City looks to new feral cat strategy

City Council considering ordinance legalizing feral cat colonies

Niki Karger prepares a feral cat for surgery at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control on Aug. 22 Credit: Nick Halter

Minneapolis City Hall is gearing up for what could be a highly contentious debate: What to do about stray cats that roam neighborhoods and kill birds.

A newly introduced ordinance would make it legal for residents to start feral cat colonies, allowing them to feed stray cats from their property. That same person, known as a caretaker, would then help capture the cats and have them spayed or neutered before being released back to the location they were taken.

The ordinance, authored by City Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), would represent a departure from the way the city handles stray cats now. While the city has ramped up spaying and neutering in recent years, it still outlaws the ground feeding of wild cats and kills hundred of feral cats every year.

In 2012, the city took in 927 stray cats and euthanized 327 of those cats, or about 35 percent, according to Animal Care and Control figures. That’s down from 56 percent in 2010.

A Sept. 11 public hearing on the ordinance is bound to bring out both cat lovers and bird lovers, who feel that a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program will be ineffective in controlling the cat population. 

“This is not going to go smoothly, I would predict,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy at a recent City Council meeting. 

Supporters of the ordinance argue that by capturing and spaying or neutering cats, the feral cat population in the city will decrease naturally because they won’t be able to produce offspring.

But the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, while supportive of spaying and neutering, says allowing feral cat feeding in other cities has failed.

“Even well-fed cats hunt, and studies have shown that non-native predators can kill 50 percent or more of the fledgling birds in a metro area,” Chapter President Jim Egge wrote in an email to City Council members.

TNR supporters say the number of birds killed by feral cats is usually exaggerated, because often they factor in cats that eat birds that are already dead.

Egge says the city should instead make laws against owners allowing their cats to roam, expand spay and neuter programs, require cat licensure and inform the public not to feed stray cats. 

How it works 

On a recent August afternoon, Erin Richards, a veterinarian technician, Niki Karger, a certified veterinarian technician, and veterinarian Kim Culbertson  spayed or neutered six cats in a rented room at the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control building.

The feral cats had been trapped in metal cages. They’re usually rambunctious because they’re not used to being around humans, so Richards gives them an injection to put them to sleep.

Then, Karger vaccinates the sleeping cats, implants them with a microchip and clips an ear, which lets people know they’ve already been spayed or neutered.

Veterinarian Kim Culbertson finishes by spaying or neutering the cats. The cats are then released back to where they were trapped.

Culbertson started a nonprofit called Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program three years ago, after she had grown tired of euthanizing homeless animals as part of her duties. She started MNSNAP to educate the public and to provide subsidies to veterinarians so that the cost of spaying and neutering animals could be lowered — particularly in low-income areas.

MNSNAP now subsidizes three surgery teams that each perform, on average, nearly 30 sterilizations per day. That has amounted to 35,000 surgeries since April 2010, including the sterilization of 4,400 feral cats.

Dana Andersen is executive director of the Minnesota Spay and Neuter Assistance Program.

Andersen the goal of TNR to allow the feral cat population to gradually dwindle over the years.

“Granted, you’re not going to see a huge reduction in the first or second year, but over time there aren’t reproducing cats and then you start to see attrition,” Andersen said.

She said feral cats in Minnesota have an average lifespan of about five years, which is shorter than domesticated cats because they often get hit by cars, freeze to death or contract diseases.

Andersen also noted that sterilizing cats takes away hormones that contribute to a lot of problem behavior like marking, fighting, moaning and spraying.

“Sterilized, they’re not going to breed, they’re not going to pass on rabies, they also end up hunting and killing rats and other rodents that might carry rodents,” she said. “So they end up being a great deterrent for rabies and a layer of protection for residents.”

How Minneapolis deals with stray cats (numbers from Minneapolis Animal Care and Control)