In the woods behind a Maryland City shopping center last week, volunteers were hard at work trapping members of one of the feral cat colonies in the Laurel region, kicking off a trap-neuter-return program months in the making.
The mass trap-neuter-return, or TNR, effort was the first in the area, said Rebecca Katz, program manager for the Feral Friends Network of Alley Cat Allies, a feral cat advocacy group based in Bethesda working in partnership with Laurel Cats, another advocacy group. It was done in conjunction with the opening of a new low-cost veterinary clinic, and National Feral Cat Day, which was Tuesday, Oct. 16.
On Friday, Oct. 12, dozens of cats were trapped at several locations in the area and transported to the new Spay Now Animal Surgery Clinic on Van Dusen Road, which held its grand opening Saturday performing surgeries on the feral cats. Sunday, the cats were released back to their colonies. Over the course of the weekend, 42 cats were trapped at three locations in the Laurel area, and neutered and released.
"We did a great job; we got a lot of cats done," said Helen Woods, an advocate with Laurel Cats. "We trained about a dozen new volunteers, too, that can now go out and assist people throughout the community."
TNR does more than control the population, said Nadine Tolosa, a member of Laurel Cats. For many cats, neutering is life-saving.
"For females, they can die from having too many litters, or disease," she said. "For males, they fight and get severely injured, and succumb to their injuries. With both of those reasons gone, this is life-saving. ... It also helps them be better neighbors. If they're living in residential areas and they're unneutered, they're going to be fighting, spraying, yowling, so this alleviates suffering as well."
Tolosa said she thinks of TNR as a win-win-win. It's a win for cat-lovers and caretakers, because it helps the cats; it's a win for cat-haters because it makes the population go down and makes the cats less of a nuisance; and it's a win for cats, because now they're healthier and can live a less stressful life.
"All those nuisance behaviors are associated with mating," Tolosa said. Neutering, coupled with regular feeding from caretakers, makes the colonies less of a nuisance, she said If a cat is being fed, in addition to its hunting of rodents, it won't go into trash cans, for example.
The caretaker of the shopping-center colony, a Laurel woman, asked that her name, as well as the exact location of the colony, not be identified. Tolosa said such hesitance is understandable, given the misunderstood perception of feral cats and those who care for them.
"There are people who want to hurt cats, who don't want the cats around and who get angry at the caretaker, even though the solution is to have more caretakers, who can keep an eye on the colony," she said
Besides, Woods said, eliminating the colonies doesn't work: It simply creates a "vacuum effect" where other cats will populate the area, or even over-populate it, and the situation gets out of control.
The fact is, Tolosa said, those opposed to feral cat colonies don't have any realistic solutions.
"The reality is we can't clear an area of cats any more than we can clear an area of any other animal," Tolosa said.
This particular Maryland City colony, numbering more than 30 feral cats and living behind a shopping center off Route 198, is one of several in the Laurel area. Others, Woods said, are in townhouse and apartment communities, whose residents were also trapping cats during the mass effort Friday, with training from the local advocacy groups. Those residents were paying for the cost of TNR out-of-pocket, Woods said, while Alley Cat Allies paid for the shopping-center colony's surgeries.
The local groups have banded together to form the Greater Laurel TNR Response Team, Woods said, made up of local volunteers who will train and assist residents with using the traps — available for loan — to practice TNR in their own neighborhood. Laurel Cats is also hosting a shelter-building workshop Nov. 3, at 1 p.m., at the Laurel Police Department, 811 Fifth St. Laurel Cats has also set up an information center at the new Spay Now clinic.
"We will continue to do training on an ongoing basis as needed — there's an awful lot of cats out there," Woods said. "We're always looking for more volunteers, and we're always happy to get new people signed up. ... We're happy to talk to groups and come out to sites to help people come up with solutions."
Laurel city spokesman Pete Piringer said the TNR effort was officially supported by both Mayor Craig Moe and the City Council, and an advisory group has been formed to work on draft legislation regarding animal codes that should go before the City Council in December.
"There's pretty good progress being made, and we're headed in the right direction," Piringer said.
For more information on the Greater Laurel TNR Response Team, go to http://www.laurelcats.org.