Local organization reins in feral cats

Bethany Town Cats (BTC) members spent a day selling jewelry and crafts — and trying to find homes for a cat or two — at the annual Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, last weekend. The organization never spends more than it has, noted BTC member Lauren Alberti, but the money they raise every year goes a long way toward controlling the feral cat population.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Bethany Town Cats members Jim Shank and Sharon Mahoney, along with Basil.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Bethany Town Cats members Jim Shank and Sharon Mahoney, along with Basil.

Female cats sexually mature at six
months of age, and the feline gestation period is roughly five months. So, they can have two pregnancies a year and kittens typically arrive in batches of four or five.

That’s maybe 10 new cats in one year – probably seven or eight more than the average homeowners association would allow at any given household, but still relatively manageable.

However, that’s only if they’re all tomcats. If the primary mama gave birth to five girls in January, it’s possible each of those five could have matured, conceived and given birth to five apiece by year’s end. So that’s not 10 new cats in one year — its 35 (the first litter times five kittens each, plus the mother’s second litter).

Arguably, 35 new cats in one year from one unspayed female isn’t manageable anymore. And the math really gets fun after the first year. Say each of those 35 have five girls, and then they all throw another litter midway through the second year — that’s more than 1,000 cats to begin year three.

Even for the most diehard of feline fans at the BTC, this is probably too much of a good thing. Which is why the BTC’s main thrust is not adoption, it’s TNR — trap, neuter (or spay) and re-release.

Alberti said the problem wasn’t nearly as serious in the rural countryside — there, cats have more room to roam and more in the way of natural prey. In fact, some farmers requested cats for use as “mousers,” to control rodents, she noted.

But residential neighborhoods are less equipped to deal with the noise from late-night carousing, the trash dragged out of cans and strewn onto lawns and the motorists swerving into fire hydrants to avoid jaywalking felines.

The BTC works to trap these cats, and remove them from the breeding population – and there are few people out there willing to do that sort of work. There are still a few professional trappers, but Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) leadership is trying to get back to the society’s original mission, and that never included dog-catching, much less chasing down elusive cats.

Alberti said BTC members often encountered people confused about their organization’s mission statement, too. “We get calls all the time, ‘I don’t want my cat anymore, can you take him,’” she explained. “No, we can’t. We’re not pet-related — we’re feral cat-related.”

Some adoption comes with the territory, Alberti admitted, introducing her own rescued compadre, Maxie. A slightly grizzled, but affectionate, black and white tomcat, he’s become a sort of mascot around the Bethany Club Tennis pro shop.

The BTC retrieved him from under his former owner’s house, gave him a good scrubbing and took him to the vet for some extensive dental work.

But Maxie’s case was somewhat unique, Alberti noted. He hadn’t been purposefully neglected — he’d actually been rescued once before, by a foster mother who already had 10 cats — but he’d kind of slipped through the cracks after she passed on.

Alberti said they tried to get owners to take responsibility for their pets — but some wouldn’t, and if the BTC didn’t take them, the cats were often simply left behind, or dumped. And then they start breeding.

“I’d like to see laws mandating spay or neuter, if you’re not going to breed your pets,” Alberti emphasized. However, once the cats had appeared on the scene, she said the BTC felt they should be able to live out their natural lives.

The organization tries to avoid the SPCA (which eventually euthanizes an estimated 70 percent of the pets dropped off for adoption). Instead, the BTC ships them to the veterinarian, for immunization, worming and spay or neuter. BTC typically gets a heavily discounted rate, Alberti pointed out, but even so, the organization typically pay between $40 and $50 per cat, just for the spay or neuter.

Then, ideally, they find someone with a farm or a piece of open ground who will let the BTC release a colony of cats on their land, and the cats live out their lives.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best solution anyone’s come up with, Alberti pointed out, and it will have to do until more people learn about the importance of spay and neuter, and taking responsibility for their pets.

Until then, BTC will keep working — they’ve taken more than 500 strays and feral cats out of the breeding population since 1999 — and keep holding fundraisers to pay the vet bills. They’ll hold their annual yard sale on Sunday, Oct. 8, at Bethany Club Tennis.

Alberti said they were still looking for donations (but don’t take furniture, except for wooden furniture, and no clothes). Items can be dropped off at Bethany Club Tennis the day before the event.

And she reminded everyone they were looking for open land where they could re-release cats — and maybe some garage space (they’d clean up) where they could store cats out of the rain and wind between shuttling them to the vet and releasing them — and, always, volunteers.

For more information, visit www.bethanytowncats.org or call 537-5866.