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August 13, 2013 > Ohlone Humane Society: Operation: Feral Freedom

Ohlone Humane Society: Operation: Feral Freedom

By Nancy Lyon

Every year thousands upon thousands of homeless cats are born and in turn, reproduce bringing their numbers to a staggering hundreds of thousands. A losing situation for the cats and the community - so what is the answer?

After hearing stories of a nation-wide movement called Feral Freedom and its impressive success in reducing the number of feral cats killed in animal shelters, it seemed almost too good to be true. Having worked with animal shelters for many years and witnessing the cost not only in thousands upon thousands of innocent feline lives lost, but the terrible price paid by those who are forced to do the killing, I was hopeful but skeptical.

The problem of feral cat over-population can seem overwhelming. But according to the innovative Feral Freedom program conceived and written by First Coast No More Homeless Pets director and founder Rick DuCharme with assistance from the nationally acclaimed Best Friends Animal Society, there is a way to humanely reduce their numbers while allowing them to live out their lives with reasonable quality.

Feral cats by definition are neither domesticated nor wild; they and their offspring are no longer companion animals in the accepted sense, yet they are not considered wildlife. They exist in a world where they currently have little, if any place, their plight going unnoticed except by a few committed and caring individuals or those who wish them gone.

They also comprise the greatest number of animals put to death in animal shelters. Statistics show that in the majority of communities nationwide, 50 percent or more of the animals entering shelters are feline and, on the average, only three out of 10 cats make it out alive. In many communities, the numbers rise to a grim one in 10 cats surviving impoundment.

Finding humane ways to stem the killing of vast numbers of homeless cats that have litter after litter of kittens each year can be a challenge. However, homeless cat advocates working with shelters have committed to making Feral Freedom work and have been successful, making huge reductions in the number killed in animal shelters in many cities.

Similar to the current humane and effective method of reducing the feral cat population called Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) - Feral Freedom takes the solution one step further. The cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, microchipped to allow tracking, ear notched to indicate they have been TNR'd, vaccinated for feline diseases and rabies and given care for other health issues. By microchipping each cat when it is anesthetized for sterilization, shelters can scan cats, even in traps, if they are again impounded, caretakers can then be quickly reached and the cats removed from the system and returned to familiar territory. The result is less staff time to care for and ultimately destroy ferals, less staff trauma and saving taxpayers the cost of housing, killing and disposal.

One success story is the Silicon Valley Animal Care Authority, where Feral Freedom has been launched. Michael Limper, SVACA Shelter Manager, stated in a recent interview, "It is essentially a TNR program, but geared toward targeting community cats in the neighborhood and educating our citizens on the importance of getting these neighborhood cats altered to reduce the overpopulation of cats... Most of these cats are healthy. They're vibrant. They don't need us," he said. "All we really need to do is control their population."

With a proactive public education program, people learn that neighborhood cats will always be around. By implementing Feral Freedom with the cooperation of feral caretakers, animal service agencies, and the community, there are far fewer homeless cats born and, as a result, prevention of the tragic cycle of unaltered cats moving into a vacated territory, reproducing multiple times and greatly increasing that location's feline population.

Ohlone Humane Society's Spay/Neuter Assistance program serves the Fremont, Union City and Newark area and we can attest to the fact that the homeless cat problem is serious. In 2012 our program funded the sterilization of more than a 1,000 animals that included a high percentage of feral cats. Requests for help were so great that it resulted in closing down the program in October when it exceeded the program's $35,000 annual budget.

We would like to think that the majority of homeless cats altered will live out their lives without being killed in the animal shelter. If a community plan was in place where everyone - caretakers, animal services, spay/neuter programs and an informed community - worked together, it would significantly reduce the number of feral cats. This would benefit not only innocent cats but decrease their impact on area wildlife, bolster shelter staff morale, limit the number living in neighborhoods and unburden taxpayers.

A win-win for everyone.

For more information on Feral Freedom check out the following links:

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