Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Three Cheers For The Mouseketeers -- Disneyland Employs Feral Cats For Rodent Control

I’ve been a long-time fan of the Disney parks. Although they’re not perfect (no organization is) -- with few exceptions – they excel beyond reasonable expectation at what they do – making people happy. Not only are their rides and exhibits clever and their food delicious -- but all the miniscule background details are well-oiled. And it’s these background details that make your park experience so special.

As a former manager of a small strip mall I know how challenging it is to keep a public property looking brand new. Yet Disney has found the perfect recipe for keeping trash always in its place – light bulbs always working – and gardens burgeoning with healthy (often flowering) plants. Their bathrooms are impeccable – and -- other than Mickey and his friends -- you won't hear a mouse scurrying anywhere on the grounds.

What makes this no small feat is that you also rarely see maintenance crews working. Why? To keep your park experience purrfect, the work is done after the park closes for the night.   That's right.  Disneyland employs 600 after-hours employees to groom the land and clean the facilities – and about 200 nocturnal feral cats who keep mice and other small rodents at bay.

Yes -- according to a May 2nd article in the Los Angeles Times -- feral cats help create the magic of Disneyland. No one remembers when they first moved into the park – nestling in the trees and shrubs during the day and roaming at night -- but instead of evicting them -- Disneyland uses the proven principles of managed TNR (trap/neuter and return) to control their numbers. They sterilize the resident adult cats and find homes for any kittens born there. The cats have five permanent feeding stations located throughout the grounds. "We are not trying to get rid of them," said Gina Mayberry, manager of Disneyland's Circle D ranch, where the park's animals are housed. "They keep the rodent population down."

This Memorial Day Weekend will be a busy one at amusement parks.  If you're one of the lucky ones spending it at Disneyland,remember that although Micky Mouse is the official host of Disney, it's the feral cats they provide a permanent home for that benefit most from their care.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

These Are The Cat Requests That Break Your Heart

“I am inquiring about finding a new home for our cat. She is 10 years old and loves being indoors and outdoors. We have a house guest coming for the summer that is highly allergic to cats. If I could find her a new home for her by June 6th it would allow me over a week to de-cat our home.”
To someone who loves cats as much as I do, an e-mail like this is devastating. How could anyone give up their 10-year old cat to accommodate a house guest? There must be some other alternative that would allow the cat to stay in the home during a visit from a friend or relative – even one with allergies.

The fact that she’s not looking for an alternative probably means she’s no longer bonded to the cat and this is as good excuse as any to give her up. By age ten, most cats are pretty sedentary – not as playful as they were as kittens – and they start costing more to keep – with middle-aged illnesses just around the corner.   But, if you've bonded to your cat, this is the time of life that they are the best company -- wanting more lap time and cuddling than when they were young and frisky.

A 10-year old cat on the adoption market is standing at the end of a very long line to find a new home – most adoptions are of kittens or very young and friendly adult cats. Many shelters and rescues won’t take them on because they know it takes a long time to place them – tying up a cage or foster home that could place several kittens during the same time period. Animal control shelters often accept them, but usually they go into the back room to be euthanized on arrival without even being given a chance for adoption. They flunk the “adoptable” litmus test – simply because of their age.

So what do you do if you have a mature cat that you can’t or won’t keep? The only reasonable solution is to network with everyone you know to find a permanent home for her bypassing shelters and rescues altogether. There are people who will adopt a 10-year old cat but it may take months to find them. Wanting them out of the house by June 6th is simply not realistic. Our TLC Older Cat Program -- during its brief shelter phase -- placed about 3 dozen teenaged cats. Most of the people who adopted them were middle-aged women living alone who had recently lost a cat to old age illnesses -- like cancer or kidney failure. Targeting this group takes some creativity but as a rule they make great homes for older cats as they’ve gone through the process before and understand the benefits and challenges of seeing a cat through life to the Rainbow Bridge.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Great Cat Debate: Can An Adult Feral Cat Become Socialized?

