Rain drizzles on two beige trailers while eight cats peer silently from within. One black tomcat crawls onto the roof. It crouches tense and afraid, ready to flee at the approach of strangers.
“Holy crud,” says Mary Johnson, an enforcement officer with Missoula Animal Control. “That is a huge cat. Somebody must be feeding it.”
Johnson is visiting one of Missoula’s countless feral cat colonies. In barns and trailer parks and dilapidated buildings across the region, abandoned cats in huge numbers gather for food, shelter and the promise of procreation. In many cases, human caretakers help sustain the colonies with food, water and protection.
The caretaker at this particular colony asked that its location remain a secret.
Nobody knows exactly how many feral cats currently reside in the greater Missoula area, but experts agree there are a lot. Erin Horner, the shelter attendant at Animal Control, estimates that there are probably 100 feral cat colonies in Missoula County alone. “Those range anywhere from 60 or 70 cats in the largest four or five colonies to eight to 10 cats in smaller colonies,” she says.
Despite their abundance, these colonies often go unnoticed.
“Silence is their best defense,” says Karyn Moltzen, a leading cat advocate and founder of the local nonprofit AniMeals. “They are invisible.”
The black tomcat is a perfect example. As Johnson’s truck idles, the animal slinks into the ramshackle trailer. Johnson later learns that the cat is a master at avoiding the traps that animal control officials and shelter staff set out to capture and neuter such creatures. As the dominant feline in a colony of eight, the tomcat has likely produced many kittens over the years.
“Cats can have two or three litters a year and they can start reproducing at five months,” says Mariah Scheskie, the program manager at the Humane Society of Western Montana. “The average litter is four kittens. They are very prolific.” All it takes is two breeding animals and, as Moltzen says, a colony goes “boom!”
Those booming colonies present an increasing challenge to local officials. Despite their ability to survive and reproduce under difficult circumstances, feral cats are not exactly wild animals, and they are certainly not native to western Montana (nor North America, for that matter). They require management and pose serious human health problems, such as rabies and the cat-borne parasitic disease toxoplasmosis, as well as environmental problems, like the devastating predation of birds and small mammals.
The American Humane Association reports that there are as many as 86 million household cats and another 50 million feral cats in the United States today. A 2013 report by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimates that free-ranging cats, including ferals, kill between 1.7 and 3.7 billion birds in the continental United States every year. The survey, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, estimates that cats kill another 6.9 to 20.7 million small mammals in the U.S. annually.
“Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for U.S. birds and mammals,” write the report’s authors, adding that “unowned cats” cause the majority of these deaths.
Cats are also vectors for diseases that can afflict humans. “For the past 15 years, cats have been the leading domestic animal with rabies. We see up to 300 cases of rabies in cats each year,” says Cathleen Hanlon, rabies team leader at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “… But [toxoplasmosis] is an even more pressing issue than rabies.” Hanlon calls toxoplasmosis “ubiquitous” and “hardy.”
As far as local health officials know, neither disease is a problem in Missoula.
Toxoplasmosis, however, is hard to track. Carried by cats and transmitted through their feces, toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. It can infect humans, travel through their blood stream and lodge in their muscle tissue and brain cells.
“Our most recent survey, a national survey, indicates that about 12 percent of the U.S. population [is infected],” says Jeffrey Jones, a toxoplasmosis expert at the CDC. “…We estimate that about a million people each year are infected, but again most of those people do not become sick.” He says uncooked meat and cat feces are the two major vectors of the illness and that it often presents itself as asymptomatic. In other words, it is a silent disease.
The disease is associated with birth defects and miscarriages in pregnant women, and behavioral changes and neurological disorders like schizophrenia, especially among the immune deficient. Some have called it the “crazy cat lady syndrome.”
These environmental and health concerns have made feral cats in particular, and outdoor cats in general, the object of growing national concern among conservationists, scientists and health officials. And that concern extends far beyond Missoula.
AniMeals, the “no-kill” animal shelter and food bank, resides in an old warehouse down a side street off West Broadway. The building is filled with cages, and cats seem like they own the place. They roam on desks, under chairs, leaping and purring undisturbed.
