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It’s mid-morning on the second Saturday of November. The leaves have all changed and are in the process of falling off the trees. A cold breeze is sweeping through the Baltimore area helping the leaves float to the ground.

Braving the morning cold cat lovers and helpers alike have made their way to the Maryland Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals, better known as the SPCA, for the monthly feral feline spay or neuter clinic. The clinic falls under the program knows as Trap Neuter Release, TNR for short.

The feral cat population in the Baltimore area alone last June was close to 200,000 stray and feral cats, according to CBS Baltimore. Studies have shown that by implementing the TNR process with feral cat colonies the population begins to level off and eventually decrease.

Ashley Sheridan, the Spay/Neuter Programs Manager of the MDSPCA works closely with many of these animals. She says that though it is hard to say if TNR is readily reducing the feral feline population it is definitely helping to reduce the euthanasia rates in shelters.

“It isn’t that TNR is not controlling the feral cat population, it is that those numbers are difficult to quantify or find verifiable evidence for. Anecdotally, yes TNR programs are helping with the feral cat population,” she said.

People are beginning to pull up into the drive of the shelter located just off of Falls Road and park in the spots specifically allotted for them in front of a small cement building.

This building, that resembles a monument you might see at the capital, is where these non-house cats are to be fixed in. It is only large enough to have a front office area closed off by a door marked with a restricted sign. The door separates the front from the surgical room where each procedure takes place.

Sheridan is working between the two spaces spending most time in the small front room. Clients come in and stand behind the wrap around counter. She is constantly moving about the work area answering phones, collecting paperwork and payments, and getting things inline before the feral kitties can be brought back into the surgical area.

Once she has everything she needs the human clients are able to go. Sheridan informs them that she will call once the procedure has been completed.

She then labels the thick silver wired traps that each cat has been caught and transported in. The paper prep work has been finished. Volunteers come out in scrubs and take the traps behind the swinging restricted door.

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The Maryland SPCA has been working to help prevent the reproduction of feral cats in Baltimore City and County. Volunteers are striving to decrease the feral cat population when they bring these cats to the SPCA facility. Proud volunteer Melanie Heck brought 12 feral cats at one time to have them neutered.

“We have found homes for many cats,” stressed Melanie Heck who has been volunteering for about a year. “There’s like a six month waiting list to get the cats neutered at SPCA, but there are other places where you can take them.”

TNR is when cats are captured with box traps that are categorized as humane and are taken to the veterinary clinics such as the Maryland SPCA where they are neutered and vaccinated. The cats are then released into the wild.

“I went to one training class at Community Cats,” says Taylor LeBon, a feral cat caretaker in Baltimore City. “We trapped two cats a couple years ago using the SPCA cages, got them fixed and released them. The class was informative and helpful.”

It’s estimated that there are 185,000 stray and feral cats living on the streets of Baltimore City and nationwide, the number is estimated to be 60 million.

“After the neutering process, their urine changes and they usually just get fat,” says Heck as she laughs.

The shift in the economy has not only effected the workforce, but also pet ownership.

According to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), total pet ownership dropped 2.4% from 2006 to 2011. During that time, cat ownership decreased 6.2%.

“Ever since everyone lost their jobs, people have been irresponsible with their pets,” says June

Phillips, another feral cat colony owner, as she looks concerned. “These owners do not get their cats fixed or vaccinated and then abandon them outside to breed and spread disease. It’s an epidemic.”

Euthanasia is not the best alternative to this issue. More statewide spay/neuter and vaccination clinics are needed to help reduce the overpopulation of the cats.

“If they are healthy cats, I think it is best to get them fixed and bring them back into a colony,” says Lebon. “Like the one we brought here today, she has been with us for four years. We could never really bring her here because she was used to being outside, but she may have to be euthanized today because she is losing weight rapidly. I’m just grateful that if euthanizing is the last resort for her at least she is somewhere where she will be taken care of.”

When volunteers help with TNR efforts, everyone is working toward the same objective which is to continue to care for feral cats and help decrease the spread of illnesses among cats in Baltimore City and County.

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 LeBon is waiting outside the Spay and Neuter building. She takes a brown clipboard and begins filling out the paperwork the SPCA will need in order to start the process of helping Brother, a black cat sitting in the cage by her side.

LeBon sports a jacket while a tattered towel covers Brother’s cage in an attempt to fight the cold wind.

Brother is a female feral cat that LeBon had caught near her home off of Bel Air Road. She had been with LeBon’s colony for about five years and was now sitting very lethargically in her cage.

Brother, a feral feline

A colony cat brought to the SPCA who was later euthanized because of feline leukemia.

“By the time we realized Brother should have been called ‘Sister’, she already answered as Brother,” LeBon said.

She had been losing weight rapidly and wouldn’t eat or drink, prompting LeBon to bring her in to be looked at. LeBon has now brought ten cats to the SPCA clinic to either be looked at or to take part of the TNR process.

