Maplewood Township will pilot a program to reduce the population of feral cats by creating officially-sanctioned colonies of stray felines cared for by trained, registered resident volunteers.
The “Trap-Neuter-Release” program, modeled after others in New Jersey and across the country, will tap volunteer citizen “caretakers” who will host the colonies at their homes, while a sponsoring organization oversees the colonies to ensure the cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
Health Officer Robert Roe presented the preliminary ordinance to the Township Committee for discussion at its October 7 meeting. The ordinance will be introduced at the TC’s next meeting on Tuesday.
“This is not going to totally solve the stray cat problem,” said Roe, but the aim is to reduce the numbers of feral cats in Maplewood — a problem that has been growing over the years.
“We get complaints about cat colonies nearly every day, in all parts of town,” said Roe in an interview earlier this fall. “These colonies were started by strong cat lovers,” said Roe. “Some are responsible and some are irresponsible…We want to gradually reduce the numbers in colonies that already exist.”
The town will work with Furry Hearts Rescue, a non-profit animal rescue organization that will set regulations for and help train people who wish to have cat colonies. Furry Hearts volunteers will ensure the caretakers are feeding the cats regularly, helping to regularly trap the cats to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated, and take sick cats to the vet.
The idea for the program began a year ago, when a group of Maplewood residents presented it to the Township Committee. Roe and Township Commiteewoman India Larrier, president of the board of health, have been working with Furry Hearts to draft the resolution.
The town’s current feral cat ordinance, adopted in 2010, prohibits anyone from feeding stray, unlicensed cats.
Roe said the problem of feral cats has increased in town as people leave out food for strays in backyards or behind businesses, encouraging them to form colonies. Some colonies in town have 20-30 cats, said Roe, and the town has given out roughly half a dozen summonses.
Roe said if all cats are spayed and neutered, it will eventually decrease the population.
“If you’d asked me a year ago if I wanted to start this program I would have said ‘no way,'” said Roe. After learning more about its success in other municipalities, including Mt. Olive, Lodi, Atlantic City and New York City, he changed his mind.
Cats will be allowed on private (not public) property, only with homeowner permission. No colonies are allowed at houses within 50 yards of a school or child care center.
Township Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee asked at the meeting if there would be a count of the number of feral cats that currently exist to determine whether the program is successful in reducing the number of cats.
“While I thought that was a pretty straightforward request, there seems to be reluctance to commit to that,” said Brownlee in a later email. “[It] struck me as odd since that is why we are being asked to do the pilot in the first place.”
Brownlee also said someone other than the sponsoring group should conduct the counting.
“Do we expect the amount of feral cats to be reduced 10%? 50%? 90%,” asked Brownlee. “Or if we have just one less feral cat, do we declare ‘mission complete’? No one was willing to state even a rough estimate of what we hope to accomplish.”
Mayor Vic DeLuca said there should be a measurement, but seemed in favor of going ahead with the program. “Continuing to do nothing is not helping,” he said.
Brownlee said in the email that while he agrees that the town’s current system is not working adequately, he is concerned about how the program will impact residents.
“If [a] parent calls the animal control office and asks to have a feral cat removed from their property, will it be removed, and would the answer be different if there is a nearby cat colony in the pilot program?” wondered Brownlee. “There seemed to be reluctance to give an straightforward answer to that question…and I’m not altogether comfortable with the idea that a parent might not be able to have an animal removed from their property to protect their children because of a pilot program. When pressed, Bob Roe did say that he might ‘bring the cat back to the colony’, but I was unsatisfied with that response.”
Roe told TC members that if there are many complaints from neighbors, the town will reevaluate the program.
Asked in the earlier interview how some residents might feel about living next door to a feral cat colony, Roe said, “That’s the million dollar question. Pet owners need to be responsible. It’s a step in the right direction but not a perfect solution.”