In the corner, inside a spacious cage, the shelter’s founder, Moltzen, is laying on the ground spooning a refugee feline, petting it, whispering into its ear. A tall, tanned woman with a crop of dark hair, she returns to her feet and walks into her office, where more cats lounge.
The place is a field hospital in the war against animal abandonment, and Moltzen is its firebrand director. She regards felines as “perfect beings.” She is assertive in her disdain for those who would badmouth ferals and other outdoor cats. She calls the Smithsonian report “ridiculous,” despite the peer-review and the prestigious journal. She dismisses the scientists who, with studies in hand, deem cats one of the leading causes of bird mortality in the country.
“I don’t believe the number the birders are throwing out there,” says Moltzen, who owns seven cats herself. “I know what my cats bring to my door, and it is mice and voles.”
Moltzen’s organization has provided approximately 23 tons of food to feral cat caretakers since 2006, she says. It is also a major proponent of Trap Neuter Release, or TNR, an approach to feral cat management that has come into vogue in recent years. TNR involves luring ferals into traps, spaying or neutering them, and then returning them to the colonies from which they came.
The “R” in TNR drives birders and other conservationists crazy. They say returning ferals to the landscape allows them to continue preying on wildlife and encourages caretakers to subsidize colonies.
“We call TNR ‘trap, neuter, re-abandon’ because that is all you are doing, re-abandoning them,” says Grant Sizemore, the Cats Indoors program officer at the American Bird Conservancy. “Those cats will continue to be outside, they will continue needing to be fed ... You are never going to actually neuter or spay all the cats themselves. It is very impractical.”
But in Missoula, TNR is standard practice. AniMeals, the Humane Society of Western Montana and Animal Control have all employed the method for a little less than 10 years. Perhaps the best-known regional practitioner is Alan Applebury, a veterinarian who has devoted his practice and much of his spare time to spaying and neutering pets and abandoned animals in Ravalli County. He says he has used TNR to make tremendous progress reducing the feral population in the Bitterroot Valley.
“What I can tell you is that we started our spay/neuter program about seven years ago. I think they killed about 500 cats a year at the [Bitterroot] shelter back then, and this year they killed none,” Applebury says. He adds that his clinic has spayed or neutered 1,903 feral cats since 2010, half of which were female and most of which were returned to the colonies they came from. If the average litter size is four, and these are an average of 1.5 litters a year, that means he has prevented the birth of roughly 5,700 feral kittens.
“How could this not have a significant impact?” he asks.
Horner considers Applebury a mentor. She helped usher in TNR at Missoula Animal Control nearly 10 years ago, though the agency still relies on colony caretakers and volunteers to trap the cats and bring them in.
“When I started working on this, feral cats would come out your ears. [Animal Control] would have feral cats brought in once a day. Probably, on average, we would see two or three a day,” she says. “Now we only see a couple a month unless we are working with a colony.”
Horner says she does not consider feral cats a problem.
For many who work in animal rescue, feral cats are wild animals playing their part in the ecosystem.
“These are another kind of wild animal living amongst us …” says Horner. “If you see these guys, and you have to work with them, there is no doubt how wild they are.”
The animals’ untamed nature is part of the reason the feral cat conundrum is so hard to solve. Ferals simply do not have the social skills to become a domestic pet. They are cats that can’t be handled. Unless they are kittens, they can’t be adopted.
TNR advocates have a local opponent in Mary Costello, a trained avian ecologist and conservationist who keeps a file on the ecological and health impacts of feral cats at her home office in Trout Creek.
“They are considered an invasive species on a global level. They are not a natural predator,” she says. “… Given their destructive nature for both mammals and songbirds, why would we want to encourage setting up colonies in our communities?”
Costello cites a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists domestic cats as one of the 100 “worst invasive alien species” in the world.
That is the crux of the conservationist argument against TNR. Even if it cuts down on future population growth, TNR returns neutered cats to the landscape where they prey on wildlife and put human health at risk. Applebury may have spayed 336 ferals cats last year, the argument goes, but most of them went back outside. And even a few cats can do a lot of damage. On its website, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reports that an individual free-roaming cat is capable of killing over 1,000 wild animals per year.
