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Where The Wild Cats Are

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. There’s a litter of 3-week-old kittens in the barn, and I’m not sure which of these cats is the mother,” said the farm owner.

Tracy Bentley and Beth Armstrong looked at each other, not sure what to do. In one of the many live traps at their feet, each with a newly caught feral cat, was a nursing mother who wouldn’t be retuned to this Versailles barn until the next day. What to do about the kittens in the meantime?

Tracy and Beth have spent this evening trapping feral cats in what is locally known as the Kitty Cat Round-Up. These cats will be part of the trap-neuter-return, or TNR program, begun by the Woodford Humane Society in March of 2004.

 After recovering from their spay or neuter surgery, they will receive a rabies and FVRCP vaccination, be ear tipped for identification that they have been altered, be treated for parasites, and then returned the following morning to their feral cat colony.

That’s a lot of trouble for what are basically just wild cats: why bother?

DeeDee Lloyd, who founded the all-volunteer TNR group, explains.

“Most people think of feral cats as homeless cats.  Actually, they’re not homeless at all.  Their homes are just a little different than ours. They usually live in colonies that average 12-15 cats where a source of food and shelter is available. They are a family, with a hierarchy in place.

“Until these cats quit breeding, we’re always going to have feral cat colonies.  You can’t just trap and remove a colony. Vacated areas are soon filled by other cats who start the breeding process all over again.  But if we can prevent future litters of kittens, the colony will naturally die out.”

The numbers tell the story. Cats are prolific breeders.  Every household in America would have to house 45 cats to give every cat in the country a home. A pair of breeding cats and their offspring, which can have two or more litters per year, can theoretically produce 420,000 kittens in a seven-year period. 

These are not simply stray neighborhood cats. Feral cat colonies are composed mostly of cats that have always lived in the wild, and local citizens sometimes consider them a nuisance.  So it begs the question, albeit hard-hearted—why not simply eliminate these feral cats by euthanizing them? Surprisingly, that’s not the simple solution it may seem to be.

TNR programs are relatively new, especially in Kentucky, but studies conducted in recent years have determined that it’s actually cheaper to spay/neuter these cats than to exterminate feral colonies. As DeeDee notes, if you exterminate a colony, more cats will move in that would have to be exterminated, and it becomes an endless cycle. It takes lots of tax dollars to continually trap cats at the same areas, and the problem of breeding cats is never resolved.

“Humane organizations will never adopt their way out of the overwhelming pet overpopulation problem,” says DeeDee. “The proactive answer to this problem is spaying/neutering and education.  As Woodford Humane Society already has in place a program for the spaying and neutering of community-owned animals, we felt compelled to focus on the unowned population, specifically feral cats.”

Simple aesthetics is another reason euthanasia is not the answer. It’s extremely distasteful to most people to hear of cats, or any other animal, being killed, even if they are a nuisance.

“It’s just inhumane,” says Tracy Bentley passionately. “Spay/neuter is a much more humane way of dealing with the overpopulation problem, and also eliminates many of the nuisance behaviors associated with cat colonies: spraying, howling, fighting, roaming, reproducing, and spreading diseases. Most people can’t bear the thought of these innocent animals being killed. It’s not fair to the animals or to the people who are forced to carry out the euthanasia.”

Beth Armstrong agrees. “We’ve found that people are more supportive of TNR than of euthanasia, even if they don’t know it’s also more cost-effective.  We’ve found that people are more willing to call us about nuisance cats when they realize the cats won’t be put down.”

The bottom line is that TNR saves tax-payers money, while providing a healthier, more stable lifestyle for feral cats until the colony is disbanded through natural attrition.

The Woodford Humane Society conducts the Kitty Cat Round-Up four times a year. DeeDee takes calls from people in Woodford County requesting help with a colony on their property, determines how many locations they can visit on a Round-Up, and assigns these locations to the TNR volunteers. They’re getting more and more calls as word gets out about the TNR program.

“We try to keep the number of cats trapped at around 70, but it’s hard to say no to people,” DeeDee sighs. A whirlwind of energy who is the great motivator of the group, DeeDee stresses that they will post a TNR volunteer for just one cat if necessary. At the most recent Round-Up, they trapped more than 100 cats, more than is comfortable for everyone involved.

