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FOX 11 Investigates feral cats, efforts to control population

Feral cat trapped by Cats Anonymous volunteer in Green Bay area. The program neutered the cat and then returned it to the area it was caught. (Mark Leland/WLUK)

ALLOUEZ (WLUK) -- Millions of people have cats as house pets and that's where they belong -- indoors. But abandoned and neglected cats left to roam outdoors have bred feral cat populations nationwide including right here in Northeast Wisconsin. Animal experts say they can spread disease and they can disrupt the ecosystem.

FOX 11 Investigates discovered feral cats not only prompt complaints from homeowners, what to do about also raises controversy. And if you don’t think there are feral cats in your neighborhood, think again.

Cats that live outdoors without the touch of humans are wild, feral creatures. They feed on birds, rodents and other animals, as well as the compassion of those they come across, such as Steve Murphy of Allouez.

"I’ve seen as many as six to eight. I’ve seen them already in packs of two running around," said Murphy.

He puts out food for the feral cats, and offers up his heated garage. But he says mostly the cats get by on their own.

"I have not found one mouse around my house in the last two years so the cats kind of do keep the mouse population in check," said Murphy.

On this day Monica Hoff is setting up live traps to catch the wild, feral cats around Murphy’s property. Hoff is the animal control officer for Allouez, Bellevue, Howard, Suamico and Pittsfield.

“Remember these are cats you can’t pick up. You can’t touch, they’re terrified because they’ve been born as kittens in the wild, never touched by human hands,” said Hoff. “They’re like a wild animal you can’t even get that close to them.”

Hoff started keeping track of calls to pick up stray cats back in 2005. That year there were 48. Some of those were house pets that got loose—they were either claimed from the shelter or adopted. But 71 percent, or 34 of those stray cats, were considered feral. They were euthanized.

In 2008 Hoff’s approach changed when she joined forces with Cats Anonymous, a non-profit group in Green Bay whose mission it is to humanely control the feral cat population. They do that by trapping, neutering and then returning the feral cats to where they caught them.

“Trap, Neuter, Return is all about managing the cats that are already out there,” said Hoff.

Since 2005 Cats Anonymous has trapped, neutered and returned to the areas surrounding Green Bay more than 12,300 feral cats.

FOX11 Investigates asked Cats Anonymous director Lisa Kay Peters if she thought people realized how many feral cats are out there?

“They don’t. We didn’t when we started,” said Peters. “True ferals are pretty sneaky. People may not even realize they’re in the neighborhood.”

“I mean this is about population control and doing it humanely,” added Peters.

Once a month dozens of volunteers and homeowners set traps provided by Cats Anonymous in areas feral cats have been reported. Once captured they are brought to the Cats Anonymous facility in Green Bay.

There more volunteers, including veterinarians and veterinarian technicians, assess the cats, give them rabies shots and distemper vaccinations to prevent them from spreading disease. They are then spayed or neutered so they can’t reproduce. The tip of the cat's left ear is then clipped to identify them as part of the program, before returning them to their outdoor home.

“They’re a little safer yes, having provided rabies vaccines. They’re less risk for people that way, and the cats really can’t get this care any other way,” said veterinarian Lisa Lorenz, who volunteers her services.

Ted Keneklis of Allouez doesn’t support the village’s Trap-Neuter-Return policy. He’s an avid bird lover, and points out a feral cats diet includes birds. And a common complaint is the cats make a mess in gardens and sand boxes, and they spread diseases. He says, sure cats are cute, but feral cats need to go—plan and simple.

“We should eliminate feral cats, which means killing them. And you know a lot of people don’t want to hear that,” said Keneklis.

Not all communities or organizations endorse the Trap-Neuter-Return ideology.

“It doesn’t work and it spreads disease,” said Mallory Meves, the animal control officer for Green Bay, where ordinances do not allow cats, feral or otherwise, to roam free.

Is TNR helping the problem?

“I consider it abandonment. What’s better quality or quantity? These animals are left out there. I’m the person they call when they’re starving, when they’re sick with ringworms,” said Meves.

When Meves responds to complaints of feral cats, she traps them and turns them over to the Bay Area Humane Society.

“They then either treat them, euthanize them, adopt them that kind of thing,” said Meves.

Bay Area Humane Society statistics show last year it euthanized more than 200 cats deemed unhealthy and untreatable, or a public danger. Overall the organization took in more than 6,000 animals.

Lorenz believes controlling the feral cat population is the answer. Relocating or eliminating a few will leave others to fill the void.

“Each female can have between four and six kittens in a litter and maybe two litters per year. So they multiple very quickly,” said Lorenz.

Here’s the math. That’s one female feral cat, two litters a year, with an average 5 kittens in each litter. She would produce 10 cats the first year. If half those cats were female, the second year they would produce 50 more kittens, in addition to another ten by that first cat—for a total over two years of 70 cats.

So FOX11 Investigates asked: “If you hadn’t fixed these cats how many cats would be roaming the neighborhoods?”

“Tens of thousands,” said Lorenz.

Estimates for feral cats are hard to come by. Feline experts report they are in the tens of millions nationwide. Peters says for every indoor cat, there’s another living in the wild.

“We cannot kill our way out of this. Sterilization is the humane way and it’s the only way that works,” said Peters.

It turns out one of the feral cats in Steve Murphy’s neighborhood had already been neutered through the TNR program. Murphy hadn’t noticed the cat’s tipped ear, even though he befriended the cat to the point where it would follow him around and even allow him to touch it.

“It’s kind of become my buddy, but I still don’t trust it. It’s still a feral cat,” said Murphy.

Since TNR was implemented locally Hoff says the one thing that has changed is the percentage of cats she sees euthanized—down from 71 percent in 2005 to just 7 percent in 2016.

After giving the feral cats a night to rest following surgery at Cats Anonymous, Hoff and the other volunteers released the animals back to where they were caught—she points out, safer and healthier.

“I didn’t become a humane officer to become an exterminator of any species of animals, you know. So, this may not be a perfect program but it’s the best one I’ve seen so far,” said Hoff.

It costs Cats Anonymous $50 a cat to have it fixed and vaccinated. Cats Anonymous accepts donations. When local municipalities bring a cat to the humane society the taxpayer cost is $88.50.

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