Taking the lead from Maplewood and some other surrounding towns, officials in South Orange are considering options for introducing a trap/neuter/release — or TNR — program to deal with the issue of feral cats.
“That conversation is beginning today,” said Trustee Sheena Collum at the April 13 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting. Collum introduced Michelle Lerner with the Animal Protection League of New Jersey who then presented on various approaches for controlling feral cat populations.
Lerner explained that feral cats are unsocialized cats born outside and living outside in colonies. She said that the conservative estimate based on human population is that South Orange has at least 1,000 feral cats. Lerner outlined the three most common methods that U.S. municipalities are using to control feral cat populations: “doing nothing,” trap and remove (or trap and kill), and feeding bans.
Lerner said that trap and remove is not working anywhere because of cats very high reproduction rate. She reported that cats can have two or three litters of four or five kittens per year (more likely two litters per year in our climate). To decrease the population, at least 75% of cats would need to be removed each year, meaning that, if South Orange has 1,000 feral cats, animal control would need to remove and impound 750 per year. Even if feral cats are removed at that rate, Lerner said that a “vacuum effect” is created whereby new feral cats move in from other areas.
After noting that Associated Humane of Newark is impounding and euthanizing cats for South Orange at a rate of $90/cat, Lerner said, “No department has enough money in its budget for this policy.” She also noted that, under a trap and remove/kill police, many residents don’t want to report feral cats because they don’t want to see them euthanized.
Lerner said that feeding bans don’t work for a number of reasons. One in six Americans feed feral cats, according to studies, and with bans they just become more discreet. Lerner said that bans are difficult to enforce, and that cats are resilient and resort to garbage or hunting. “They may be thinner or less healthy but they survive,” said Lerner. She noted that Maplewood saw an increase in population with a feeding ban. Also, she said, under this policy cats are not receiving rabies and other vaccinations.
Lerner noted that in Maplewood, complaints about feral cats more than doubled after a feeding ban was introduced. Why? “Residents stopped asking for help with removing kittens or cats,” she said because they didn’t want to call attention to the fact that they were illegally feeding. Lerner noted that TNR — or trap/neuter/release — cats are now exempted from Maplewood’s feeding ban under Maplewood’s newly adopted TNR ordinance.
Finally, Lerner report that TNR is the most effective method at reducing cats and complaints, resulting in fewer diseases because vaccinations, and garnering more grant money to help municipalities pay the bills. She said that such a policy is “more humane and popular with residents.”
How does it work? Lerner said that once cats and kittens are trapped, friendly adults and kittens are removed for adoption; feral adults are neutered and vaccinated and ear-tipped, and retuned to where they were trapped for continual management under the care of the people who were already feeding them. “The reason this works is that you have a lot more people trapping,” said Lerner. “You need a small army to get ahead of reproductive curve in trip and kill. But more people come forward with TNR.” Lerner said that feral cat numbers are reduced through removal and then attrition because the TNR cats are not reproducing.
“It’s a lot cheaper,” said Lerner, who noted that cats can be neutered and vaccinated for $50-55 per cat vs. $90 for trap and kill rate that South Orange is currently paying to Associated Humane of Newark.
“This is not a fringe thing this is really a trend.” Lerner rattled off a list of state agencies and groups that have accepted and endorsed TNR, as well as national organizations. Lerner noted that more than 150 New Jersey municipalities have an officially sanctioned TNR program. She offered statistics for massive reductions in TNR towns including Englewood which reported a 72% reduction in feral cats in the first two and half years of TNR, and Mount Olive which reported 74% reduction in 5 years.
Lerner referenced Furry Hearts which has initiated a $50 fee and has expressed interest in working with South Orange. She also noted that South Orange would need to adjust feeding ban to exempt TNR cats, exempt them from licensing, and adjust its pet limit law because SO law includes outside animals.
Trustees akssed the South Orange liaison to Essex County if the County was considering enacting a program similar to Bergen County. The liaison reported that Essex County has not yet found it feasible to take on animal control but that it is a continuous topic of discussion with the County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo who has a soft spot for animals.
Collum said that she would continue talking with Maplewood about working together on TNR.
Collum did say she was concerned about how neighbors would feel about cat colonies essentially being sanctioned by the Township. Lerner responded, “You need to compare it to the current situation: Right now the colony is there, the only thing that would change is that they would be neutered and vaccinated.” Lerner said that most complaints about feral cats are about cats’ mating activity, including spraying which is an extremely strong smell. She also noted that noise and “yowling” is mating behavior. Said Lerner, “Cats stop roaming as much when they are neutered. The alternative is that cats get removed and killed, and new cats move in.”
Health Officer John Festa noted that the Township had been enforcing the feeding ban aggressively and to good effect; however, Trustees did express an interest in pursuing discussions about TNR.
The next step for any action on TNR in South Orange is for the South Orange Board of Health to take up the issue. (The BOH next meets on May 21.) Counsel Steve Rother noted that animal control comes under the BOH’s jurisdiction: “Yes, they are autonomous and they can adopt statutes themselves and make their own ordinances,” said Rother.
Watch Lerner’s presentation and the ensuring conversation here.