What happens to feral cats during COVID?
BY GRACE WILLIAMS
for Montclair Local
The Broadway sensation “Cats” pictures stray cat life as one fantastic adventure, but local animal rights advocates agree that the reality for feral cats is anything but dazzling. And the pandemic has only made it worse on the feral cat population.
Also known as “community cats,” there are tens of millions of these unmoored felines in the United States, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The fate for many members of this tribe is untimely death, due to the conditions of living on the streets, multiple litters for females and lethal elimination.
Vet clinics closed down from mid-March until the first or second week of May because they were not considered essential, which meant that for Communities Promoting Animal Welfare (CPAW) alone, at least 80 feral cats were not serviced during the shutdown. CPAW’s trap, neuter, release program normally averages about 40 cats a month.
“We had to consider vet safety, and they had to figure out how to do the surgery safely,” said Karen Shinevar, a founding board member and president of CPAW NJ.
Shinevar explained that a female cat can become pregnant at 16 weeks of age, while the gestation period to grow a litter is just 62 days. “There’s no such thing as kitten season,” she said. “There are warm days in the winter now, and kittens are born all year round.”
A female cat can have five litters a year, with the average litter being four kittens. By spaying one female and neutering one male cat, more than 2,000 offspring can be avoided over four years and 2 million over eight years, according to the ASPCA.
To remedy this situation, advocates have turned to communities and clinics, forging the two as partners in a more humane solution called “Trap Neuter Return” or “Trap Neuter Vaccinate Return” (TNR/TNVR). To participate, a concerned citizen works with organizations to safely trap community cats and transport them to a qualified facility for spaying or neutering. They are then returned to their habitat, since most feral cats cannot be domesticated.
Liz Morgan, director of Montclair’s Animal Shelter and Animal Control, said that over the past five years the township’s feral cat population has gone down because Montclair is on top of its TNR program. Without it, there would be five times more feral cats in town, she said.
With Montclarians now working from home, they are more aware of the feral cat population, Morgan said. “People have been home over the past [few] months, and we’ve gotten an increase in calls about cats,” she said.
One recent CPAW initiative took in 15 cats from Bloomfield, which has a program to reimburse CPAW for incurred costs. Over several days, the cats were spayed and neutered and returned to their habitat. These returned TNR cats equate to the prevention of potentially more than 10 million offspring in the long run, Shinevar said.
Morgan said that over the past 30 days they have assisted with seven feral cats, down from a peak of 70 earlier in the year.
Organizations like CPAW also assist residents by lending them traps and instructing them in safe trap-and-transport methods.
“Trapping takes time,” Shinevar said. “We are here to educate people about what can be done and that they can do it themselves. With a little support and guidance and the loan of a trap, they can do it.”
Essex County freeholders also understand the urgency. At a meeting on Oct. 23, the TNR Committee touched upon the issue of the feral cat population.
“We have been getting inundated with calls and concerned emails from folks in the community who are looking out for feral cats,” said District 3 Freeholder Tyshammie L. Cooper, who chairs the TNR Committee.
Cooper suggested at the meeting the possibility of providing trapper training or bringing on a professional trapper, “as opposed to people who are not as efficient and may harm the cats they are trapping.”
Before COVID-19, the county had a $25,000 pilot program offering mobile TNR services, rolling through all 22 county municipalities each month to offer procedures free of charge.
While the program no longer drives to communities due to COVID-19 protocols, free services are still available to anyone who can bring a community cat to a location in Newark.
As colder days and winter loom large, ordinary citizens with an understanding of how to help community cats make all the difference, Shinevar said. “Feral is a behavioral designation. Outdoor cats can be fine. They just need food, water and shelter in the winter, and to live their longest life. And they need to be fixed,” she said.
Even pre-COVID, the requests for TNR services were “off the charts,” Shinevar said, and CPAW ended up turning people away because of limited resources.