“This is one of the best things in the world,” LeBon said referring to TNR, “Makes me feel good because I am actually doing something good.”

LeBon was not always the owner of a cat colony though. She used to consider herself a dog person, growing up with two in her family. “I never thought I’d be the type of person to have cat pictures on my phone,” she said chuckling to herself as she searches for her favorite.

As the day progressed, Brother had to be humanely euthanized at the SPCA.

“She had bronchitis made worse by leukemia,” LeBon said.  “Indoors or out, she would have had only a few days to live because the leukemia weakened her immune system.  Rather than let nature take its slow time, I decided to take the responsibility of having her put down, for her good, the health of colony and my indoor cats.”

Despite starting off as a dog person, LeBon has grown attached to all of the cats in her colony. The decision to euthanize Brother was tough for her. Because she is responsible for their well-being, LeBon said she feels the need to protect all of her cats.

“It comes down, sometimes, to the good of the many outweighing the good of the one or the few; as painful as the decision was,” said LeBon. 

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If there’s one thing that’s crucial to the end of the increasing population of feral cats and the euthanisation of healthy, adoptable animals, it’s spaying and neutering. This can be an issue for volunteers and caretakers since rules and regulations are different in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Baltimore City passed legislation in 2007 making the practice of “trap-neuter-return” (TNR) legal and allows caretakers to maintain colonies of feral cats defined as “a cat that is unsocialized to humans and has a temperament of extreme fear of and resistance to contact with humans”. Under the amendments, the Health Commissioner is authorized to issue regulations “providing for the approval of programs to trap, alter, vaccinate for rabies and distemper, ear tip and return feral cats”; and “governing the circumstances and procedures under which feral cats are seized, impounded and reclaimed.” Ear clipped feral cats are recognized as vaccinated.

“It’s tough though because Baltimore County has different rules than Baltimore City,” stressed Melanie Heck. “In Baltimore City, it’s legal to feed and provide shelter for feral cats but not in Baltimore County which is silly because they border each other.”

Baltimore County’s Article 12 law requires that all stray and feral dogs and cats be turned over to the Animal Shelter within 24 hours. Also in Baltimore County if you have more than four cats, you must contact the Animal Licensing Depart to obtain information and save yourself from possible fines. First offenders are cited with $25 fines and repeated offenders are cited with $100 fines.

“Someone turned me in and I got several tickets for having cats and feeding them,” says long-time caretaker June Phillips who resides in Baltimore County.  “I don’t want to see an animal go hungry. I’ve been hungry before and it’s horrible.”

Many studies have shown that the majority of feral cats eat garbage, rodents and birds. They are eating the rats and mice, which in high numbers can pose a public health risk to humans.

“You get online and try to read the rules, but then you realize that you may be reading on PG County or some other county that differs from Baltimore County,” says Heck.

Interesting, because thousands of unwanted animals are born in Baltimore County each year. Article 12 does stress pet owners to have their pets spayed or neutered. Nothing in Article 12 encourages or protects animal caregivers.

“Of course animal control came by and they were going to take the cats,” says Phillips. I didn’t want them to be put down. I wanted to try and help them find homes. We have found homes for them and I have five more at my house to find homes for.”

In early 2013, the Maryland Senate and House passes a spay/neuter bill that was introduced by Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s County, and Del. Barbara Frush, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, to launch a statewide fund to encourage and provide spay/neuter services through targeted community grants.

According to Del. Barbara A. Frush, “The Maryland spay/neuter program has the potential to be one of the best in the nation. It is a ‘win-win’ for animals and our Maryland taxpayers. I was thrilled to work with such a dedicated group of advocates who are so passionate about helping Maryland’s pets.”

Feral Feline Baltimore

One of the feral cats brought to the SPCA to be fixed.

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It’s close to 5 pm and the sun is beginning to set outside of Taylor LeBon’s house. She lives on a street lined with brick row homes.  LeBon is standing in front of her row home with her mother Donna LeBon about to put out the food for their colony.

Nine styrofoam bowls are laid in a line against the black rod-iron railing separating row homes. Each is filled with red and brown dry cat food. Seven hungry cats, mostly grey tabbies, watch and wait. “Is that Cuddlefish coming?” Taylor said to Donna as a grey cat slinks up the sidewalk towards the house. Before you know it Cuddlefish has made it to a bowl.

Having a colony one of the most important things is to keep the health of your cats a top priority according to Taylor LeBon. She has been taking care of her colony now for around eight years. There is a lot of work to be done each day to keep within the city’s regulations. Keeping a clean area for the feral cats is one of them.

To comply to this regulation the LeBons spend a lot of time cleaning up after the cats. “There are five litter pans that we clean three times a day. Once in the morning, once mid-day and last in the evening,” said Taylor.

