Stepping onto the back porch of Suzanne Des Marais's row house in Washington, D.C., a visitor might be skeptical about the colony of feral cats she supposedly feeds.
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There isn't a feline in sight, until she points to a pair of yellow eyes peeking between boards at the top of a fence. The black cat keeps its distance, apparently alone, then she picks up food dishes and suddenly three cats are watching from the next yard.
"They know the sounds, like the clanging of the dishes," Des Marais says.
These are authentic alley cats — an alley runs past her backyard gate — but they're far from the raggedy specimens the term brings to mind. And Des Marais's loving care of her "regulars" stretches well beyond food.
Des Marais is a volunteer advocate of the Trap-Neuter-Return approach to managing stray cats. The tips are missing from the left ears of those she feeds, identifying them as cats that have already been captured and returned to their home territory, with vaccinations thrown in as well.
The approach, known as TNR, used to be close to an underground movement but is now standard policy for major animal welfare organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. More than 250 nonprofit TNR organizations operate nationwide.
The District of Columbia has about 400 cat colonies with almost 2,000 cats that have been spayed, neutered and vaccinated by the CatNiPP program of the Washington Humane Society, says program director Bridget Speiser.
Many not adoptable
Neighbors are often skeptical at first: Why trap the cats and then put them back instead of finding them homes?
The TNR programs generally do try to adopt out friendly strays. But true feral cats, born and bred on the streets, missed out on a crucial period in their lives (before about 8 weeks of age) to become socialized to humans, according to cat advocacy organization Alley Cat Allies.
While some might become accustomed to living with people after a long period of adjustment, shelters don't have the resources to rehabilitate them. With so many adoptable cats already looking for homes, the result is that stray cats brought to shelters join millions that are euthanized each year.
Sadly, that doesn't eliminate the original problem due to what's called the vacuum effect: The vacated cat habitat simply attracts more cats, and you're right back where you started.
In contrast, the TNR strategy has been shown to reduce stray cat numbers. Because cats are territorial, new cats rarely move in to a managed colony. Because they are neutered, no kittens are produced, and nuisance behaviors are reduced as well.
Fewer stray cats
In Newburyport, Mass., for instance, about 300 cats lived along the Merrimack River. An exterminator was brought in to remove a group of 30, but within two years they had been replaced by 30 more. When a TNR program was started in 1992, the numbers began to decline. There's just one cat left, a senior named Zorro.
"He gets sardines every Sunday," says Stacy LeBaron, president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society.
Jenny Schlueter of the Tree House Humane Society in Chicago says it's important for a community to understand that stray cats would be there even if no one fed them.
"These cats are not created because the person fed them. The person fed them because they were there," she says. Without TNR, "they'd still be there but they would be sickly, they would be fighting, they would be knocking over your trash can."
Des Marais sees signs of health among her feline crowd. There's a tabby she calls Target whose thick coat has a rich sheen. "Once they eat regularly, they just look so different," she says.
Advocates differ on goals
Rescue advocates differ, however, on whether the ultimate goal is for all cats to live indoors, or to accept that stray cats will always be with us.
In Newburyport, LeBaron says, it was critical that an effort to get all pet cats neutered was under way, but it's unclear whether that approach could be scaled up to work in a larger community.
All agree that without dedicated volunteers like Des Marais, there'd be no TNR.
"I don't even call them feral cats, I call them community cats, " says Cimeron Morrissey of the Homeless Cat Network in San Francisco. "Feral cats are no one's responsibility, so therefore they're everyone's responsibility. People have to step up and do the right thing."
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