A call came in to the Homeless Cat Management Team (HCMT) hotline from the manager of a trailer park in Ford City that they had…quite a few cats. The place is in a very rural area surrounded by farmland, some cats were pets, but others were dropped off or just showed up, and few were spayed or neutered. It was mid-summer 2013, kitten season was in full swing, and it was already out of hand.
Unlike other calls where the manager or residents want the cats “gone”, however that might be accomplished, these people wanted to keep the cats. They liked them all and considered them pets and didn’t want to see them come to any harm. But they had limited options for spay and neuter for that many and if left to reproduce there could easily be hundreds of cats by the next summer.
The manager and residents had heard of the free-for-feral and low-cost clinics at the HCMT clinic in Tarentum by both HCMT and Frankie’s Friends, but without the ability to transport that many cats—spaying and neutering a few at a time would barely help the issue—not much could be done.
But Dr. Becky Morrow considers spay and neuter to be basic health care for pets as well as the best way to reduce populations of homeless cats and is innovative about ways to meet their needs. Sometimes that means taking the clinic to the cats instead of taking the cats to the clinic.
Dr. Morrow is a veterinarian and assistant professor at Duquesne University where she teaches physiology and biology. She is also president of the board of HCMT and founder of Frankie’s Friends Cat Rescue in Arnold, PA. Though Frankie’s Friends was founded to provide sanctuary for the cats left behind after the Tiger Ranch raid and HCMT had always been more focused on spay and neuter for only cats living on the streets, Dr. Morrow says that providing low-cost spay and neuter as well as veterinary care for cats regardless of their owned status is an important part of the mission of both organizations. “We target any cat in the community that is not spayed,” she said. And no matter the status of the cat, whether a pet or unowned or living in a managed colony outdoors, “We do whatever it takes to make life better for the kitty.”
Often people managing large colonies of cats will trap two or three cats at a time because that’s what they can manage to transport to the clinic, but Dr. Morrow has found that keeping populations down in managed colonies of cats is far more successful by spaying and neutering the entire colony at once, or as many as possible. Volunteers will help caretakers who have more cats than they can trap and transport themselves by collecting traps and helping to trap and transport cats to clinics. In this case, however, there were too many even for that.
Dr. Morrow had invested in a mobile spay/neuter van for Frankie’s Friends and has provided low-cost spay and neuter and veterinary care at animal events around Pittsburgh. In this case she proposed a clinic on site at the trailer park using the van.
Unfortunately, HCMT and FF regularly receive calls about large colonies of cats where none are spayed and neutered, often in rural areas where cats have been dumped on a regular basis but also in suburban and city neighborhoods where unowned cats find food and shelter. The van had already showed up for two smaller on-site clinics with two or three dozen cats.
But mobile doesn’t mean free. A clinic that serves about 80 cats costs about $1,500 in medications, vaccines and materials, and money for over 100 cats had to come from somewhere. Jenn Durrant, a volunteer with Pittsburgh Feral Cat Movement (PFCM), the online rescue group that networks behind the scenes to organize rescue and transportation for cats in need as well as trapping for HCMT clinics, set up a Facebook page in October to auction donated gift items and raised $1,200 to pay the costs of the clinic, which was scheduled for late January; the page will continue to hold auctions quarterly to help with costs for clinics and caretakers.
By that time the cat population of adults and older kittens was estimated at around 100 but turned out to be a little higher than that. While many cats lived indoors others lived strictly outdoors and needed shelter during the “polar vortex” and residents were finding it difficult to feed that many cats. PFCM volunteers collected donated food and money for food and delivered the food and homemade shelters prior to the clinic day. “I figured I wasn’t too far and could go and help by getting shelters, straw and food, bought with donations from the group, to the cats,” said Lynn Choltko Cullieton, who also volunteers and fosters for all the organizations involved.
Without help in trapping for spay and neuter the residents would never catch all the cats even though most were friendly, so the PFCM volunteers networked to get all the traps they could possibly find to the site. Lynn was also one of the volunteers to arrive early on January 19 in 10 degree cold and a foot of snow along with Debbie Christy Nicola and Cynthia Buncher Savitt. They set over 50 traps and began trapping cats and placing them in an abandoned caretaker house at the entrance to the park. It had no utilities but was a shelter nonetheless for the cats to both wait and recover. By evening 58 cats had been trapped and were waiting. January 20 was technically surgery day, but Dr. Morrow decided to get an early start the night before with Michelle Miller assisting in shaving and preparing the cats for their surgeries.
And not a moment too soon—of the first 18 cats spayed and neutered, three females were already pregnant, pretty unusual for this region in January, but not impossible. All the cats were clean and well-kept aside from some dirty ears and such, coats were clean and very few injuries were found, and in surgery Dr. Morrow found a good layer of fat on them showing they’d been fed well. As cats recovered from surgery the traps were cleaned and used to trap more cats. In all 103 cats were spayed and neutered those two days, some of them pets, some indoor-outdoor cats and some who would remain outdoors. Just a few slipped through the trapping that weekend, but were trapped and taken to the next HCMT clinic in Tarentum.
The goal of this effort is to stop the population of cats from growing, stabilize it and reduce it through natural attrition and adoptions. A few of the kittens and even adults were friendly enough to go to foster and will be looking for a forever home. Volunteers are still checking in with the residents and the cats as the cold winter has continued, and no doubt new cats will show up as they had in previous years but with just a cat or two now and then showing up unannounced residents will be able to manage.
HCMT and Frankie’s Friends have low-cost or free clinics scheduled monthly, and whether you have one cat or 100 call either of the hotlines and leave a message; they are staffed by volunteers who will return your call.
• HCMT, 412-321-4060, clinic schedule and details of services www.homelesscat.org
• Frankie’s Friends, 724-889-7011, www.Frankie’sFriendsCatRescue.org, (also serves dogs).
The low-cost clinics charge $50 for a spay and $35 for a neuter, and stray or feral cats can be spayed or neutered for free at special clinics underwritten by generous donors. The goal is to reduce the number of unowned cats by making sure they can’t reproduce, and make life better for all cats.
Photo captions from the top:
Dr. Becky Morrow in her mobile van getting ready to spay a cat with cats waiting in carriers behind her.
The mobile spay/neuter van parked in front of the abandoned caretaker’s home.
Volunteer Deborah Christy Nicola watches over the cats in traps covered in moving blankets and quilts for warmth in the unheated building.
Volunteer Lynn Choltko Cullieton holds little Henry Ford, one of the friendly stray kittens who was fostered and adopted from the mobile home park.
I had also written briefly about this on-site TNR clinic on the day it began in “When People Ask For Help, You Give It”.
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
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Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
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