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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette A curious kitten peeks out from behind an opening in the Churubusco barn of Chris and Mary Doyle this month.

  • Emily Gage, community cat coordinator for H.O.P.E. for Animals, collects feral cats for sterilization.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette A kitten is trapped in a cage after being lured into it with food for the Community Cat program.

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette A shy kitten sits in a barn in Churubusco on Tuesday.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette A kitten perches on wall inside a barn in Churubusco on Tuesday.  

Sunday, July 29, 2018 1:00 am

Controlling cat population

H.OP.E. works to keep feral colonies under control

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Visitors to Chris and Mary Doyle's Churubusco home are treated to an idyllic scene. 

Cats of all sizes and colors roam the property that is surrounded by corn fields on one side and woods in the back. Kittens, several of them, peek their tiny heads out of cracks in the couple's barn and others scurry here and there.

It is a peaceful moment that is soon shattered when Emily Gage pulls up in her white van. Just hearing the engine, the cats begin to scatter. The adults head for the field, while the kittens, curious and still too young to know what is about to happen, hang around.

Gage, the community cat coordinator for H.O.P.E. for Animals, has come to the Doyles' home in the hopes of trapping some of the cats that have taken up residence.

The cats are not pets, but instead part of a colony that started with just two to three cats and have now grown to 50. If not trapped so they can be spayed or neutered, the colony will continue to grow, causing problems for not only the Doyles, but also their neighbors.

The Doyles say they don't know how they got so many cats. Some people drop them off, while other cats just show up. But mainly it's because cats can start having litters of their own as early as 3 months old, Gage says.

Gage spends the entire summer – starting as soon as the weather is warm enough in early spring – trapping feral cats or strays without owners all over Allen County and surrounding areas. Most days she is out really early in the morning or late into the evening. She has traveled as far as an hour away to help people who have called H.O.P.E. seeking assistance.

H.O.P.E., which operates on grants and donations, works in a coalition with Animal Care & Control and Allen County SPCA to try and control the cat population. The agencies conduct the “Operation Cat” program, which works to trap the cats to get them spayed or neutered and then released back where they were found.

So far, H.O.P.E. has done more than 14,000 cat surgeries since 2010. But there are still thousands more cats that haven't been fixed and they continue to add to the problem.

“It's a lot of work,” Gage says. “It can be frustrating.”

'Definition of caring'

The Doyles have been taking care of their colony of cats about five years. The colony started because of three females the couple couldn't catch, Mary Doyle says.

Gage says if a colony isn't 100 percent sterilized, one or two cats can cause mayhem. “It doesn't really take long,” Gage says.

The couple has been taking the litters of kittens into the vet's office to get spayed or neutered. They also treat the kittens' eyes and other ailments they can tend to at their home. For those cats they can't catch or treat, they call H.O.P.E. 

The Doyles pay for the treatments and to get the cats fixed out of their own pocket. When asked why they spend their money on the cats, Mary Doyle says, “We needed to get it done.”

The Doyles pay under H.O.P.E.'s community cat program. A community cat is defined as a free-roaming cat with no owner that has been spayed or neutered. Generally a person can bring in a cat and have it spayed or neutered for $35. But because there are so many cats in the Doyle colony, the agency offers the couple a pro-rated fee for each cat.

But H.O.P.E., which was created to prevent unnecessary euthanasia by offering low-cost spay-neuter and wellness services, also offers caretakers other resources such as loaning traps, walking them through the entire process and other resources.

The Doyles aren't the only ones with a cat problem. Their neighbors have them, too, Mary Doyle says.

A few of the cats have been turned into family pets, spending their time indoors or outdoors. Mary Doyle laughs as she points out that they have no mice, chipmunks or other critters because of all the cats.

Mary Doyle admits she becomes attached to the cats, especially the babies. But Chris Doyle says there are levels of tameness among the cats, which is understandable since many of them are on their own 99 percent of the time.

The real heartbreak, Mary Doyle says, is the death of the cats. “That's one of the hardest parts,” she says.

Gage says the Doyles are exceptional caretakers.

And it's people like them that Allison Miller, executive director of H.O.P.E., wants to see more of.

Miller says many of the community cat caretakers who put time and effort into making sure the cats are taken care of have “never laid a hand on these cats, and still they form a bond with these cats.”