In a 2010 letter to the Missoulian, Costello took aim at Missoula’s colonies.
“Instead of reducing the number of unwanted cats, cat colonies often become dumping grounds for yet more cats which in turn need to be trapped and neutered,” she writes. “This creates an ever-increasing colony that needs perpetual maintenance. Have a cat you don’t want? Just dump it off in a colony to become someone else’s problem.”
Costello’s concern stems from personal experience. When she lived in Missoula, she says she tried to install a bird feeder at her house on multiple occasions but was forced to take it down when neighborhood cats started showing up. Feeder birds like dark-eyed juncos, house sparrows and blue jays are particularly vulnerable to cat predation, according to a Cornell University study.
Those who oppose the practice also point out that pet food corporations are major financiers of TNR. According to tax forms, PetSmart’s philanthropic arm spends more than $17 million a year financing spay/neuter programs across the country, and much of that money goes to promote TNR. Applebury’s Fox Hollow Animal Project, the Humane Society of Western Montana and Missoula Animal Control all received grants from PetSmart charities in recent years to finance their TNR operations.
“Well, I am sure [PetSmart] would argue it is just out of their good hearts, and maybe it is,” says Sizemore of the American Bird Conservancy. “However, there certainly does seem to be an economic interest tied in. Those cats will continue to be outside and they will continue needing to be fed.”
On the topic of TNR’s efficacy, even Applebury admits that spaying and neutering our way out of the feral cat problem would require tremendous commitment. If TNR practitioners miss even a few breeding cats, then colony growth continues.
“I have read studies that say you have to [spay and neuter] 90 percent of them if it is going to work, but I think you have to get all of them,” he says. “…On a total basis, in the whole county, it might not work unless you are really committed.”
So far, Missoula has not shown that level of commitment.
“The biggest problem with Animal Control is that they are just underfunded and they don’t have enough people to manage all these things that they are supposed to manage,” says Missoula Councilman Jon Wilkins, chairman of the Public Safety and Health Committee. “I can’t remember how many wardens they have but I think the number is like six and that covers the city and the county. You can see how that is almost impossible.”
In fact, there are only four Animal Control officers employed by the city and county.
Horner at Animal Control says ferals will always be with us.
“Like Dr. Applebury says, it is always going to be there. As long as you have people dumping breeding cats, we are always going to have wild cats out there,” she says. “How many? It’s probably going to dwindle like it has over the years, but I do not think it is going to go away.”
Bird conservationists cannot abide that fact.
“There shouldn’t be feral cats out there,” says Dick Hutto, a University of Montana bird biologist. “Why do we have feral cats out there?”
Back at the cat colony, a man walks quickly toward the parked Animal Control truck. “What are you doing here?” he yells. “What are you guys doing here?”
Officer Johnson steps down from the driver’s seat and informs the man that she is simply showing a couple reporters a feral cat colony. No harm is intended. Johnson has faced fists and two-by-fours and screaming pet owners. She says she is adept at de-escalating conflicts.
The man introduces himself as Jim and asks that his last name and the location of the colony remain secret.
“I just get a little defensive, that’s all,” he says. Jim explains that he has been protective of his cats ever since someone poisoned them with Prestone a few years back.
“Somebody came through here and threw out a pregnant cat and the next thing I know I had kittens running around everywhere. At one time there were 30 out here,” says Jim, who has been taking care of the cats for more than a decade. “… And then someone came down here and decided they wanted to poison them. I would come out here and find two or three a day, dead, just laying right out here.”
He says he has a good guess who did it.
“I told the individual that I would shoot him if I ever caught him and he knows I will do it too because I am one of those PTSD Vietnam veterans,” he says, laughing.
With hot water and cat food in hand, Jim begins to dump chow on the ground around the trailers. He points to a whole raw turkey he brought out a few days before to sustain the hungry creatures. The cats begin to emerge, darting toward the food and darting back into the darkness under and in the trailers.
“These are my kids,” says Jim, who has named all the cats in his colony. He calls the big tomcat Teddy Bear. He says he regularly removes the colony’s kittens to put them up for adoption.
