LINDSBORG — When she started working with a loosely organized group of Lindsborg citizens to try to deal with free-roaming — or feral — cats, Rowena Heart might not have appreciated the extent of the problem.
It had gotten so bad, a representative of Lindsborg's city government had posted on the city's Facebook page: “Wild and stray cats are causing health and odor concerns, particularly in the downtown area.”
The city asked owners to feed pets inside and vaccinate, tag, spay and neuter them.
Neutered cats are less likely to spray, scream at night or fight, and the human neighbors are happier, said Vanessa Cowie, animal services manager at the Salina Animal Shelter.
“If you really like your cat, keep it inside,” she said.
Lindsborg didn't have a formal program for dealing with stray cats, said Greg DuMars, city administrator.
So a group of citizens — including Heart, who has lived in Lindsborg for about a year — stepped up to fill the void, organizing a trap-neuter-release program.
Heart has been talking to city officials, the city council and business owners about solutions to the problem.
The group “has grown so fast it’s unbelievable,” she said.
More than a few
Heart is clear they are not affiliated with any other group, including the McPherson Humane Society, which has agreed to pay to spay, neuter and vaccinate 40 cats from downtown Lindsborg this year.
That is not even going to cover two blocks, Heart said.
“I only thought there were a few cats,” she said. “I was delusional.”
The group is concentrating on the alleys behind two blocks of North Main Street and two blocks of South Main Street.
Before Heart sets traps for the cats, she gets permission from the business and property owners. The group is scrupulous about following ordinances and laws.
Always use traps
Members of the group trap the cats and kittens, take them to Lindsborg Veterinary Clinic to be neutered and vaccinated, then release the cats where they found them into managed colonies. Their ears are tipped so that if they are caught again, people will know they’ve been to the vet.
It’s important to use traps, Heart said, because even small kittens can inflict damage with teeth and claws on a person trying to help them. She saw an ill kitten she had been trying to catch in a tree and grabbed it. She has the scars to prove it.
Heart would like to use the services of Kansas State University’s mobile veterinary clinic, but it is available only to nonprofit organizations. She would like to find a nonprofit organization to take over her group.
The grant from the McPherson Humane Society covers only neutering and vaccinations.
The humane society also will help McPherson County cat owners who can’t afford neutering, providing a $47 voucher to use at an area vet.
Lindsborg Veterinary Clinic has established a fund to collect donations to cover other expenses. The kitten Heart grabbed, for example, has some bad infections and will lose an eye because of it, once it’s strong enough for the surgery. Two Lindsborg women have pledged independently to cover those costs.
Kittens young enough to be socialized are offered for adoption through group members.
It’s not a good idea to kill the cats, Heart said.
Cats are useful
For one thing, the cats provide a useful service by killing mice and other small vermin. Business owners like that.
And while no one knows for sure how many free-roaming, abandoned or feral cats there are, they do know that if an area is cleared of one group of wild cats, another will move in. It’s known as the vacuum effect, Heart said.
The best way to control the population is to manage a community of healthy, neutered cats, she said.
A single pair of cats and their offspring could produce 420,000 kittens in seven years. Neutering cats is the only way to affect the population, Heart said.
Can be managed
Volunteers manage a TNR colony by providing food, water and some shelter. The cats may become used to their human managers but most don’t become tame enough to bring inside.
“We rely on the colony manager,” Salina's Cowie said. “We have to enlist the help of citizens.”
TNR is the answer, she said, and she thinks it is already having an effect on Salina populations. The Salina Animal Shelter has a TNR program in the off-season, but not in the spring and summer.
Some of the wild cats go into Salina’s barn cat program. The Lindsborg group is considering starting a similar program.
The Salina program started in late June 2015. So far, 30 healthy wild cats have been adopted as barn cats, and there’s a waiting list, Cowie said.
These cats are too feral to be inside. Some of them are friendly but refuse to use a litter box.
Three have graduated into becoming house cats.
A lot of the wild cats were tame, Cowie said, but probably were dumped on the streets by their owners.
Cats don’t seem to be as valuable as dogs to many humans, Cowie said. Reclaim rates are higher for dogs.
“We see cats as more disposable,” she said. “We find the community is more willing to spay, neuter and microchip dogs.”
Statistics support her statement. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, households spend an average of $90 a year on each cat and an average of $227 a year on dogs for veterinary care. Dogs visit vets an average 2.6 times a year; cats go 1.6 times.
“It’s very hard at the end of the day,” Cowie said. “It’s very sad that humans have created this mess.”