Though for the most part the cats are clean and leave you alone she added. Other duties include always having clean water out and providing some kind of shelter. The LeBons have done this by putting two little houses outside for the cats when the weather is bad. Plywood also surrounds the base of the porch to shield them from the wind.

Street lights have come on now and you can only hear the crunching cats still lined up at the bowls. Other cats are lurking nearby in the grass or on neighbor’s porches waiting for their turn. The people who live in the area have all retreated to inside their houses.

Sometimes these neighbors complain about the cat colony according to Taylor, and if this happens they must go to court to take up the issue. “We have even been accused of breeding cats,” Donna LeBon said.

Most of the time things are quiet though. According to Taylor LeBon most of the neighbors either don’t care or are glad that something is being done to help out all of the neighborhood cats.

 “All you can do is feed them, get them spayed or neutered and try to re-capture them when their shots are up,” Taylor LeBon said.

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The Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) process has been viewed by many as the ethical approach to combating the increasing population of feral cats in Baltimore.

It is ethically acceptable because it is an effective way to humanely manage a colony of free-ranging domestic cats. Feral cats, in clean and well-kept colonies are often adopted into homes, having become tamer after neutering. Therefore, TNR is appropriate for the well-being of the cat and prospective owner.

“The university does pay for the spaying and neutering which is really wonderful,” says Towson University Associate Professor Margaret Algren. “With the help of students, Towson allowed us to do the TNR program.”

The TNR process prevents the act of killing an innocent cat. Euthanasia is disliked among caretakers and the killings of feral cats does not reduce populations. Cats will still reproduce and live an abandoned lifestyle.

“You rarely ever see dogs on the street anymore, but cats are everywhere because no one takes care of them,” explains Taylor Lebon. “Without places like SPCA, what would we do? They are amazing people. I don’t know what I would do without them.”

A host of disease-related concerns are raised by TNR and abandoned and feral cats in general. TNR provides cats a healthier life. Without the ovary and testicle organs, ovarian cysts, uterine infections, cancer of the reproductive tract and testicular cancer are no longer a concern for the cat. TNR is now accepted as a realistic and ethical approach in many parts of Maryland.

“Decreasing the number of feral cats is certainly a goal, as is vaccinating outside cats against

rabies for public health reasons,” said Spay and Neuter Programs Manager Ashley Sheridan. “Also, altered cats lead healthier lives overall.”

TNR promotes awareness and responsible attitudes which is viewed as ethical. SPCA and Community Cats encourage education about TNR to encourage positive attitudes towards responsibility, prevent homelessness and to discourage the euthanasia of healthy or treatable animals. TNR is legal and parallel with the principles underlying the statutes that prohibit cruelty to animals.

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Back at the clinic it is approaching 9 am, the end of the allotted drop off time. Taylor LeBon has long since left and many others have come and dropped off their caught feral cats to be fixed. Some have belonged to colonies like the cat LeBon brought, others just feral cats in need to be fixed and to have their rabies shots.

One of the biggest drop offs is still in progress.  Mary Jones, volunteer trapper and board member of Community Cats Maryland, and her helpers June Philips and Melanie Heck are taking trap after trap out of the vehicles they arrived in. With upwards of 15 cats it takes them a bit to get each cage up to the door.

These cats have an appointment with the Spay and Neuter clinic at the Maryland SPCA to be fixed and given their shots. For the adult feral cats, this is so they can be released back into the community without the worry of extra kittens on the way and other complications in the neighborhood. The kittens are still getting fixed and given their shots, but the hope is that they find a home in the near future.

“The ones we are going to release we definitely get them tipped so that way if the animal control comes out they can tell that they’ve already been fixed and had their rabies shot,” said Heck. “The ones we give homes to we don’t get ear tipped because most people don’t want to adopt a kitten with an ear tip.”

The cats are being lined up in rows of three all the way from the front door to where the sidewalk meets the parking lot. Each cage is covered with towels sewn together to make them feel safe and keep them quiet according to Philips.

She has a colony in her backyard. Philips is actually the reason Heck got involved with the trapping and release of cats in their neighborhood. Some of the cats brought today have even come from Philips colonies.

Philips got involved to take care of the cats and to follow the city’s regulations for cat caretakers. “We got involved by finding out which rules we can do and we can’t,” she said.

Philips, Heck and Jones trap cats and try to find the friendly ones homes or just take care of them once they become part of their colony.

“It’s an epidemic it really is. It’s sad ya know? And people don’t do anything about it,” Philips said.

“I believe the estimated number of cats living outside in this city is over 150,000- with a human population of only 650,000. And the devastating fact is many of these cats would be loving pets- if there just weren’t so many,” said Ashley Sheridan.

These are just some of the people trying to do their part to help the growing feral feline population. With people like these who get involved hopefully populations will decrease in Charm City.

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