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Sterilization touted as best way to end feral cat problems

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

A Harrison County resident has begun a long-term effort to encourage public officials to adopt alternatives to capturing and euthanizing feral cats.

Laura Goff Davis, a member of the Federation of Humane Organizations of West Virginia, advocates capturing, sterilizing and then releasing feral cats.

Capture and sterilization programs are promoted by Alley Cat Allies of Washington, D.C., and the Feral Cats Coalition of San Diego. Sterilization programs have been started in New Hampshire, San Diego, Orange County, Fla., and Franklin County, Ohio.

According to Alley Cat Allies, the practice originated about 30 years ago in England and Denmark.

The main premise of sterilization and release, Davis said, is simply removing feral cats from an area does not succeed in reducing the population. Feral cats form colonies around available food sources. Remove some, and other feral cats will move in and reproduce.

Because cats are territorial, sterilized and released cats would keep others from moving in, Davis said. Their inability to reproduce would eventually cause the population to decline, Davis said.

Alley Cat Allies recommends sterilized and released cats also be vaccinated and have food left for them by caretakers or in automatic feeders.

"You'll never solve the problem just by killing the animals. They can probably reproduce faster than we can round them up and kill them," Davis said. "Some places are beginning to recognize that we need to find a better way of handling pet overpopulation."

Davis said starting a sterilization program can be costly but it can eventually save on the costs of holding and euthanizing animals by reducing the number of strays that come into animal shelters.

In 1996, the Federation of Humane Organizations estimated housing and euthanizing one animal costs $40 in West Virginia. The federation estimated a yearly statewide cost of about $3 million for euthanizing 75,000 animals.

Davis added it was a positive step when the Humane Society of Harrison County began requiring sterilization of all animals adopted from the shelter. An alternative program for managing feral cats would have to include access to low-cost spaying and neutering of pets owned by area residents.

Davis said she would like to see sterilization provided through a mobile unit that could go into small communities.

"We have to make an alliance with veterinarians and find a way of funding spaying and neutering programs," Davis said. "We need to provide assistance for the elderly and low-income residents and pay veterinarians what they need."

In New Hampshire, which became a "no kill" state in 1999, spaying and neutering assistance is funded through a fee on animal licenses.

"We might have to start with a voluntary program," Davis said. "People could send donations or check a box on their tax forms."

Davis added she expects it would take about 10 years to make West Virginia a "no kill" state.

"We have to lay the groundwork, find participants and find an agreeable way to fund it," she said.

Davis said she sympathizes with public officials who receive constituent complaints about feral cats. She added one of the challenges she faces is convincing them alternative programs for dealing with strays are a good idea.

"If we put these things in place, it would be good for the animal shelters, too," she said. "They would be able to hold animals longer and they would have a better chance for adoption. Workers could spend more time on public education. Shelters would still be needed, they just wouldn't be black holes where animals go in and don't come out."

Davis made a presentation about alternative management programs for stray animals last month before the Harrison County Commission. Commission President Roger Diaz said Davis was asked to return to the commission with more information.

"I don't know whether the program would work or not," Diaz said. "If the Humane Society finds merit in it, perhaps we could provide assistance for a program. When she comes back to us, we'll look at it and go from there."

Currently, cats are held in the county animal shelter for a minimum of five days before they are euthanized, he said.

Staff writer Shawn Gainer can be reached at 626-1442.

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