Laurel's stray cat population declines as spay/neuter initiative takes hold

Cheryl Labbe opened the door of a cat trap and stood back. Inside, a small gray-and-white tabby looked around quickly, then shot out of the wire rectangle, sprinted across the lawn and leapt the fence in a single jump without a backward glance.

The cat, a female, had been trapped in Labbe’s backyard in Montpelier, spayed and vaccinated at Spay Now Animal Surgery Clinic, on Van Dusen Road, and rereleased after recovering indoors. The process, known as TNR (trap-neuter-return), helps keep the population of stray cats in check by preventing the birth of unwanted kittens.

Through frequent TNR coupled with diligent monitoring, the number of strays in 75 cat colonies in Laurel has decreased by 30 percent in the last three years, according to data from Laurel Cats, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to reducing the population of unwanted felines in the city.

The population control works thanks to more than 200 Laurel Cats volunteers who help trap cats and feed, care for and manage active colonies. Population data comes from the group’s annual winter census, where each caretaker counts the cats in his or her colony, including newcomers who need to be sterilized. Ongoing monitoring of the existing colonies is crucial, according to Helen Woods, Laurel Cats president.

“You can’t just trap once and never monitor or return,” she said. “Some groups do not follow through like we do. Our follow-through is one of the reasons that we are so successful.”

Woods got involved with TNR as a way to help her neighbors control the population of unwanted cats in her townhouse development on Courtland Place, where nearly every courtyard contains a cat colony. Each is now managed by a caretaker who feeds and keeps tabs on the resident cats and alerts Woods to any interlopers. Newcomers are humanely trapped, transported to the low-cost clinic, spayed or neutered, vaccinated for rabies and distemper, and have the tip of one ear snipped, a universal sign that a cat has been fixed. After recovering from surgery, the cats are rereleased into their colonies, where they live the rest of their lives.

Traditionally, this type of stray cat — which don’t make good pets because they’re not socialized to humans — would be labeled feral. The cats aren’t wild, according to Labbe — they’re house pets who were left behind, many during the Great Recession when people lost their homes and fled the area. “Porch kitties” or “community cats” is more accurate, Woods said.

“There is this belief that feral cats are this invasive, exotic species. They’re not. They’re pets who were left behind, and they’re completely dependent on humans,” she said. “They don’t go into the house. They don’t like to be petted. But they will come around for food at a designated time and they will let you know if it’s not the right kind.”

“Porch kitties” or “community cats” are more accurate, Woods said.

Laurel Cats has support from local lawmakers, who worked with the group to change the city’s stray-cat policy to one that embraces spaying and neutering rather than trapping homeless felines and euthanizing them. That method rarely works for long-term population control, according to Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda-based nonprofit cat advocacy group.

“With catch-and-kill policies, vaccinated and neutered cats are removed from an area. But that only creates a vacuum in the environment, where new cats move in to take advantage of available resources,” according to the organization’s educational materials.

In addition to driving down populations, spaying or neutering typically fixes the cat behaviors that residents find most distasteful. A neutered male cat is less likely to fight with other tomcats or to mark his territory with smelly urine, while a spayed female cat won’t wander the neighborhood yowling loudly when she’s in heat. Once those issues are taken care of, it’s easier for residents to live in harmony with the strays, said Laurel Councilman Fred Smalls, a Laurel Cats supporter whose Belle Ami Condominium complex previously had a large population of strays.

“Aside from the mating, we had property damage, where the cats would be on the residents’ vehicles, scratching the surface. They’d get into the trash, that kind of thing,” he said. Since Laurel Cats began managing the population there, “I haven’t heard of any issues from property owners. We see probably four or five cats on the property now. We’ve learned to co-habitate, we really have.”

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