Miss Pepper is one of many homeless, young cats scampering through a Northside backyard, complete with a wisteria arbor and fountain. Mary, the homeowner responsible for this feline oasis, normally feeds the growing collection of cats and kittens from her back porch.
Amy DeFelice, IndyFeral volunteer, catches Miss Pepper in a humane live trap.
But today, food is being used to lure the cats into several live traps that are staggered throughout her yard. The traps are baited with fragrant tuna and moist cat food, then covered with old blankets. Miss Pepper investigates the contraptions. She sits on top of one, smells it and, motivated by hunger, hesitantly enters. This young, pregnant tabby is the first to be caught. After the trap door snaps, Mary (last name withheld) is visibly shaken by the sight of Miss Pepper thrashing in the cage. “It’s OK, Miss Pepper,” she says, trying to sooth the cat, who has no concept of her given name. Moments later, Miss Pepper has calmed down. When she became concerned for the well-being of this ever-increasing cat colony, Mary called IndyFeral, a not-for-profit group dedicated to reducing stray cat overpopulation through the non-lethal method of trap-neuter-release (TNR). Carefully monitoring the trapping procedure, Amy DeFelice, a volunteer trapper with IndyFeral, assures Mary that live traps are safe and humane. “When the cat is spinning in circles and knocking the trap around,” DeFelice tells her, “most people turn the first one loose because it’s so scary.” By day’s end, seven cats are trapped in Mary’s yard.
Cat stats for 2003 • Indianapolis Animal Care and Control (IACC) received 3,760 stray cats from January through September 2003. An additional 1,243 have been owner surrendered. That’s 5,003 cats in total. They have euthanized over 2,800 cats this year. • The Humane Society of Indianapolis received 4,168 cats from January through August 2003; 2,621 cats have been euthanized, down 6 percent from 2002. • Jim Garrard, administrator at IACC, said of IndyFeral, “They are providing a service that we can’t. It’s a help for us. I think what they are doing is great.” • Martha Boden, executive director of the Humane Society of Indianapolis, shared that sentiment: “Adult cats are so hard to place, that’s why the work of IndyFeral is so important.” The HSI shares their spay/neuter packs with IndyFeral. The HSI does not perform the TNR service.
DeFelice collects the cages and takes them to her home until Friday, the day the I-CAN (Indiana Companion Animal Network) mobile spay/neuter clinic sterilizes cats for IndyFeral. Until then, the unsocialized — or feral — cats remain in their traps and DeFelice carefully slips them food and water. Some cats that may never have had any human contact can be dangerous.
Like an alien abduction
“We estimate there’s probably 178,000 of these cats in Indianapolis, within the city limits,” says Lisa Tudor, president of IndyFeral. There are approximately 60 million stray cats in the U.S. A female cat, assuming she bred every four to five months, could be responsible for the birth of an average of 5,266 kittens, half of which (on average) die before they reach three months. Euthanizing is not an effective means to reduce overpopulation. Her voice bounces off the rafters and walls in the large, unfinished warehouse space that is the new headquarters for I-CAN. Forty-six traps, covered in multicolored sheets and blankets, containing the feral cat cargo, are lined up on the newspaper-covered concrete floor. Not all cats in feral colonies are technically feral. “Actually, the umbrella that we serve are ‘free roaming cats,’ that’s the problem,” Tudor explains over the constant meowing coming from the traps. “That can encompass somebody’s pet cat who they don’t have neutered. They just let it out for a week at a time and he’s out getting everybody pregnant. The sociability spectrum with cats is real big. It could be a stray that someone abandoned or lost who will come right up to you, all the way to a feral cat that you can’t catch.” Declawed former house cats contribute to this feral population as well. Wendy Williams, the I-CAN vet tech, takes the traps, two at a time, into I-CAN’s mobile veterinary surgery RV. “This is like an alien abduction for them,” she says of the bewildered cats. These cats will be spayed or neutered, get their ears cleaned, receive a Revolution treatment (which treats them for fleas, ear mites and worms), and rabies and vaccination shots at a cost of only $20 each. It may be the only time these cats will ever see a vet. “If they have minor medical problems, we treat those,” Tudor explains. On this day, for example, a kitten with a partially skinned tail and an adult with fresh, fleshy pink abrasions around its eyes are given additional medical attention. Twenty dollars doesn’t begin to cover the costs. “The care we give a cat could be equivalent to $200 or $300 in a vet office,” Tudor says. “I don’t want financial to be a reason a person won’t bring the cats in.” IndyFeral assists feral caregivers with food from their food bank and feral shelters, as well. The shelters are camouflaged and insulated, not unlike a doghouse except sturdier for warmth in winter. “We have 365 caretakers so far in the city. Three hundred and sixty-five people, so tell me nobody cares about these cats,” Tudor says. Colonies may contain up to 50 cats. Since she founded IndyFeral in July of 2002, over 1,700 cats have gone through their TNR process. TNR (trap-neuter-release) is endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association and practiced all across the United States as a proven way to humanely control cat populations. Alley Cat Allies, the national feral cat advocacy group, lists those communities at www.alleycat.org. “I just got tired of how stray animals are treated and perceived,” Tudor continues. “I just knew in my heart that people wanted an alternative means to reduce the population other than trap and kill cats,” which is the practice in Indianapolis, “… because they can’t go into a traditional home. That’s ethically and morally wrong. Spay/neuter seems so simple and it saves the city a ton of money.” “We want to get them before they start having babies,” adds Julie Smith, who founded I-CAN with her husband, Eric. The Smiths are part of the four-member vet crew, outfitted in blue scrubs, with the mobile clinic. Dr. Mindy Maynard stands over the operating table, studiously performing the high volume surgeries. An unconscious cat is taken from a trap to Julie Smith’s surgery prep table. She shaves its belly, then sucks the fur up with a mini industrial vacuum. The buzzing sounds from the razor and vacuum are constant. “We give the sedative and pain medication, that lasts 12 hours after surgery,” Julie Smith explains before spraying disinfectant on her table prior to prepping the next cat. Eric Smith strokes a cat Maynard has just neutered. Its limp body falls over his hands and its open eyes stare blankly. “Cats don’t close their eyes when they go under. We lubricate their eyes so they don’t dry out.”
