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Advocacy groups, animal shelter, hope trap, neuter, release can fix cat issues

With large feral cat populations in jurisdictions all over the country, animal rights groups are asking animal shelters to implement a more humane way of dealing with the problem, which they call trap, neuter, return or TNR.

Under the program, instead of taking a colony of cats to an animal shelter and possibly euthanizing them, animal control agencies or other groups will take a cat off of the streets, spay or neuter them, and return them to the area in which they were trapped. From then on, the colony will be taken care of by residents who take responsibility for the cats. Advocates say the programs reduce cat populations, because the cats are unable to reproduce, and also offer a humane alternative to euthanasia.

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But such programs have proved controversial, including in Hampstead, where the town council changed the town's code last year to make such programs easier to implement. Hampstead's council eliminated restrictions on feeding feral cats - key for a TNR program to work - which caused concern among many residents. The concerned residents thought the returned cats would be problematic.

But proponents of TNR programs locally say such concerns can be alleviated if a system is worked out properly. They say it is not their goal to implement TNR in places where it is not wanted, or where people cannot take care of the animals. They also note that experience in other jurisdictions has shown that TNR programs, when done correctly, work at reducing cat populations overall.

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TNR in Carroll explained

In Carroll County, the nonprofit Metro Ferals works to help residents trap cats so they can be neutered or spayed, said Joe Lovechick, who is based in Marriottsville, but works to help implement TNR programs all over the state. Lovechick said several residents in Carroll have been trained by his group to trap cats. The cats can then be spayed or neutered at the Eldersburg Veterinary Hospital, where the group performs the procedures at certain times.

Lovechick said he understands the concerns residents have with TNR programs. However, he said his group teaches that spaying and neutering is not enough. If someone is going to care for a colony of cats, they also need to make sure the cats do not affect other residents.

"If there are neighbors around you that do not want those animals crossing their property, or pooping in their flower beds, then there are deterrents that we need to provide so that those people are not impacted," Lovechick said.

Lovechick said there are fairly low-cost solutions - such as sprinklers or scent-producing spices - that will keep cats off of properties. He said on a limited basis, Metro Ferals can even provide such tools for residents.

Lovechick said Metro Ferals does not try to implement TNR programs everywhere. In areas where residents cannot, or are unwilling, to take care of cat colonies, it is better not to trap, Lovechick said, as the cats will be neglected.

"If those people with these animals on their property do not take [proper steps], animal control is left with little they can do [other] than to round them up and euthanize them so they are not left to suffer," Lovechick said.

Some results seen in other areas

The Humane Society of Carroll County, which operates the county's animal control and shelter services, is aware of Metro Ferals operations and tries to help the group as much as it can, said Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff, executive director of the shelter. She said the shelter has no written policy on TNR programs, but allows colonies to exist where they are well taken care of.

Ratliff said if the shelter receives a cat that has had its ear tipped - a sign that Metro Ferals has neutered or spayed it - it will contact the group and people who are known to take care of colonies in hopes of returning it safely.

She said the program does not work well everywhere.

"A TNR colony in an apartment complex? Probably not a great idea," she said. "If the people in the area don't like it, or they hate them, then I worry about what they are going to do to the cats."

Ratliff said she is rooting for the program. She said if cat issues can be solved by TNR programs rather than euthanasia, she is in full support.

"I think it would be terrific if it solves the problem - if people are happy," she said. "But somebody, in my opinion, needs to be responsible for the colony."

Ratliff noted the governments of Manchester and Hampstead are the two jurisdictions in the county that have embraced TNR. She said she hopes that other jurisdictions start to embrace TNR further as well.

"I [am] in great hopes that in Taneytown, Mount Airy, Westminster - they [say], 'Wow, if it works for them, maybe we'll do it,' " Ratliff said.

However, Ratliff said it is too early to judge how well the programs have worked in those jurisdictions.

Nationally, advocates for TNR programs say such program's popularity has increased over time, and there have been some positive results for jurisdictions and other entities that have implemented them.

In Fairfax County, Va., for instance, the animal shelter has reported that less feral cats are coming into the shelter since the program was first implemented and promoted in 2008, said Elizabeth Holtz, staff attorney for Alley Cat Allies, a group based in Bethesda that supports TNR programs. Since August 2013, the shelter has performed only a small amount of cat euthanizations for medical reasons, she said.

Holtz said she hopes that other shelters start to adopt a TNR program, instead of sticking with the status quo.

"It's this endless cycle of catch and kill," Holtz said. "We just have to look at history to see it has not worked. Animals control agencies have been trapping and killing for decades in the U.S., and it has brought us to where we are today."

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