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Winter Garden gives Pet Alliance $50K for targeted trap-neuter-return program

Nonprofit aims to reach 800 community cats in city “hot spots” for neuter/spay, rabies vaccines.


TNVR at Pet Alliance
A Pet Alliance volunteer with cats in draped traps awaiting their spay/neuter and rabies vaccines.

People love to feed stray cats. Well, cat people anyway. Dog people maybe not so much. But cat lovers can’t seem to resist popping open a tin of Fancy Feast if they spot a stray slinking around their neighborhood. While that’s admirable, there’s more to caring for a community kitty — which is probably dining on Whiskas at the neighbor's place three doors down, Meow Mix across the street and 9Lives around the corner — than just leaving food out in dish.


“A lot of people say It’s not my cat. I’m just feeding it because I didn’t want it to starve,” said Christina, a feline welfare advocate and trapper who only wanted to give her first name.But it’s not enough to feed the cats. You have to get them fixed so that they don't reproduce.”


Fixing cats so they don't reproduce is the goal of a new partnership between the city of Winter Garden and the low-cost clinic/adoption center Pet Alliance. With a mandate to stabilize the city’s community cat population and reduce the overbreeding of kittens, the Orlando-based nonprofit began its trap, neuter/spay, rabies vaccination and release (TNVR) program in June, targeting the city's “hot spots” where large colonies of community cats congregate. (Also known as free-roaming cats, community cats are outside cats without owners. Some may have had owners once but were abandoned [strays] while others have always been outdoor cats and may be wild, fearful, even aggressive toward people [feral].)


Pet Alliance, which has done 13,000 community cat TNVRs since 2018, has a turnkey operation. Cats are trapped on Thursdays. Surgeries are done on Fridays. While at the clinic’s Alafaya location, cats receive rabies vaccines and their left ears are clipped — the universal sign a cat has undergone TNVR. On Saturdays, cats are returned to their colonies.


"The word return is important because we need people to know these cats are being returned to the exact location where they were trapped. We do not remove cats. We are not a removal service," Steve Bardy, Pet Alliance's amiable executive director, told a group of feeders, trappers and colony caretakers who had gathered on a May afternoon at Winter Garden City Hall to hear about the new program. "We know that does not work. Taking them out of the situation does not solve anything."


“A cat needs to get back to its environment, to where it knows the people it knows, the home that it knows outside, so it can start its own healing process. And that comes straight from a veterinarian,” added Cathy Houde, the community outreach manager for Pet Alliance’s Community Cat Initiative. “Holding onto cats does nothing but stress them out." In a shelter environment, stress raises cats' risk for upper respiratory conditions, which in turn can increase the risk for euthanasia. “That's why our turnaround is quick," she said. "In the beginning we weren't even gonna do a hold, but we got pushback for that, so we decided to do a one-night hold. As long as they're fully clear from anesthesia, and they're bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they're going back the next day.”


Cathy Houde of Pet Alliance
Cathy Houde, Pet Alliance Community Cat Initiative community outreach manager, at Winter Garden City Hall May 24, 2023. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

The goal is to TNVR 800 cats within the year. The city is pumping $50,000 from the general budget into the program. City Manager Jon Williams said he envisions this being a multi-year endeavor.

District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller, who has several cats himself, originally proposed adding funds for animal welfare to the city budget in 2021. “The $50k represents one tenth of one percent of the city budget yet creates such a positive impact,” he told VoxPopuli via text message. “While the program benefits everyone, it is essentially for those on fixed incomes and near poverty as a higher number of homeless pets are found in these communities. "



A NEW APPROACH

TNVR was popularized in the 1970s in the United Kingdom and Europe before the global feline advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies imported it to the United States in the 1990s. At the time, free-roaming cats were typically trapped, sheltered and often euthanized. According to Alley Cats Allies, the kill rate for feral cats in shelters and pounds, too wild to be adopted, used to be 100 percent. But decades of euthanizing stray/feral cats did nothing to reduce community cat populations. Indeed, a former president of the National Animal Control Association once likened the catch-kill method to “bailing the ocean with a thimble.”


That’s because of a well-established phenomenon that occurs in many animal populations called the Vacuum Effect: remove animals from a community, and in time others will simply replace them. Officials in the Massachusetts city of Newburyport discovered that in the 1990s when they hired a company to trap and kill 30 of the 300 cats that had established a colony along a river. Within two years, the colony had gained 30 new cats.


“Cats are in an area because they have a food source,” Coryn Julien, director of communications for Alley Cat Allies, said in a phone interview. “When they are removed from that area, there may be a temporary dip in the population. But because there is a readily available food source there, cats from surrounding areas will just move into the space. And since they are not spayed or neutered, they will quickly breed back into capacity.”


And cats are “prolific” breeders, according to Bardy. A female cat can have her first litter at 4 months old and go on to have three to four litters a year with four to eight kittens in each litter. If a female cat lives six years, she can potentially have 192 kittens. Not to mention what her offspring can produce.


That’s a mind-boggling number lot of kittens.