Julie Smith, founder of I-CAN, preps a ferel cat for surgery.
He monitors the cat’s level of consciousness and breathing as part of the recovery process. They are carried like babies out of the RV when they show signs of waking, and given to a team of volunteers who pet them, clean them and comb them while still sedated. As they awaken, the cats are placed back in their cage-like traps. Males are held for 24 hours and females 48 hours before being released.
An intrinsic value to animals
IndyFeral is a 100 percent volunteer organization with a core group of about 25 people. Volunteer trapper Amy DeFelice, who has a pet-sitting company called Amy’s Happy Critters, recently visited a house on the near Southwestside to begin the TNR process on a colony that had moved into a garage. She trapped 15 cats immediately. “You’ll see the ones that we’ve gotten have been ear tipped,” DeFelice explains. Having the tip of the left ear removed is a visible ID to the public, the Humane Society and animal control indicating that the cats are part of a TNR managed colony. “I have taken litters away from here,” DeFelice says of the garage colony. “When they are that young, you do have an opportunity to tame them.” DeFelice networks with people who foster these cats and place them in homes. “They can go to homes if we can find them homes,” DeFelice says about older feral cats that have come to trust people over the years. “We are not an adoption agency, but we all know where someone could get a great cat,” DeFelice says. “Anyone that comes into our program we screen to ensure that the cats have a caregiver, shelter and are going to get spay/neutered,” IndyFeral’s Tudor adds. “If those three things aren’t covered, then we don’t send the cats back because that would be abandonment in my eyes.” The re-released cats, some of whom are untamable third or forth generation feral, have a new lease on life. Yowling, spraying, roaming, fighting and other mating-related behavior will cease. They are vaccinated now, so they won’t be carrying disease to other cats. They won’t scavenge trashcans because they have a caregiver that feeds them. The cat population is stabilized and the caregiver has set an example to others on how to humanely care for these homeless cats. Caregivers do not start cat colonies. “Those cats are already there. If you don’t feed them they are going to starve to death, then you’ll have sick cats spreading disease,” Tudor says. Feeding the cats is the first step toward managing a colony humanely. “You get the cats used to coming to you. Then you take them to get them spay/neutered. You are actually doing the best thing you can to manage the overpopulation problem. “The average life of an outdoor, uncared-for cat is two years, “ Tudor observes. “Studies have shown that if a cat is a part of a managed colony, they can live a good 10 years outside. “I believe that every animal has an intrinsic value,” she continues. “But what drives me up the wall is when I hear someone say, when the cat needs medical care, spay or neuter, ‘Well is it owned?’ Well, who cares. These cats are here because our community dropped the ball, big time. I feel like it’s incumbent upon us to correct a situation we created.”
Contact Indyferal IndyFeral, 596-2300, www.indyferal.org. Donation wish list: dry cat food, bath towels, sheets, blankets, comforters, rubbing alcohol (70 percent isopropyl), tarps, cat toys, pet carriers, trash bags and laundry detergent. Visit www.indyferal.org for a complete list. Monetary donations in any amount are accepted. A gift of $20 pays for the medical cost of one cat. A gift of $30 pays for one shelter. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 30054, Indianapolis, IN, 46230. Spay/neuter resources • I-CAN, 702 N. Shortridge Road, 357-ICAN, www.spayneuter.net,email@example.com • FACE (Foundation Against Companion Animal Euthanasia) Spay/Neuter Clinic, 638-3223, www.facespayneuter.com • Alliance for Responsible Pet Ownership (ARPO), 774-8292, www.adoptarpo.org • Southside Animal Shelter, 590-6069, www.ssasi.org • Spay/Neuter Services of Indiana, 788-6330, www.spayneuterservices.orgWhat to do if you find a lost cat or dog Take it to a vet for FREE and have it checked for a microchip. Place an ad for FREE in local papers under FOUND. Alert neighbors. Post signs in your neighborhood and local vet offices. What to do if you’ve lost your cat or dog Alert neighbors and post signs. Animal control officers look for and read these signs. Place FREE ads in local papers under LOST. Call and visit humane societies and animal control facilities. Only 2 percent of cats get returned to their owners from shelters. The best time to look for animals is at dusk and dawn. ID your cat with a microchip or collar with a tag. Where to adopt a rescued cat • Amy DeFelice, Amy’s Happy Critters, 460-0882 • Petsmart, 5151 E. 82nd St., 579-0590; 9749 E. Washington St., 898-3197; 7801 U.S. Hwy. 31, 865-3509 • Humane Society of Indianapolis, 7929 N. Michigan Road, 872-5650, www.indyhumane.com. Cat adoption fee is $120 for kittens and $65 for cats five months of age or older. • Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, 2600 S. Harding, 237-1397, www.indygov.org/dps/accd/. Adoption fee for all animals is $45, cash or credit only. This includes spay/neuter, microchip and first round of shots, except rabies.