Meow mess 

Missoula’s feral cat colonies have created a battle between those who protect them and those who want them gone

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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.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Mary Johnson, a local Animal Control officer, observes a feral cat colony within Missoula city limits.

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.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Karyn Moltzen plays with three cats at the local AniMeals shelter. She says her organization has provided 23 tons of food to cat colony caretakers since 2006.

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.

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