But after TNVR, the breeding cycle gets disrupted, mating behaviors like fighting, yowling and spraying diminish, the colony stabilizes and the number of community cats gradually declines. For instance, in 2000, Alley Cat Allies partnered with Atlantic City's Health department and Humane Society on the Boardwalk Cats Project, a TNVR/adoption program for the boardwalk’s 275 community cats. Those that weren't adopted were returned to the boardwalk. According to Alley Cat Allies’s website, no kittens were born at the boardwalk in more than a decade. Today, according to the Shore Local, just 24 cats remain.


GREAT NEED, FEW RESOURCES

There’s no telling how many community cats or even how many cat colonies there are in Winter Garden, according to Williams. Researchers and animal welfare experts have suggested that a city’s or county’s human population divided by six or 10 or 15 may provide an estimate of the number of free-roaming cats in a community. On its website, Orange County Animal Services puts the number of community cats in the county at 93,000. By that yardstick, Winter Garden with a city population of 49,000, would have a community cat population of between 3,266 and 8,166.


Others believe that method of guesstimation belongs, well … in the litter box.


“We have seen no reliable formula or estimate of how many cats there are in any given community,” said Julien. She said that cat counts are “not usually based in anything realistic” so they don’t use them at Alley Cat Allies.


“Most community cats are not socialized to people, so they'll be hiding from people most of the time, especially people they don't know who are just coming in to try to count them,” she explained. “People try to estimate numbers, but I would not take them on any factual basis.”


Regardless of the tally of cats and kittens, there’s agreement that some population control measures needed to be instituted — without Winter Garden becoming, as Williams put it, the “dumping ground” for unwanted cats. According to Florida State Statute 828.13, abandoning an animal is illegal.


Williams told VoxPopuli that the city had picked up the tab when a few local trappers turned in receipts for spaying/neutering community cats. But there was no uniformity or guidelines regarding reimbursements, and Williams said the city had received some vet bills totaling hundreds of dollars. “We felt like we needed a more organized approach, and that’s when Pet Alliance came into the picture,” he said.


It can cost $200 to $400 to spay/neuter a cat in a private veterinary practice. Pet Alliance, a low-cost clinic that does a high-volume business in spay/neuter surgeries, charges just $60. The Central Florida Community Pet Clinic in DeBary has even lower fees for community cats ($45) while charging more for spaying and neutering pet cats ($75) and purebreds ($100). Volunteer trappers go there because the clinic doesn't charge them for the cats they bring in, according to Christine, who estimates she's TNVR'd more than 200 cats.


"We book our appointments months in advance because you know you're always going to have an animal that's going to need it," she says. "There are that many cats out there."


A new law, HB 719, which went into effect July 1, may help lower TNVR prices further by bringing more veterinarians into the field and expanding much-needed access. The law allows veterinarians who've retired to Florida or spend part of the year here but still maintain their licenses in other states to perform TNVR procedures on a volunteer basis under the supervision of a Florida vet. In a statement on Alley Cat Allies' website, Julien said the law will help curb the number of cats and kittens surrendered to Florida shelters and euthanized.


Steve Bardy Pet Alliance
Steve Bardy, executive director of Pet Alliance, at Winter Garden City Hall on May 24, 2023. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli


TARGETED REDUCTION

Pet Alliance’s MO is "high-volume targeting," Bardy explained. "If you've been trapping for 40 years, something's gone awry," he said.


Pet Alliance doesn't expend resources on three cats hanging by a neighborhood dumpster. "Three cats is not a lot of cats," Bardy said. For that, they will gladly direct you to Orange County Animal Services (407-836-3111), which will drop off up to five traps per household per year for TNVR free of charge. More than five cats? Pet Alliance will point you toward CAREFelineTNR.org.

Once there are 15, 20, 25 cats, then Pet Alliance swings into action, working with a neighborhood home owners association, if there is one, residents who feed the cats and their volunteers spend a few weekends trapping those cats before moving on to the next hot spot. (To report a hot spot, contact the Community Cat Initiative at 407-967-5106, choude@petallianceorlando.org)

You want to shrink the large colonies so they're not producing as many kittens, Bardy said. "You see faster results if you focus on 40 cats in one spot rather than 40 cats all over the city."


“If you focus on individual areas and then you have a colony manager or caregiver that is diligent about trapping any newcomers that are intact, then you do drive the numbers down," confirmed Kim Staton, director of Osceola County Animal Services who began a county-wide TNVR program in 2018, in a phone interview.


“But it needs to be targeted, organized and systematic," she continued. "If it’s done haphazardly, where people trap a few cats out of this group and the next day they’re in another area and trap a couple there, that is not targeted TNVR, and it absolutely doesn’t work. It’s a waste of resources because while you’re spaying or neutering those animals, the rest are still intact and proliferating."


Pet Alliance started its Winter Garden efforts with a cat colony living around an apartment complex off W. Colonial Drive that we’re not naming to protect the cats. So far, 93 cats have been TNVR’d since the organization began its work.


Only 707 cats to go.


 

Pet Alliance will host a TNVR “boot camp” for volunteers July 29, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Winter Garden City Hall. Pet Alliance is also seeking Spanish speakers to help trappers communicate with residents in the field. For more information, contact 407-967-5106, choude@petallianceorlando.org





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