Columbus’ Feral Cats Sterilized, Returned to the “Wild”

One of an estimated 1 million Central Ohio feral or stray cats
One of an estimated 1 million Central Ohio feral or stray cats

Thousands of Central Ohioans routinely take care of stray cats and dogs. They volunteer at shelters, provide foster care in their homes, take food and water to feral animals. Then there are those who trap unadoptable strays, have them sterilized, and return them to the places they came from. It’s called TNR; Trap, Neuter, Return.

Two women from the group Colony Cats have rendezvoused behind a Columbus fast food restaurant just after dark. Other volunteers have been feeding a colony of wild or feral cats here for more than a year. Colony Cats is trying to catch and sterilize the animals to try to keep more kittens from being born.

Ahh! “Got her!”

It only takes 20 minutes for a trap baited with tuna to catch the first feral of the evening. Colony Cats director Mona McKinnis rushes the animal to her van.

“It’s all right, it’s okay,” McKinnis says as she tries to calm the cat. “It’s definitely a female. We’ll get you warm tonight, give you some food, and you’ll get the big fix tomorrow. And then we’ll hold her two or three days, make sure she’s recovered, and bring her back because she’s obviously surviving very well here.”

Unless they’re caught as small kittens, ferals never become friendly; they’ll always be wild. The Trap-Neuter-Return process Colony Cats uses is a relatively new approach to overpopulation. Jessica Frohman of Alley Cat Allies, a national organization, says the old technique of trapping and euthanizing just doesn’t work.

“And the reason is that they have to be done on an on-going basis which is extremely costly to communities,” Frohman says. “Usually when they happen, it’s animal control trapping just a few cats and they don’t ever get the whole colony. Further when a colony is trapped and removed other cats tend to move in and take advantage of those available resources.”

The Colony Cats team caught 3 cats during the evening, had them sterilized and vaccinated for rabies, and has already put them back. McKinnis volunteers as much as 40 hours a week – paying for spays, neuters, rabies and other vaccinations out of grant money or sometimes out of her own pocket. For the people who care about ferals, it’s a success. But for State of Ohio wildlife biologist Donna Daniel, some wild animals pay a price.

“From a wildlife standpoint there are disadvantages to programs like that,” Daniel says. “Free-roaming cats kill birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Some of the estimates are hundreds of millions killed nationwide.”

No one knows how many animals cats kill in Ohio. But Daniel says only 35% of cat owners keep theirs from going outside. And with 1 million stray cats roaming Central Ohio, she says Trap-Neuter-Return is “better than nothing.”

“But the real answer is going to be to keep cats indoors. Period.”

The State Health Department does not have a policy on feral cats or the Trap-Neuter-Return program. But animal experts believe that a burgeoning stray dog or cat population could eventually result in public health problems. Jessica Frohman hopes Alley Cat Allies can correct any misconceptions about TNR groups. Their mission, she says, is reducing the number of strays.

“Trap-Neuter-Return organizations are not out creating colonies they’re out sterilizing colonies and taking the cats that can be adopted out of those colonies so they’re always looking for good homes for those cats.”

Colony Cats has dozens of adoptable cats and even a few dogs on its website. In the five years it’s operated McKinnis says her group has sterilized about 4,000 cats.