How often do you read that if kittens aren’t given intense human attention during their brief socialization window (the time before they turn 8 weeks old), they’ll stay feral cats all their lives? This is the premise at the heart of TNR (trap-neuter-return) – that feral cats are more suited to living in outdoor colonies than indoor homes. On the surface, this is understandable science. After all, cats are animals – why would they want to sit on a human’s lap or share their home without having been pre-conditioned to do so as kittens?

Yet how often do you also hear individuals who rescue cats – or find cats living in their yard or barn – say that adult feral cats do tame – even if it takes awhile for them to calm down. But if the science is correct, this is impossible. Right? So what’s really going on here? Here are a few explanations:

Lost or abandoned pet cats revert to feral behaviors to survive outdoors. And these previously-socialized cats tame quickly – usually within a few weeks or months of when they reconnect with humans. And,

Feral cats often bond to a caregiver who regularly brings them food. The cats learn through repetition that the caregiver is their friend and will not harm them. So eventually they let their guard down around that particular person, but still not around other people. This is a form of habituation not socialization.

Yet neither of these situations explains what we’re seeing in our own home with our four teenaged feral cats: Larry, Joyce, Emmy and Cleo. When they first moved indoors in 2005, they were clearly feral – always hanging out as a group in the areas of the house we didn’t. They wouldn’t even come to our kitchen to eat – we had to feed them separately in their own area. Then, about a year ago, we started seeing subtle changes in them – with Cleo leading the way by sleeping with us at night – even though she kept an arm’s length away and stayed on the edge for a quick exit.

After moving to Santa Fe last fall, the cats seemed to come around even more. Right from the start they ate in the kitchen with our companion cats – and started joining us in the office comfortably napping while we worked. Now Emmy and Larry are routine bed visitors – and Cleo no longer stays an arm’s length away -- often sleeping on my pillow all night long. Now Emmy and Cleo allow me to pick them up and carry them – without struggling to get free. And – while renovating our home – there’s been a frequent flow of work crews in the house – and they see as much of our feral cats as they do our companion cats.

So if feral behavior is truly irreversible – how can teenaged feral cats – change so dramatically? We know enough about their backgrounds to know that they weren’t socialized as kittens – and yet their acceptance of people now extends well beyond their caregivers. What’s really happening here is a question -- but my guess is that cats aren’t as genetically pre-wired to be permanently feral as we portray them.

Right now – with as many homeless cats as there are – leaving feral cats outdoors is still our best strategy. They’re proven survivors. But once we get the numbers down, it’s a concept we may have to revisit. Just because they aren’t stereotypic lap cats, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy the life of Riley as much as the next pampered pet cat – Larry, Cleo, Joyce and Emmy prove that they can. So when it comes to feral cats, it's not true that they’re all black-and-white – a lot of them are calico.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Spay

Is it okay to spay a mom cat? Can she be fixed when she’s in heat, pregnant or nursing? The short answer is yes. And, because cats are polyestrus long-day breeders – you often have no choice. They go in and out of heat continuously -- every two weeks -- during the “long day months” of February through October -- unless they’re ill or already pregnant. Their heat cycles start when a female kitten is as young as 16 weeks and yes – mother cats can become pregnant while nursing – and related cats and kittens (brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, sons and mothers) do breed. If you’re living with a male and female cat or kitten (related or not) you can have a litter of kittens even if your cats are indoor-only. My first female cat got pregnant while I was moving into a new apartment – I left her in the new one while I went to pick up another load of belongings-- not knowing a kitchen window was slightly open. When I returned there was a neighbor’s tom cat in my living room and 63 days later we had a brand new litter of 3 kittens. That’s all it takes. My cat lived alone and had never been outdoors and yet she was pregnant! I didn’t even know she was in heat.

The best way to prevent this is to get your cats (male and female) fixed as young as possible. Vet students today are being trained to sterilize cats at 8 weeks of age and two pounds of weight. Many private veterinarians also fix cats at that age or wait until their 12 weeks old and three pounds. Some still adhere to the older practice of waiting until they’re six months old – this helps to make a pet cat more suitable as an indoor companion, but leaves you exposed to having or causing an unintended litter or two.

