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One giant litter box

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Cat rescuer Kiff LaBar-Shelton, left, takes pictures of feral cat feces dotting the roof of Mendy Mills' Kirtland area home. The cats have also sprayed her swamp cooler, causing an odor that prevents her from using it. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cat rescuer Kiff LaBar-Shelton, left, takes pictures of feral cat feces dotting the roof of Mendy Mills’ Kirtland area home. The cats have also sprayed her swamp cooler, causing an odor that prevents her from using it. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

This will be the second summer that Mendy Mills, a resident of the Kirtland neighborhood near the airport, will be unable to use her swamp cooler.

The cooler works just fine, and Mills has no problem with associated upticks in utility bills. The dilemma, she says, is the smell.

“Feral cats get up there and spray the cooler and all around the roof; then, when I turn the cooler on, the entire house smells like cat urine. I pull that odor into every room in my home. Do you have any idea what that smells like?”

She answers her own question: “It’s nasty, and it doesn’t look much better.” Climbing a ladder up to the flat roof of her 1950s-era home reveals countless piles of cat feces mixed in with the tar gravel.

Back on the ground, the presence of feral cats is obvious from the damage they’ve left behind. “I have a tiny patch of grass in my backyard, and it’s just ruined,” Mills says, pointing to brown spots where cat urine has withered the lawn.

She identifies other barren spots and dried up vegetation in her predominantly xeric landscape. She ticks off the carnage: blue flax, shasta daisies, lavender, rock soapwort, some 30 strawberry plants and more – all killed by urine from feral cats, she says.

Mills estimates that during the four years she has lived in the home, she has spent about $1,000 replacing plants and digging out toxic soil. That doesn’t include the cost of having to discard her outdoor furniture cushions, as well as shoes, jackets and other items left outside and sprayed on by feral cats.

The biggest insult, she says, is the city’s endorsement of what it calls the TNR program, or “Trap, Neuter and Return.” Nonprofit animal welfare groups trap feral cats, and using private funds get the animals spayed or neutered and vaccinated against common cat illnesses. The tip of the cat’s left ear is clipped, or flattened, as a marker that it has been fixed. It’s then returned to the location from where it was trapped and released. Unable to reproduce, the size of the feral colony should, in theory, shrink.

Cat rescuer and TNR program trapper Kiff LaBar-Shelton, right, explains to Mendy Mills how a motion-activated, water-spraying device called the ScareCrow might help to keep feral cats off of her property. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cat rescuer and TNR program trapper Kiff LaBar-Shelton, right, explains to Mendy Mills how a motion-activated, water-spraying device called the ScareCrow might help to keep feral cats off of her property. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Exactly how does spaying or neutering these animals solve my immediate problem?” Mills asks. “These are not people’s pets. They are wild animals, they are unadoptable and they continue to destroy my property and my neighbors’ property.”

Nobody likes the idea of euthanizing these animals, she says, “but as a taxpayer I expect the city to step up and do whatever is necessary.”

So, what is necessary? Depends on whom you ask. Veterinarians are loathe to kill healthy feral cats. Most citizens don’t much like the idea either, but neither do they want these animals in their neighborhoods and yards. The city animal shelters won’t kill them, but won’t keep them, because they’re not adoptable and they don’t have enough room in any event.

Where does that leave the feral cat colonies? Pretty much exactly where they are.

The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department has adopted what is essentially a no-kill policy. Animals are euthanized only when they are sick, badly injured, or have “behavior problems that make them unadoptable,” says Jim Ludwick, the department’s animal programs analyst.

There are likely hundreds of feral cat colonies in neighborhoods “all over town,” though numbers are difficult to estimate, he says. Easier to track are the numbers of cats impounded yearly at the city’s two shelters, numbers that indicate TNR is working, he says.

In 2007, the year before the program was adopted, more than 12,300 cats were taken in; by 2013, just under 7,000 cats were taken in.

Most of the cats brought into the shelters before TNR was adopted were strays and feral “and they still are,” Ludwick says. While there is no conclusive proof that the reduction of cats seen at the shelter is a direct result of TNR, “it stands to reason that it was a contributing factor because it averted the birth of numerous generations of litters that would have wound up at our intake,” he says.

Mendy Mills, a resident of the Kirtland neighborhood, shows barren spots in her yard where plants have died as a result of feral cats spraying on them. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Mendy Mills, a resident of the Kirtland neighborhood, shows barren spots in her yard where plants have died as a result of feral cats spraying on them. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Prior to TNR, “the city used to kill cats by the thousands,” Ludwick says. “It didn’t work here or anywhere. It just relieved pressure on the food supply and the vacuum was filled by more cats. TNR is now the mainstream approach in the U.S. and in other countries, so it’s hard to see how a program that prevents cats from being born and shrinks the size of colonies over time adds to the cat problem.”

There’s the rub. Over how much time? Albuquerque veterinarian and Journal columnist Jeff Nichol says it depends on the availability of food from well-meaning people who continue to feed the animals, and the number of non-spayed and non-neutered cats that join the colony, often when their former pet owners move and abandon them.

Consider that feral cats, which have an average lifespan of two to four years, can start reproducing when they are 6 months old and give birth to a litter of five kittens on average. Now, says Nichol, imagine that three of those kittens are females who can produce litters of their own in six months, and those kittens start having litters six months after that. The growth can be “exponential,” he says.

“The big picture is we’re not going to see these colonies going away, but the point of TNR is to stop the kind of growth we’ve seen,” he says. “There are legitimate public health considerations. There’s more cat rabies than dog rabies, and cats can have parasites like ticks. There are also ecological considerations, like damage to wild birds and vegetation.”

However, most veterinarians, himself included, are not inclined to euthanize a healthy cat, even a feral one. “TNR is the most humane response, and I participate in it,” Nichol said. “It’s the best we can do realistically.”

That “best” is not good enough for Mills and many of her neighbors.

Longtime Kirtland area resident Sandra Gray won’t let her granddaughter outside to play because her yard “is covered in cat feces and urine,” she says. “We clean it all the time and can’t keep up with it.” Further, she says, cats frequently pad around on her roof at night and have hopped onto her car, spraying and scratching the paint.

“I’m not an animal hater, but these cats are destructive. If they’re going to trap the cats, they need to move them away permanently, and if that means euthanizing them, then that’s what they should do.”

Neighbor Edie Monroe agrees. “Just because these cats can’t make babies doesn’t help my situation, and I don’t see any evidence that the colony size has been reduced,” she says. “Every year, I try to do something to beautify my front yard, and, every year, these cats try just as hard to destroy it. It’s expensive – and don’t even get me started about the backyard.”

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