“Everyone involved” includes the vets and staff at the Woodford Veterinary Clinic in Versailles. The clinic has been a crucial part of the TNR since the beginning, donating their surgical services. Dr. Dale Eckert is the primary coordinator for the clinic’s involvement, in addition to the Pfizer and Merial donations of all the medication used during the Kitty Cat Round-Up.

“When the Humane Society contacted the clinic about doing the TNR program, we decided, rather than doing the surgeries in a rented warehouse, it made more sense to do everything here at the clinic,” says Dr. Eckert. “We’ve fine-tuned the process over the years, and it’s worked out real well.

“It’s nice to have a project with a happy ending.”

Another aspect of the TNR program is working with other agencies, particularly Animal Control. Local Animal Control organizations that are county- or city-operated have few options when dealing with feral cat colonies and nuisance cats, and as a result, the cats they are called to collect are usually euthanized.

“This is an area we badly need to educate the public about,” says Tracy. “People make a call about a nuisance cat, thinking it’ll get picked up by Animal Control and then be adopted by a loving family. That’s not what happens, and if people knew these cats were being euthanized, they’d call us instead.”

To help prevent cats from being euthanized—even pets can accidentally be picked up and euthanized—Woodford Humane Society is working with Animal Control so that all calls about feral cats are referred to a subcommittee of the Woodford Humane Society  TNR group. It’s a win-win for both the Humane Society and Animal Control, not to mention the cats themselves.

After each Round-Up, the volunteers hold a wrap-up meeting to determine the success of the Round-Up, and to discuss what changes are needed. With the next scheduled Round-Up already filled, it’s important that the volunteers do all they can to keep things running smoothly.

The only major problem with the most recent Round-Up was that there were so many cats. Despite the vet clinic’s assembly-line efficiency in the surgeries and with recovery, they simply ran out of room for the cats. So DeeDee and her group need to determine whether to cut down on the number of cats trapped, schedule additional Round-Ups, or find another place for the cats to recover from surgery. As for the 3-week-old kittens Tracy and Beth encountered, the farm owner’s niece agreed to bottle-feed them overnight until the mother was returned. But it was an unusual situation, one to be prepared for if it happens again.

Since March of 2004, this TNR program has trapped and returned more than 1,200 feral and barn cats in Woodford County. That’s a lot of litters that have been prevented. And that’s just fine even in a state known as “wild cat country.”

Alley Cat Advocates
The largest TNR program in Kentucky is Alley Cat Advocates, based in Louisville. President Karen Little reiterates that the spay/neuter approach is more effective than exterminating colonies.

“If you exterminate these cats, you get what’s called the ‘vacuum effect’: as study after study has proven, more cats will simply move in, and you have a continual supply of cats.

“We as a society have been trapping and killing for years. Clearly, it hasn’t worked. TNR is a better approach, but if we find after a number of years that it isn’t working, we’ll find another way.”

ACA has a rather different approach than Woodford County. In order to trap as many cats as possible, the cats are trapped by the owners of the land where the cats are, what ACA calls their caretakers. ACA will train the caretaker in how to trap the cats, and provide the live traps.

Trapping occurs once a month, and you must schedule a trapping date. (They stay plenty busy, and are already fully booked up months in advance.) Caretakers then bring in their cats to what is known as the Big Fix: spay/neutering takes place all weekend by volunteer surgeons, and after the cats have recovered, the caretakers can take them home. The only fee is a requested donation to the program, and you must agree to continue feeding the cats.

If you’re wanting a cat spayed or neutered in hurry, though, the Quick Fix is also available. For only $40, you can have your cats altered at a scheduled time rather than wait months for the Big Fix.

The cats that ACA works with are not usually feral. The program is not meant for pet cats, but rather stray cats that someone is feeding on a regular basis. Most of these cats, says Karen, were previously pets that were abandoned by their owners.

And there are plenty of abandoned cats in the Jefferson County area. ACA alters 2,000 cats a year, and there are 1,800 cats on the waiting list.


Woodford Humane Society
265 Thomas Lane
Versailles, KY 40383
(859) 873-5491

Alley Cat Advocates
3020 Bardstown Rd.
Louisville, KY 40205
(502) 634-8777

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