Feral cats continue to plague Tempe

Animal Loving Friends estimates that approximately 53,000 feral cats lived in Tempe in 2011, and the feral cat population is continuing to grow.

Around 8:45 p.m. each night, Cheryl Beatty pulls up to the house she lived in until her father died a few months ago. She steps out of her pick-up truck, walks around the back to open a plastic 20-gallon tub and sets about feeding the colony of 30 feral cats that has lived around her old house for as long as she can remember.

The cats in her colony make up just a few of the thousands of feral felines that wander Tempe.

It is difficult to know just how many cats are in the Tempe area because they are hard to catch and count, but the Tempe-based nonprofit volunteer organization Animal Loving Friends estimates that approximately 53,000 feral cats lived in Tempe in 2011.

Animal Defense League of Arizona employee Karen Anderson said the number of cats seems to be growing.

The Animal Defense League of Arizona spayed or neutered more than 10,000 feral cats in both 2010 and 2011 and performed more than 13,000 surgeries in 2012, Anderson said.

Many feral cats are the offspring of unaltered, free-roaming pets.

“People have their own cats roaming outside,” Anderson said. “If they’re not fixed, they can have kittens that the owners won’t always take in. These cats grow up wild.”

The cats

Feral cats, unlike stray and domestic cats, cannot interact with humans.

Pet cats and strays, which were once pets, are familiar with people. Feral cats, though, grow up with little human contact.

Because of this, they are completely unsocialized to people, Anderson said.

“You aren’t able to touch it and pick it up,” she said. “Stray cats are usually very used to humans, but feral cats are not.”

Adult feral cats are essentially wild animals and typically cannot become accustomed to living with people, but their kittens can be made adoptable, Anderson said.

“As long as you get them early on and work with them, you can get them used to being handled,” she said.

However, house cats can take on feral tendencies if they are strays for too long. Anderson said economic conditions resulting in a number of foreclosed houses have caused some to abandon the family pet along with their homes, contributing to the rise in feral cats.

While opinions on how best to treat this feline infestation differ, most organizations focus on the principle of "trap, neuter, return," or TNR.

Trap, Neuter, Return

TNR is considered the most humane way to deal with feral cats. Nonprofit organizations and government agencies will catch cats or provide residents with traps.

Once trapped, cats are taken in groups to be fixed. They recover in warm rooms before being released back into their home areas.

Anderson works at the Spay Neuter Hotline, a part of the Animal Defense League of Arizona that facilitates TNR programs.

Coordinators like Anderson help individuals schedule appointments with veterinarians to fix neighborhood cats. The 10 doctors with whom the Spay Neuter Hotline works do not charge for the surgery or traps but ask for a $25-per-cat donation, she said.

Altered Tails, a Phoenix animal clinic that has assisted Valley residents in capturing, spaying and neutering cats since its founding in 1999, partners with the Spay Neuter Hotline.

Altered Tails trap coordinator Sean Farmer said the TNR program is more successful than just removing feral cats from residential or business areas.

“The number one reason we do this is because of the vacuum effect,” Farmer said. “When you remove a cat, other cats move in.”

Cats in TNR programs are moved back to their own home turf. This prevents other unfixed animals from moving into the colony and taking their place.

Altered Tails has seen a steadily increasing number of cats come in to use its services, Farmer said.

The clinic spayed or neutered nearly 5,500 strays between January and November 2012, an increase from 2,680 in the previous year.

“It’s really amazing how the cats keep coming in,” Farmer said.

He began working at the organization after seeing cats overrun his own neighborhood.

Farmer allowed a pregnant female cat to stay in his backyard when she was dropped off in his Buckeye neighborhood in 2011. He took care of her, and she gave birth to a litter not long afterwards.

“The kittens were cute,” Farmer said. “But then they grew up and started mating. There must have been 40 to 50 cats in our neighborhood.”

He began setting traps for the animals and every neighborhood stray had been fixed by April 2012. There were no new kittens, and 30, not 50, cats in the neighborhood.

TNR eventually cuts down on the number of feral cats, Farmer said.

Returning cats to their own areas ensures no other cats move in and successfully spaying or neutering each of the animals in a colony will prevent new kittens from increasing the population. After several years, all members of the colony will die.

Living with feral cats

Some who involuntarily live with feral cats do not want to put up with the time it takes to eliminate a colony using TNR.

Many of Beatty's former neighbors have complained about the number of cats roaming their streets, claiming that they are there solely because Beatty feeds them.

Beatty said this is untrue.

"Cats are colony creatures," she said. "They won't let anyone else in."

Many of the cats she feeds are already neutered and less aggressive than unfixed cats.

While spaying female cats is more effective at combating overpopulation, neutering male cats can prevent some of the more common annoyances. Male cats with intact genitalia are more aggressive and will yowl or spray urine to mark their territory. Altered cats, even feral ones, are much tamer.

Beatty said the number of cats living outdoors is a reflection of poor owners, and the cats should not be punished for it.

"Why do they have to suffer because of people who, in my opinion, are idiots?" she said.

Beatty and the friend she works with feed about 130 animals combined each night and spend between $300 and $400 each week on cat food.

She said helping the animals was worth the time and money.

"I do it because I love animals, and it's not their fault they were thrown out here by people who don't care," she said.

Alternative methods of control

Maricopa County Animal Care and Control endorses TNR. The county does not discourage feeding feral cats, nor does it condone killing them.

Animal Care and Control will not pick up cats unless they have physically harmed somebody. Residents can bring the cats to the East or West Valley Care Centers, but it costs $96 to turn these animals in.

Stray cats turned in at MCACC's locations are held for their owners to pick up, while feral cats are euthanized. The $96 fee covers, in part, the euthanasia expenses.

Some organizations, like Animal Loving Friends, also try to tame the animals for adoption.

ALF has found homes for about 30 cats in Tempe, Chandler and Mesa each year since beginning operations in 2005, co-director Kim Overhamm said in an email.

It costs money — about $6,000 a year — and time — 11 unpaid volunteers put in about 5,500 hours each year –, but cat lovers enjoy rescuing the animals.

"Trying to get the trust of humans back is near impossible," Beatty said. "They're jumpy at first, but you can tame these cats."

Reach the news editor at julia.shumway@asu.edu or follow @JMShumway on Twitter.

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