Furry Hearts Reports Progress with Feral Cats; Brownlee Remains Skeptical

by The Village Green
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Editor’s note, 9/9/15: A spokesperson from St. Hubert’s added a clarification of a quote from Maplewood Health Director Robert Roe regarding whether St. Hubert’s will pick up deceased animals on private property. According to the spokesperson, St. Hubert’s will not pick up deceased wild animals on private property, but will pick up deceased domestic animals such as cats and dogs.

The organization that oversees Maplewood’s Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) pilot program in Maplewood told the Township Committee at its meeting last Tuesday that it has made progress in diminishing the township’s feral cat population since the program’s launch late last year.

However, at least one TC member, Marlon K. Brownlee, continued to express deep skepticism about the program’s lack of data and overall chances for long-term success.

Laura Himmelein of Furry Hearts Rescue, which operates the TNR program at no cost to the town, announced that since January the group had taken in or trapped 124 cats. “If you consider how many litters a cat can have in the course of a year, we have already saved probably close to 1,000 cats coming onto the streets of Maplewood,” she said.

Furry Hearts trains volunteers to trap the cats, which are then neutered, vaccinated and microchipped before being released. Other volunteers feed registered feral cat colonies. Learn more about the program here.

Although Himmelein said finding and maintaining good volunteers was a challenge,  she was confident the township’s new alliance with St. Hubert’s would alleviate those issues. As part of its new contract to be Maplewood’s animal control entity, St. Hubert’s has offered to assist the town with its TNR program, including helping find volunteers.

The alliance “will be very beneficial for our town to combat the feral population,” Himmelein said.

(Maplewood Health Director Robert Roe recently released an updated outline of services from St. Hubert’s, which specifies that St. Hubert’s will be actively involved in the TNR program. In addition, said Roe, “Neither the Township nor St. Hubert’s will pick up dead animals on private property. The resident should do this and simply dispose of the animal into a plastic bag into the regular household garbage. There is no health hazard to residents who do this.” See the outline attached here as a PDF document.)

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“Do we know how many cats we had at the start of the pilot and do we know how many we have now?” asked Brownlee, who has repeatedly expressed frustration with the lack of data the program is collecting.

“The quick answer is no,” said Roe. “I’m just not going to be able to get accurate counts.”  Brownlee asked how the pilot could be evaluated without that data point.

Himmelein interjected that the 124 cats trapped so far meant there were that many fewer cats “on the streets procreating.”

Township Committeewoman and BOH chair India Larrier asked Himmelein to work with Roe to compile standardized, monthly reports for the TC, “so we can see how you’re reaching benchmarks.” Larrier said that the TC would consider the lack of data when it comes time to evaluate the pilot’s success. “Not getting a report from you is not good.”

“It’s a lot easier to make a strong case for your program and expanding it in other places if you could quantify it,” said Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan.

Himmelein agreed: “This is not a new problem, and it’s a common question.”

“This is a learning process…[that’s] the whole idea of a pilot,” said Mayor Vic DeLuca. He suggested Furry Hearts also include “ancillary goals” in their reports, and added, “I would have to think the 124 cats would help reduce the population going forward.”

Brownlee said when the ordinance was passed, he predicted the TC would find some other means to justify its conclusion other than a reduction in feral cats. “We might just as well count the number of sunny days” to evaluate the program.

Reached by email after the meeting, Brownlee said studies on TNR programs in other towns have shown mixed results in terms of reducing the number of feral cats. “In some cases the results have been good,” especially when combined with other components such as increasing adoption rates, “while in other cases the results have not been good.”

Brownlee said when the pilot was initially discussed, he insisted that some target reduction number be set, and he grew frustrated “when it became increasingly obvious that there was a reluctance by anyone to do so.”

He continued, “So now we are about 10 months into this pilot and we don’t know how many cats there were when we started or how many cats there are now or how much we hope to reduce the number cats by. And…we’re now asking the people running the pilot program — who presumably have a vested interest in having the pilot viewed favorably — to develop and provide to us some ‘ancillary’ criteria that we should use to evaluate them!”

Brownlee said that, in the absence of data points that would provide a broader context, it was difficult to tell whether the 124 cats trapped so far had made a difference, “…it’s possible that the overall number of cats might not show a decline…but without any numbers, we’re just left with the fact that those 124 cats can’t reproduce, but no understanding of whether the overall objective has been met.”

Ryan asked Himmelein if she was involved in the effort to launch a similar program in South Orange. She said there was “quite a bit of traction” for the program in South Orange but because the Board of Health there is “structured differently” they are “hitting up against the wall there.”

In a presentation at the July South Orange BOH Board of Trustee meeting, the president and health officer indicated they were not in favor of moving forward with TNR.

Reached by email for comment, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said South Orange has a separate Board of Health, unlike in Maplewood, where the elected township committee members serve as the BOH.

“The Board of Trustees in South Orange cannot unilaterally adopt a TNR program without the support of the Board of Health,” said Collum. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together and share information with one another.”

Collum said after the last meeting, she asked the BOH to revisit the issue.

“…they agreed to do so and for that, I’m very appreciative – especially of Dr. David Pittman who is the President of the Board of Health and our Health Officer John Festa,” Collum said. The town has since received more information about how other communities have successfully implemented TNR, and members of the BOH and the town’s animal control officer have been meeting with experts to learn more about the program.

The BOH will hold its next meeting on September 17 at 7:30 p.m., at 76 South Orange Avenue, 3rd floor, when the full board will get updates and discuss the topic.

Collum said while it was unlikely the issue would be entirely resolved at that meeting, officials and residents would have a better indication of whether the BOH was interested in pursuing TNR.

“I think everyone is keeping an open mind and trying to balance all the information that is coming our way and I hope we’ll be able to come up with a solution that balances all the competing interests and concerns.”

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