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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?”