Balding and dressed in veteran regalia, Jim is one of many feral cat caretakers in Missoula. On the other side of the trailer park there is a second colony of nine, which his neighbor feeds and protects. Combined with his eight cats, that’s 17 feral felines in an area the size of a football field.
Moltzen of AniMeals probably knows more about feral cat colonies and their caretakers than anyone else in Missoula County. She says she is aware of 60 to 70 caretakers in the area. Many of them rely on her organization for cat food, so she knows where the felines live.
“Well you know, there is a city ordinance here where if you feed ’em, you own ’em. People just don’t tell anybody [that they are feeding them],” she says. “I don’t tell anybody where my rescues are, where the cats are that are getting fed. … It’s not that it’s secret, you just don’t want to call attention to it so people aren’t going out there shooting them or poisoning them.”
Caretakers are secretive. Multiple individuals refused to allow the Indy onto their property for fear that their cats could suffer reprisals from the community. These caretakers are a crucial link between the colonies and the organizations that provide spay and neuter services, vaccinations and food.
The poisoning of Jim’s cats, and the conflict that ensued, is reminiscent of a larger controversy. Last year, the debate between bird lovers and feral cat advocates took a nasty turn on a national scale over the use of poison.
In March 2013, Ted Williams, an established writer for Audubon magazine, authored a column for the Orlando Sentinel in which he identified a certain over-the-counter drug as an effective way to poison feral cats. In the column he also called TNR “dangerous, cruel and illegal” and suggested that trapping and euthanizing cats was a more humane approach.
His column provoked an immediate outrage from feral cat groups. Alley Cat Allies, the premier feral cat advocacy organization in the country and a major proponent of TNR, called for Williams’ termination at Audubon. The magazine later suspended him and in doing so garnered national media attention. Eventually Williams apologized, saying, “I should have explained that this feral-cat poison, if registered, would be applied only by the state and federal wildlife managers who are widely, legally and lethally (but not effectively) controlling feral cats with rifle, shotgun and trap.” He returned to work at Audubon shortly thereafter.
There have been other public conflicts. In 2010, conservation groups, including the American Bird Conservancy and an Audubon chapter, filed a lawsuit in California seeking to put a halt to the use of TNR in Los Angeles, which had adopted the method as its primary approach to feral cat management in 2005. The groups asked a judge to bar the city’s use of TNR until it underwent proper environmental review as mandated under California law. The judge issued an injunction in the plaintiff’s favor and thereby suspended the city’s program.
Alley Cat Allies responded to the ruling by telling its supporters in Los Angeles to continue practicing TNR. “The bottom line: This case DID NOT make Trap-Neuter-Return illegal in Los Angeles,” wrote Alley Cat Allies on its website. “The ruling only applies to the actions of the Los Angeles city government.”
Since the Smithsonian study came out last summer, Alley Cat Allies has spent a great deal of time trying to portray it as “junk science,” even delivering a petition with 55,000 signatures to Smithsonian in protest of the report.
UM ornithologist Dick Hutto has watched some of these controversies unfold. He says Alley Cat Allies’ aversion to the Smithsonian report is due to a lack of ecological understanding.
“The animal rights side is all about the individual animal and the rights of the individual animal,” he says. “The thing that that side fails to appreciate is that there is an ecological system too, and the system, in my view as an ecologist, is much more important to worry about than any individual animal or plant.”
As for the Smithsonian study, he challenges Alley Cat Allies and other cat advocates to develop their own data.
“Who cares whether it is one, two, three or four billion birds killed each year—it’s a lot,” he says. “What do these other people suggest, would be my question. What data do they have that we could look at to compare with this?”
Despite the national controversy, the feral cat issue has not sparked much conflict in Missoula. In fact, it has barely been discussed in public forums at all, and many caretakers want it that way. They love their feral cats and so, like the cats themselves, they stay silent.
“Come on babies! Come on,” Jim says sweetly, trying to lure the cats out to eat.
When he has emptied his container of food, he walks back to his trailer as the colony disappears into its run-down shelter. A passerby would never know it is there.
