LAST WEEK, a local business called me to tell me that they wanted to get rid of the twenty cats that were lurking aroundtheir back yard. They didn't want to be cruel, but the cats were causing a problem. How could they organise for the cats to be gathered up and euthanased?
Coincidentally, I had just visited the housing estate where I lived fifteen years ago. I had been talking to a former neighbour, and while we were chatting, a large ginger tom cat strolled by. He has a distinctive appearance, largely because the upper half of his left ear is missing. "Is that Ginga?" I asked. My neighbour confirmed my suspicion: this was the same big feral cat that had been on the scene fifteen years previously.
Ginga was one of the leaders of the feral cat colony that had begun to cause problems in the housing estate at that time. Initially there had only been half a dozen cats, but they had begun to breed uncontrollably. At the start of the year, the three females had six kittens each: by the following spring, there was a core group of almost twenty adult cats who made their home in the area. A few kindly residents were leaving out some cat food but there wasn't enough. The cats began to go hungry, and they soon started to annoy residents by ripping open bin bags, creating a mess, in their efforts to avoid starvation. Something had to be done.
As the local vet, I was the obvious person to ask about solving the problem. I put together a plan and presented it to the residents' committee. Some people had already told me that they just wanted me to catch the cats and euthanase them (like the local business who called me last week). I explained to them that this would not solve the problem. If this was done, all that it would achieve would be to create a vacuum in the local environment. Within weeks or months, other feral cats from adjacent areas would notice that there was an area that had no cat population. They'd move in to occupy the territory and soon enough, we'd be back to the same situation, with a rapidly expanding population of unowned cats. The "catch and kill" policy has been proven many times to be ineffective.
The better answer, as I explained to the residents' committee, was to carry out the type of Trap Neuter and Release (TNR) programme that I've discussed before in this column. I asked each resident in the estate for a donation, and I used the funds to trap all of the cats, neuter or spay them, then release them back into the estate. As it happened, when we trapped the cats, we found that a few of them were seriously ill, and we did have to euthanase those ones. A few other cats were rehomed to farms and stables that had been looking for cats to carry out rodent control. We ended up returning around a dozen cats, including Ginga. We'd reckoned that the area could comfortably host this number of feral cats without causing difficulties to the cats nor to the residents.
The plan worked: the smaller number of feral cats fitted well into the area. A few residents were happy to leave out food for them, and they did a good job of preventing rats and other rodents from causing a nuisance. The bin-raiding stopped, and the number of cats remained stable because they were no longer able to reproduce. At the time, I reckoned that we had solved the problem for around a decade: around then, the cats would begin to die from old age and there was a risk that a new bunch of feral cats might move in from other areas. At that point, a second phase of Trap/Neuter/Release might be needed.
In fact, the original scheme has had an even longer effect than I'd expected. Fifteen years later, Ginga is still there, the proud ringleader of his bunch of cats.. How do I know that the cat is the same animal? It's obvious: the upper half of his left ear is missing. Ear tip removal is an important part of a feral cat control programme: if every cat that's neutered has an ear tip removed, it's easy to spot the ones that have been done, and those that still need to be trapped.
I remember Ginga particularly well because the procedure was carried out by a new graduate vet who had not been involved with this type of programme before. Instead of just snipping off the top 1cm of his ear, he had taken a more radical approach, removing twice as much. It didn't bother Ginga: he was deeply anaesthetised when it was done, and he would never look in a mirror, so he wouldn't realise that he had a shorter ear than other cats. But as a result, Ginga has a unique appearance: he'll never be mistaken for any other animal.
Ginga is elderly now: his vision is dimming and as he's become more reliant on humans, he's become tamer. He's had a good life, and along with his extended family, he's done a good job of maintaining a pleasant environment in the housing estate.
What about that local business who just wants to catch and kill their "problem cats"? I'm going to cut out this article and pass it on to them. There is a better way, as Ginga would tell them.