The early spay/neuter surgeries have been standard practice in animal shelters with in-house veterinarians for over 20 years now and not only have they demonstrated it’s safe – but some argue it’s better -- because young kittens are more resilient than older cats and have less surgery after-effects to deal with. For female cats the surgery is often simpler – since they can’t be in heat or pregnant.

So can you fix an in-heat or pregnant cat? Yes.  But not without increased risk -- as the surgery is more complicated. If you think your cat is pregnant, fix her immediately – the longer you wait, the more complicated the surgery will be. If you find yourself with a pregnant cat and your vet recommends against spaying her -- or you have moral quandaries about doing so --you may have a litter of unintended kittens. If so, start finding homes for them even before they’re born, but plan on keeping them together as a litter for their first 8 weeks. This is how they learn to be cats.

And – most importantly –get Mom spayed as soon as her kittens are eating on their own – at about 4 weeks of age. Mom can get pregnant at that time and finding homes for her second litter will be a lot harder than the first. Our Feral Colony Handbook (Appendix C) gives a good overview on how to care for and socialize kittens.

And please – don’t intentionally breed your cats – no matter how beautiful they are. The odds are their kittens won’t look like them anyway. If you really enjoy kittens, channel that energy into a more positive light by volunteering as a foster home for kittens that couldn’t be prevented. Cat rescues and shelters get flooded with them and they have to be placed in foster homes until after they’ve been socialized and are at least 8 weeks old. You and your children can perform a great community service by opening your homes to these very orphaned babies – making every day a mother’s day for them.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Cat Spay Of Santa Fe Update

After our first burst of activity in late April, Cat Spay of Santa Fe went dormant.  We kind of expected that to happen as it takes time for a new program to build a rhythm.  And – since it is a new program – that’s okay -- because it gives us some time to work out any kinks without making too many public mis-steps. (We used our earlier Ann Arbor spay/neuter programs as a model but there are differences between Ann Arbor and Santa Fe that'll cause changes to how we work with both applicants and veterinary clinics.)

While we build up an application rhythm, we're finding ways to speed the process up -- here are a few things we're trying:
We've already expanded our service area. In Ann Arbor we were sandwiched between some very large metropolitan areas – like Detroit, Jackson and Toledo (Ohio) – so we serviced only specific zip codes to limit applications.  In Santa Fe County, with the exception of Albuquerque (who has its own free spay/neuter program) we're surrounded by low-population rural areas  – and so we’re expanding our initial service area to include them – so long as they’re able to drive into the county for the surgeries.

We’ve joined Scoop – a social network web site of the Santa Fe New Mexican for animal lovers –and this is our first post to it.  If you're reding this on Scoop and want to help us fix pet cats for lower-income Santa Fe area families – just print out our program flyer -- or contact us and we'll mail you some for posting.   The more places in Santa Fe who display our flyer, the more people we'll reach.  Community bulletin boards are often our best way to find qualified applicants.  To help, you can post the flyers on pretty much any community bulletin board in or near Santa Fe County --- where you live or work, shop or attend school or church -- anywhere you think cat lovers will see them.

We've mailed posters and applications to the many Santa Fe pet stores and veterinary clinics for posting.  By their nature, these places often see or hear from the ones that have cats and can’t afford to fix them -- and we'd like to be at the top of their referral list for help.

And – while we wait for our application rhythm to kick in – we’re working with Felines & Friends to fix as many feral cat colonies as possible.  They’ve got four active TNR projects – a senior citizen home, a casino, a doggie day care and a pet boarding business – all with colonies of reproducing cats that'll be much better neighbors once they’re fixed. We’ve provided vouchers for about 50 of these cats so far – and will happily provide more if they’re needed to quickly complete the job.

Our long-term focus has to be on the pet cats in lower-income families -- to prevent more cat colonies from forming -- and to ensure cats don't lose good homes just because their guardians don't have the front-end money to fix them.  But existing cat colonies need help too – so until our funds are flowing regularly to sterilize pet cats, we’ll work wherever we can to help all cats.   It’s simply the most effective way to limit and eventually eliminate – the senseless practice of euthanizing  healthy-but-homeless cats -- and isn't that really our ultimate goal anyway?