Awareness of Missoula’s feral cat colonies and their impact remains minimal.
When asked, County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said she did not realize feral cats had such a big impact on wildlife. “I never thought about it being a huge issue, I guess,” says Curtiss. “It is not a topic we’ve discussed.”
Jim Carlson, director of Missoula City-County Health Department’s environmental health division, was surprised to learn about the large network of colony caretakers. Even officials at the state Audubon Society did not know about the abundance of colonies in the city. And everyone agreed that there was no public discussion when TNR became the de facto policy at Animal Control.
“I don’t remember any [debate],” says Curtiss.
For Costello, educating the public and policymakers about feral cats is the first step toward solving the situation.
“There is a lot of literature out there, there is a lot of credible data, and they need to avail themselves of that information. It is readily available,” she says. “They need to really step back and take a hard look at this. I think the veterinary community as well has a responsibility.”
The American Bird Conservancy is tackling the education angle. It launched a campaign called Cats Indoors to encourage communities to keep cats, whether feral, stray or free-roaming, off the streets. It says indoor cats live longer and cause less damage than outdoor cats.
Mariah Scheskie of the Humane Society agrees with at least some of the organization’s claims.
“The average lifespan for an individual cat, and there are a lot of numbers out there, is 12 to 18 years,” says Scheskie. “… For an outdoor cat, if they are not being cared for, if they are just sort of out in a barn, it can be two years, so you know that is a huge number for people who love their pets, that is a huge reason for them to keep them indoors.”
Moltzen thinks the Cats Indoors idea is a pipe dream. “Good luck,” she says. “It will never happen.”
As part of its campaign, the American Bird Conservancy holds up Aurora, Colo., as an example of a city with progressive cat laws. In 1994, Aurora began enforcing a cat ordinance that included a mandatory confinement of cats to their owner’s property or physical confinement (read: leashes) when off their owner’s property. Cats are entirely prohibited from running at large in the city. The ordinance imposes stiff fines and even jail time for cat owners who break the rules.
Though Missoula has a solid cat ordinance, it is weak when compared to Aurora’s policies. After all, as Moltzen indicated, many colony caretakers simply ignore the provision that requires those who feed cats to take full legal responsibility for them. And the ordinance does not entirely ban free-roaming cats.
What’s more, the Missoula cat ordinance only applies within city limits. The county does not have the authority to enforce the regulations, according to Carlson.
While education and stricter laws might solve part of the problem, one question remains: What to do with the feral cats that are already on Missoula’s streets? On this topic, opinions vary widely. TNR proponents want to stay the course. Opponents of the practice offer a variety of solutions, from rehabilitation and adoption to expanding shelter capacity to eradication. Bottom line: they don’t want the cats returned outdoors.
Larry Weeks, chairman of Five Valleys Audubon Society’s education program, says he has participated in a number of TNR drives, even working with Applebury on one occasion. Weeks believes the method cannot work on its own.
“I guess, if you are going to help the bird population you are going to have to euthanize those feral cats. I guess I have to agree with that idea, because when you turn them loose again they just go back and do what cats do and that’s kill birds, mice and everything else they can catch,” he says. “… I worked with that Trap Neuter Release program enough to realize that it’s not the solution. It has to go another step, and I think that is euthanizing the feral cats and educating people who have house pets.”
TNR opponent Costello agrees. She understands that no one wants to euthanize any animal, but she says hard decisions have to be made.
“I think the colonies need to be eliminated,” says Costello. “The whole process of TNR should be banned. I think communities should ban the practice, and I think ordinances must be passed for controlling free-ranging cats.”
For Horner at Animal Control, that scenario is hard to stomach.
“When I started here the only way of dealing with feral cat colonies in Missoula was to trap them and to euthanize them,” she says. “If you have ever truly seen one of these animals up close, for the most part they are very healthy, they are beautiful, they are bright-eyed, but they just have one downfall and that is that they are completely wild. It is really hard to euthanize one of these animals.”
With the “no-kill” movement, as Moltzen calls it, as strong as ever in Missoula, that scenario seems unlikely for now.