats in a community is a contentious issue, fraught with the need to be humane to cats, thoughtful of wildlife, and respectful of the property of citizens. However, in Las Cruces, the two sides repeat a core idea: the elimination of unneeded euthanasia of healthy animals.
A program in debate here locally is trap-neuter-return/release (TNR). This program, endorsed by both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, is where free-roaming cats are caught in traps, sterilized, and returned to the location of their capture to reintegrate into the cat colony. In general, community-based groups will take the kittens that might be caught and try to find homes for them. Those trapped with severe health conditions, such as feline leukemia, will be put down. Over time, the sterilization serves to reduce the cat population.
On the other side of the debate is the concern of the welfare of local wildlife that would be harmed by the release of predatory animals to an area. Supported by the American Bird Conservancy and The Wildlife Society, those opposed to TNR worry about effectiveness in lieu of the danger to birds and lizards, and even to the pets of homeowners. Aggressive behavior toward people and the spread of disease are also mentioned as concerns of those opposed to TNR.
A push for TNR in Las Cruces has stalled since April, where city council has been divided on the topic. The proposal was to at a minimum have the act of releasing neutered feral cats be decriminalized, if not have TNR be supported by the city itself.
Las Cruces City Councilor Gill Sorg — who is also president of the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society — comes out against TNR and believes that education and outreach should be key steps to solving the feral cat problem. “I fully believe in 0 in 7,” said Sorg, referencing the Coalition for Pets and People’s initiative to have Las Cruces be a no-kill city by 2019. “However, cats are born predators.”
His amendments to the ordinance failed to find common ground either, such as a program that seeks confinement of
feral cats by the city’s animal shelter. He mentioned that a lawsuit brought by a citizen in Albuquerque against the release of cats in her neighborhood is something that Las Cruces city council is waiting to see the outcome for, in case it might be applicable to Las Cruces. It is scheduled to be heard in Albuquerque in August. “Some people don’t understand the responsibility of owning a pet,” said Sorg. “I would love to see billboards, radio and newspaper ads, and social media all covering spay and neuter options. Everyone should be talking about it.”
Las Cruces has already experienced a buzz of local success in the microcosm of New Mexico State University with their own TNR program, Feral Cat Management Program or FCaMP. Over 12 years, FCaMP has effectively reduced the cat population by sterilizing and adopting out cats from the main campus. Before the program started, an estimated 250 to 300 cats lived on the campus and were being rounded up by grounds crew to take to the shelter. Michelle Corella, involved in the group since the beginning and becoming the director in 2007, estimates there are now about 50 cats on campus with four she has her eye to get to the doctor for a visit. She notes the delicacy of student housing being harder to manage with respect to property rights, but that they have been able to work with residents.
Corella says that TNR needs to work on a case-by-case basis — how healthy is the cat, how socialized? A problem is the dumping of healthy, socialized cats that would be perfectly adoptable, yet their previous owners perhaps didn’t have the heart to risk their deaths at the animal shelter. Corella has had 150 adopted into homes. “TNR involves making very careful choices for the outcome for the animal.”
“In a perfect world, cats would be indoors and live in homes, but that is not reality,” said Corella. She notes that research varies to listing Doña Ana County as having anywhere between 15,000 to 50,000 cats. With females having three to four litters per year due to our good climate, and a survival rate of one to two kittens per litter, and females gaining sexual maturity in six to seven months, the population growth is exponential.
Corella defined a core problem of TNR that is a sticking point for the opposition. “People want an overnight solution, they want instant gratification,” said Corella. “TNR is not instant gratification, it takes a long time if you have a large number of cats. To get the results, you have to be patience and diligent.”