“They know their personality, they know when they aren't healthy. They love taking care of these animals. ... I think that's the true definition of caring.”

Oftentimes, people see cats in their neighborhood and they won't do anything because they think someone else will take care of them, Miller says. Then what happens is that five cats turn into 15 in six months and then into 30 cats in another six months. In a year, those five cats have the potential to turn into 65, creating a larger neighborhood problem.

“What we're trying to do now is really empower people in the neighborhood to get involved,” Miller says. “We truly need the people in our community to step up and do this so that our shelters are not overwhelmed.”

Working together

Miller says Trap-Neuter-Release programs are happening all around the country. Experts have recognized that TNR is the best way to control the cat population, instead of removing them from the area which only allows other cats to come and take their place, she says.

Since the cats have their own resources to survive, getting them spayed and neutered stagnates the colony and then the colony gets smaller and smaller, Miller says.

The community cat rate in Fort Wayne is now at the lowest it has ever been, Gage says, which shows that the program is working.

However, that wasn't always the case. Prior to 2014, the city had an ordinance that if a cat was outside and not on a leash or in a collar, it was considered a stray and was illegal, Miller says. That meant that all the outdoor cats were considered stray cats, and if no one claimed them, they would end up in the shelter and they would be euthanized, she says. So the shelter was seeing an overwhelming number of cats, Miller says.

When H.O.P.E. for Animals opened in 2010, the shelter immediately started doing community cat surgeries, even though it was against the city ordinance, Miller says. The shelter would work with areas outside the city limits.

In 2014, H.O.P.E., Animal Care & Control and SPCA got together to petition Fort Wayne City Council to change the ordinance. It then became legal for the shelters to do TNR within the city limits.

Now the agencies work together to do as much as they can for the community cats, Miller says. 

Never-ending 

Animal Care & Control doesn't actively trap the cats, but instead shelter, neuter and then release, says Holly Pasquinelli, community relations and education specialist.

Most of the cats are brought to the shelter by residents. Just this month Animal Care & Control has processed 76 community cats, Pasquinelli says. Last year, they processed more than 1,100 community cats.

Pasquinelli says the shelter is inundated this time of year with kittens. More than 90 kittens are currently out in foster homes, she says. “It never stops,” Pasquinelli says.

The community cat program helps the shelter by allowing them to process the cats quicker, she says. In addition, they don't have to shelter them because they can be released.

The number of cats with no providers is a large problem in Fort Wayne, Pasquinelli says. However, under the program, which is now in its fourth year, the shelter has been able to identify where the problem areas are and the locations of cat colonies. “We see that impact,” says Pasquinelli, but adds that “it's never-ending right now.”

The shelter pays for the cat surgeries through donations. Right now, there is not a lot of funding. She says one way residents can help is to donate but also become educated about the program and the fact that feral cats can be a nuisance.

And although H.O.P.E. celebrates the thousands of surgeries it has done in eight years, the agency realizes there's still a lot more to be done.

“It's pretty amazing, but also disheartening at the same time,” Miller says. “The phone calls don't stop coming.”

Catching them

The Doyles feed their colony of cats twice a day – once in the morning and again in the evening.

Gage is working on this early Tuesday morning setting up metal traps with paper plates of food in them. The traps are placed in the barn and Chris Doyle takes some of them out to the corn field, where many of the cats have taken refuge.

Gage says summer is the best time to trap the cats because winter can be dangerous if the cats are left in the cages too long. They could freeze or get frost bite.

Gage says it's funny because she never used to like cats. Now, she has such a love for them. But “there's a lot of sadness that goes along with them,” she says.

Three kittens from a litter by the Doyles' community cat Maltida is being taken back to H.O.P.E. The kittens meow loudly in their cage. Mary Doyle walks over to the cage and talks soothingly to them, assuring them they will be back home soon.

Some of the cats caught in the traps have already been ear tipped. Gage says the shelter cuts the tip of a cat's ear, making it easier to know which ones have already been treated.

The three of them cheer when they are able to trap one of the male adults they have been trying to get for a while. However, there are still eight to 10 additional adults that need to be caught. So far, the cages with the tuna pate aren't working so well.

It now turns into a waiting game. If Gage doesn't catch them today, she will have to come back again until she can.

trich@jg.net