Into the Wild

Tech Colleagues Care for Campus Cat Population

In a community where greater enrollment is often the goal, several members of the Tech community are concerned with keeping their numbers at a status quo.

Construction project manager Steven Johnson and utilities analyst Susan Wardrope work to keep feral cats on campus at a sustainable level, all while preventing more from moving in. Together with a network of campus participants, the group works on its own time-and in most cases, its own dime-to alter, monitor and feed these felines.

A part of Auxiliary Services during his 'day' job, Johnson instills the practice of Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR), which works to equalize rather than eliminate feral cat populations. When animal control officers capture these cats, euthanasia is the typical result, as they are well past the age of human socialization. In doing this, a vacuum is created wherein other feral cats will just move into the area, continuing the cycle.

However, the central TNR theory is that a controlled community of altered cats aids in maintaining area populations and keeping more feral cats from moving in.

"The best advantages to having them altered is that they start to concentrate around the feeding stations, and they don't have any urge to mate," Wardrope said. "They have their food, their sleeping place and their area that they're familiar with."

"They defend their territory, keeping other cats from moving into the area, which stabilizes the population," Johnson said. "An unaltered male will travel up to three miles. An altered cat will only travel about 300 meters."

The program at Tech started in 1996. "We'd get reports of cats in the area," said Johnson, who added he discovered students and employees were leaving food for the animals.

He said they counted 19 adult and juvenile cats on East Campus in those early days. In the first full feral cat census for the Institute, Johnson said they easily counted 179 cats in late 1998-32 in one colony that lived in the president's glade. (Today, Johnson says, that colony is down to three occasional visitors.) Now, as far as Johnson and his group can tell, about 34 cats call Tech home, including only two or three unaltered females-which Johnson says he is still trying to trap.

According to the duo, 30 to 35 cats on campus is very sustainable. Each feeding station has enough of a colony for one dominant male and one dominant female that protect the territory. This 'territorial management practice' leads to a fairly accurate understanding of where overlap between the colonies exists.

Johnson and Wardrope work to answer the call-literally-if someone reports a cat on campus. "I'll go out that night, see if it's a new cat or one of our own," Johnson said. "If it's a new cat, I'll try to stake it out and see where it's going-to established food stations or somewhere else." Sometimes, Johnson said, people who don't know about the campus program put a food dish outside of a building for any 'strays' they see.

If it is determined that a sighted cat is a new 'resident,' Johnson traps it's an undertaking that may require several hours of waiting. ("I know all the third-shift police officers by name.") He keeps the caged animal in his garage overnight and then carries it to the vet the next morning. The cats are neutered or spayed, vaccinated-many for the first time-and dosed with flea control medication. Males are released the following day after surgery. Females are released three days later. For captured kittens, Johnson either finds adoptive families or takes them to no-kill shelters after they are socialized.

"Without a feeding program to localize a colony, you'll continue to have mangy-looking cats that are more susceptible to diseases and other vectors that they can catch." But, in what could be seen as a disadvantage in the program, unaltered females tend to have larger litters because of the better nutrition. "When we first started, cats were giving birth to four, where only 50 percent survived. Now they can give birth to a litter of nine, and seven will survive," he said.

One challenge Johnson and Wardrope have noticed is well-wishers often will leave food out, which aids in diluting established feeding stations. "We leave a note and let them know," he said. "We're trying to get the word out that there is a good program-just by going from 179 to 34 cats shows it-s working."

But Johnson and Wardrope are by no means acting alone. Roughly 30 people are on his e-mail list, Johnson said, and about six handle the campus-wide feeding stations. Johnson himself handles the heavy lifting: tracking the cats' movements and trapping them.

"We just started doing this out-of-pocket," Johnson said. Through the e-mail network, however, people donated food and money for surgeries beyond spaying and neutering.

The duo's efforts have led to collaborations outside the Institute. When Fulton County's Animal Control units respond to an on-campus call, Johnson receives a courtesy call if it's a cat issue. This in turn has expanded his TNR efforts, establishing partnerships with Fulton, Cobb, Douglas and DeKalb counties.

"It's a quid pro quo," he says. "Fulton County has the Fix 'Em Free program. When they found out we were running this initiative at Tech, they offered us use of this program. In exchange, when they have reports of a feral colony somewhere, I'm available to go out and talk to people [about TNR]."

In assisting with feral cat colonies in off-campus communities, Johnson explains the Trap, Neuter and Return philosophy, letting people know the usual fate of a feral animal taken to a shelter. "Once people learn about the program, and Steve offers to take [the cats] in to have them altered and vaccinated, they usually have no problem throwing food out for them," Wardrope said.

"I volunteer to support both the Fulton County Animal Services and Catlanta, a local organization that is basically the feral cat coordinator of the Lifeline Animal Project." Catlanta recently received a grant to aid in the spaying and neutering of feral cats within the area. It's a supplement to what Fulton County currently provides, and the group is now in negotiations with DeKalb County to create a similar 'Fix 'Em Free' program.

"We'll help get them spayed or neutered, all of them are vaccinated for rabies [and] they can receive additional vaccinations, if requested," Johnson said, adding that almost all counties have a low-cost program that supplements the cost of altering a cat or dog. "I mainly concentrate on the feral cats, and I'll go out and do the assessment-is it just a backyard colony; or an abandoned cat colony that's gone feral. Then I'll report to the agency that's going to sponsor it 'Catlanta [or] Southern Hope.'

And evidence points to TNR reducing the load on animal shelters. Excepting a spike due to foreclosure increases, Johnson said, Fulton County has noticed a marked reduction in the amount of feral cats brought to the shelter.

According to Johnson, Atlanta-area programs have attracted the attention of several national organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and Alley Cat Allies (which fights for TNR protocols nationwide). "We haven't gotten our city commissions to enact ordinances yet, but we're working toward that."

Some organizations, however, oppose the principles of TNR, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), The Wildlife Society and the American Bird Conservancy. PETA states on its Web site: "Because of the huge number of feral cats and the severe shortage of good homes, the difficulty of socialization, and the dangers lurking where most feral cats live, it may be necessary-and the most compassionate choice-to euthanize feral cats. ... If you leave them where they are, they will almost certainly die a painful death. A painless injection is far kinder than any fate that feral cats will meet if they are left to survive on their own."

Johnson doesn't see it that way.

"In a managed colony, human caretakers have just made portions of [the cats'] lives easier by removing the stress of producing multiple litters," he said. "By offering a tended food station, caretakers provide a steady supplemental food source, which also permits the cats to be observed for injuries and, when necessary, to be trapped for treatment. A minority of cats specialize in bird hunting as opposed to rodent hunting," Johnson concedes. "But rodents are still the main natural prey species of outdoor cats. Just because one might kill a chipmunk or Carolina wren does not mean they, as a species living within a habitat, deserve to be exterminated."

Overall, Johnson and Wardrope are trying to get the feral cat management plan under way in the metro area, and then slowly branch out to the outlying counties. And he's been reaching out to other University System of Georgia units.

But as for Tech, the next steps for the program include establishing the Library and Information Center's feeding station and then moving further north on campus to the Howey building and the College of Computing. "We've gotten reports from the building manager, as well as from the College of Computing, that they've seen cats in the area. We're trying to identify where would be the best place to establish a feeding station."

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