Feral cat allies gather for first national conference

More than 350 cat lovers from 37 states (and Canada and Israel) gathered at a suburban Washington hotel last weekend for a landmark event.

This was not a kitty convention with knitted catnip toys, froufrou blankets and pampered pets, but rather a serious conference that brought together national experts with innovative ways of tackling a critical and controversial municipal issue: cat overpopulation.

It was Alley Cat Allies' first national conference: "Architects of Change for Cats."

The attendees, mostly women - and a few men - were the compassionate street warriors who brave all kinds of weather, often hostile municipal officials and a wary public to care for feral felines in their communities.

They came to share experiences, learn about health care and shelter management and listen to Becky Robinson and like-minded animal friends preach the gospel of TNR.That's Trap Neuter Return for the uninitiated. The idea being to manage cat populations by trapping animals, getting them to a vet for shots and spaying or neutering and returning them to their outdoor homes.

Sue Cosby, director of Animal Care and Control Team in Philadelphia, said estimates suggest there are as many as 380,000 feral cats in and around Philadelphia.

Overburdened shelters often have no alternative but to euthanize them once they cross their transom.

The philosophy of managing cat colonies where they exist grew out of the realization that virtually all feral cats brought into shelters went directly to the kill room.

When Robinson founded Alley Cat Allies 23 years ago in a Washington D.C., yes, alley, she was a lone voice for developing a new way to give wild cats a shot at life.This past weekend at what was by all accounts the first national conference of its kind, she was joined by hundreds of others who share her philosophy, including shelter managers, animal control officers and regular folks who manage colonies in their neighborhoods.

"Becky Robinson is leading a revolution in understanding animals, especially feral cats," said John Fulton, host of Animal Planet's "Must Love Cats" show, who was the conference's keynote speaker.

Among the speakers were animal control officers who once trapped cats knowing they were taking them on a one-way trip to the shelter, but who now embrace TNR.

Major Steve Lamb, who runs animal services (he changed the name from "animal control" to reflect the new approach) in the Spartanburg S.C. police department, delivered a power-point presentation that used police crime mapping techniques to chart where managed cat colonies were located and where they were getting calls about "problem cats." The data showed managed colonies lead to fewer police calls.

"We put our money into saving animals rather than destroying them," he said.

Lamb's department also took a unique response to complaints about cats killing wild birds: they installed a surveillance camera and found no indication that cats were preying on birds in that location.

Conference attendees are the kind people who stand in an exhibit hall trade stories about "their colonies" and gush over the latest developments in live traps - that is, traps that do not kill animals but allow the removal of a wild animal from an area safely and humanely.

Tomahawk Traps was founded in Wisconsin in the 1920s by a mink farmer who needed a way to catch escaped minks and preserve their valuable pelts. Today, owner Jenny Smith told me, TNR is a major business driver. The company now makes a full range of traps for feral cats, along with nets. gloves and other devices to contain animals. They also make a "feral cat box" that allows shelter staff and others to isolate a cat by creating a safe place so they can clean a cage or deliver medications.

A large percentage of feral cats will never be curl-in-your-lap companions. But many, particularly kittens and younger cats can be happy in homes (several are napping near me now).

Still, even the adoptable cats - strays and owner surrenders - face dire circumstances in most shelters with euthanasia rates hovering around 70 percent. Shelter managers at the conference described how TNR efforts help reduce shelter kill rates by keeping the cats out of the shelters in the first place.

In San Jose, animal care and services director Jon Cicirelli said, TNR is responsible for flipping the city shelter's save/kill rates. Where once the city destroyed some 80 percent of cats, they now are saving that many.

Some creative shelter directors like Bonney Brown, formerly of the Nevada Humane Society, offered their tips for successfully marketing the cats in their care: from "speed dating," and "adopt a mini panther "(black cats) to getting cats into the community through special events. "Human interaction," she said, is key.

Brown said when a local resident, tired of the shelter's many promotions, wrote a snarky letter asking what the shelter was going to do next? "Adopt a cat for Arbor Day?" they decided to institute an adopt-a-cat for Arbor Day deal - and get a free seedling.

In two decades, Alley Cat Allies has grown into the national advocacy and education group for feral cats. Their team of lawyers parachutes into communities, including many here in Pennsylvania (most recently Radnor and South Newtown west of Harrisburg) to help local advocates stop bad laws like feeding bans and encourage the adoption of TNR-friendly policies.

But Robinson said there are still too many shelters that euthanize too many cats. "They are not shelters, they are killing machines," she said.

Robinson and others will continue to make the case that TNR is not only the humane thing to do it makes sense economically. It's cheaper to keep the cat in the community under the care of volunteers than hold them in a shelter and eventually kill them.

“If you try to change the status quo, there are bound to be policymakers or leaders who misunderstand your intentions and try to block you—until you make the economic case. Once they see the bottom line, they’ll support you,” said Cosby..

“We don’t have to apologize for what we are doing," said Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego. "What we are doing is making a difference."

For more information about the conference, including a full list of speakers, visit www.alleycat.org/conference. For a comprehensive summary of the conference program, see #AlleyCatConf on Twitter.