South Orange Board of Health, Town Trustees Clash Over Feral Cats

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Members of the South Orange Board of Trustees had some tough questions last Monday, July 27, for members of the town’s Board of Health after a presentation by three Board of Health members regarding Trap/Neuter/Return programs for feral cats.

The Board of Health has statutory control over all policies and ordinances impacting public health — such as Trap/Neuter/Return, also known as TNR.

The Board of Health members — President Dr. David Pitman, Dr. David Thomas and Dean Kameros — clearly did not favor the introduction of a TNR program. Thomas took the Board of Trustees through a slide presentation that focused on diseases spread by cats — including rabies, toxoplasmosis, ringworm and cat scratch fever. Thomas said that “90% of domestic animal rabies cases are cats” and called allowing feral cat colonies “an accident waiting to happen.”

Thomas specializes in internal medicine and holds a masters in public health.

Beyond the danger of rabies, Thomas said that cats urinating and defecating outside increased exposure for toxoplasmosis, which can impact those with weak immune systems. He also talked about the ecological impact of outside cats on native wildlife. “House cats are one of the most efficient predators,” said Thomas, who noted that cats had “decimated our song bird population. If we increase the numbers of these animals roaming around it will impact ecological systems even more.” Thomas also pointed to other problems like noise and smells created by feral cats.

“As far as TNR — I’m a cat lover — I’m not going to take a pro-euthanasia stance,” said Thomas. “I’m very concerned that this as a solution that really doesn’t seem to work when we take the health of the community as the most important issue.”

Thomas said that he did not see evidence that TNR reduced the risk of disease transmission or the number of cats. “They work together and help each other survive. Even when they are not able to reproduce there will be more animals drawn to the area,” said Thomas.

Thomas also protested that TNR “doesn’t protect the cats. They face the same dangers,” including predations, automobiles, disease, starvation, and freezing to death. “Even from the perspective of what’s best for cats, this doesn’t seem to be the ideal solution.”

Instead, Thomas, Pitman and Kameros recommended controlling the feral cat population through licensing all cats, microchipping all cats, and recommending that all cats stay indoors or leashed. They said that town should also continue to disallow feral cat feeding, and increase education and enforcement.

Despite the Board of Health members’ strong objections to TNR, Board of Trustees were skeptical.

“I don’t see anything in there about limiting the population specifically,” said Trustee Walter Clark. “If TNR is neutering cats, at least isn’t that a step in the right direction? Doesn’t it achieve the goal over time?”

“Wouldn’t all the towns doing TNR effectively deal with the immigration issue?” asked Trustee Mark Rosner.

Clarke added, “Toxoplasmosis and rabies exist in either case.”

Trustee Howard Levison asked, “I still don’t get how you are proposing to control the cats? Is it TN without the R?”

Thomas responded, “The current consensus of the board is that we should not institute TNR at this time.” He added, “I’d like to see TNA – trap neuter adopt,” calling it “an idealistic solution.”

Ultimately Village President Sheena Collum had the strongest criticism for the Board of Health presentation.

“What I can’t seem to wrap my head around is how over 150 other municipalities have made TNR work,” said Collum. “Some of the groups that we use as a resource for advice for the municipality are putting out a lot of information on this program supporting it … including the State of New Jersey.”

“I look at our surrounding towns” — Collum listed Maplewood, Millburn, Livingston, West Caldwell, Verona, Bloomfield, Nutley, and Montclair, among others — “all have some form of this program that’s active. Do they not get it and we do? This is a really big disconnect. And I’ve spoken to six mayors and they are claiming it’s a success.”

Collum also said that “in some cases” TNR was cheaper than traditional programs and pointed to Maplewood where the nonprofit Furry Hearts Rescue is providing TNR at no cost to the town.

“Our pattern is that cats don’t get adopted and they do get euthanized. I urge you to relook at this position,” said Collum. “I know that I had views three years ago that have changed.” Collum also claimed that some of the sources cited by the Board of Health in its presentation were outdated. “I’ve spent a lot of time reading on this issue,” said Collum.

Collum noted that the next Board of Health meeting would take place on the third Thursday in September (September 17) at 76 South Orange Avenue, 3rd floor, at 7:30 p.m. She said that, if the Board of Health anticipated a large turnout, the Township would help facilitate a different location.

Board of Health President Dr. David Pitman said that he was willing to “listen to whomever comes to our meeting” but noted “that is our overarching goal — our love is for the citizens. I love my neighbors more than I love my cats” and stressed that the public health of the citizens of South Orange was the Board of Health’s number one priority.

Watch the full discussion on video here.

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