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    Amanda Tevis pulls into the parking lot behind a business on Bardstown Road in the Highlands. She’s driving a compact, all-white panel van with her organization’s circular logo displayed prominently on its side. The logo features the words “Alley Cat Advocates,” which encircle an artist’s abstract depiction of a long-whiskered feline. Beside it on the rear panel is an all-caps slogan: “SPAY A STRAY/CALL TODAY.”

    The cat captured inside ACA’s logo forms an apt image. This nonprofit, started in 1999, has become the face of Louisville’s efforts to manage populations of stray and feral cats. In prior years, un-owned cats brought to the Metro Animal Services shelter might be euthanized if no home could be found for them. Today, Alley Cat Advocates takes a different approach: It traps these strays and brings them to a clinic to be spayed or neutered, then releases them back into the community in the same place they were captured. This “trap-neuter-release” strategy (TNR) has advocates among cat lovers and those committed to the humane treatment of animals. But it also has detractors. Perhaps the most vocal criticism comes from bird-conservation groups, which point to the large numbers of birds and small mammals killed each year by these efficient predators.

    Tevis is in the Highlands on this warm late afternoon, attempting to trap a few cats being fed daily by an apartment resident in the neighborhood. The resident says she twice daily feeds a total of eight cats, five of which have already been released back to the alley behind her apartment after neutering. Tevis is here in hopes of caging one or both of two still-fertile tomcats in the group, as well as a kitten not yet treated.

    Tevis carries the title “community cat trapper” for ACA. The organization calls any stray or feral felines “community cats,” a label that reinforces a shared responsibility. Karen Little, ACA’s founder and executive director, says the organization traps, neuters and returns approximately 4,000 cats a year in Jefferson County. The long-term goal is to stabilize, and perhaps reduce, the number of un-owned cats in Louisville and surrounding areas. “We respond solely to people who are calling us,” Little says. “Those people are feeding the cats. They love the cats; they’ve named the cats; and they want the cats back. They don’t want there to be more of them.”

    The rear of Tevis’ vehicle contains a half-dozen wire trip-cages. She opens cans of Fancy Feast shrimp and fish food you might find at the supermarket, a product selected for this job because of its strong aroma. She then places small portions of the food on triangular pieces cut from paper plates, three to a cage, each farther inside to draw the animal all the way to the rear so the tripping device can engage. The cages are placed at the cat colony’s usual feeding station, as well as in front of a nearby wooden shed the outdoor animals crawl into for shelter. Like a fisherman, Tevis stands back and waits for her quarry to appear and take the bait.

    “We ask (people who feed community cats) to withhold food the day before we try to trap,” Tevis says. “In this particular area, there are a lot of obstacles, mostly because there are a lot of dumpsters they can feed out of. And these community cats also have a couple of other people who feed them anyway.”

    “I can tell you where the stray cats are in Louisville, and that pretty much holds across the country,” says Alley Cat Advocates founder and executive director Karen Little. “They’re where any human being is transient, which means apartments, mobile-home parks and neighborhoods where there’s a lot of rental property — where people come and go.”

     

    There are restaurants and retail shops on this section of Bardstown Road. A couple of doors down resides another “caretaker,” the nametag ACA places on people who regularly provide food without bringing these cats into their homes. This man puts out morsels for street cats on a garage roof adjacent to his deck. It’s feeding time now, and several strays show up, including two nursing mothers and their nearly grown kittens. Tevis approaches the man to explain ACA’s services. Feeders must consent to any trapping before it occurs and ACA supplies traps for many, who then have the option to catch the cats themselves and bring them to the neutering clinic. He agrees to get in touch.

    As we wait for the tomcats or kitten to enter one of Tevis’ traps, the already spayed females in this evening’s target group gingerly approach the cages but are reluctant to go inside. They learn quickly how to avoid getting captured again, and some, according to Tevis, have perfected a method of stepping lightly in, eating the bait and then backing out without triggering the door. Tevis is unsuccessful on this early evening. One of the tomcats, a scruffy off-white-and-black male, comes into sight and sniffs at a cage, but appears to be wary of the presence of strange humans and eventually wanders away uncaught.

    It’s easier to trap in areas with fewer food alternatives. Captured cats are then taken that same evening to the S.N.I.P. Clinic on Preston Highway, which is operated by the Kentucky Humane Society. The following day they are either spayed or neutered and receive a rabies vaccination as well as a treatments for fleas and worms. The treated cats are held for one more night at the clinic and then returned to their capture location and released back into the community.

    “They’re usually on the steps waiting for me when I come home,” says the woman who feeds this colony. “They know my car. They see me coming. I have one who’s been here since I’ve been here and she walks on three legs. Her paw is curled up. And that’s what really got me into feeding the cats. I saw her and I thought, ‘Oh, she’s hurt.’

    “She’s not hurt; she’s disabled. I think she gets a lot of people in like that, just kind of draws them in. So I laid out some food and the next thing I know a black-and-white one showed up . . . And then they just kind of kept coming.”

     

    It’s difficult to estimate the number of cats loose in the outdoors in Louisville. They can be found in any neighborhood, including better-off ones like the Highlands. But numbers tend to go up in less-prosperous areas.

    “We don’t really know how many there are,” Little says as we talk in her crowded office at the Eastern Parkway home of Alley Cat Advocates. “We’re only scratching the surface. We’re only trapping and returning the cats we get calls about. So how many people are not calling us? And how many cats are out there that don’t have people?”

    Little is more certain about the locations where higher numbers exist. “Anecdotally, I can tell you where the stray cats are in Louisville, and that pretty much holds across the country,” she says. “They’re where any human being is transient, which means apartments, mobile-home parks and neighborhoods where there’s a lot of rental property — where people come and go.

    “Primarily, they’re economically challenged and they end up not being able to take the cat with them (when they move). They were feeding the cat and then they move and wind up feeding other cats. So we focus most of our work, because we want to be effective and efficient, in the southwest portion of the county.”

    Little says ACA receives approximately 7,000 calls per year and they generally come from two types: people who are feeding cats and don’t want more of them added to the colony, and people who don’t like having stray cats in their yards.

    Alley Cat Advocates got its start on the streets of Old Louisville. For 25 years, Little was the head of the music library at the University of Louisville. (She retired in 2014.) Along with her husband Hoyt, she owned two adopted cats. While walking to and from their home in Old Louisville to her campus job she repeatedly encountered strays, which she gathered up and found homes for with friends and relatives. “Then we ended up with five in our house and decided we needed to figure out another plan,” she recalls.

    This was during the late 1990s. So the couple traveled to various U.S. cities to see what other communities were doing with un-owned cats. They found urban areas where spay and neuter clinics had been opened and trap-neuter-release programs put in place. That led to the founding of Alley Cat Advocates in 1999. “We just saw a need and we did some research on what we needed to do to fix it,” Little says.

    When Little and her husband, a retired bank executive, started TNR here 20 years ago, most of the stray and feral cats brought in to Louisville Metro Animal Services were being euthanized. There simply were not enough people willing to adopt these animals. Room at the shelter was limited.

    Dr. Laura Sisterman, a local veterinarian who performs spay and neuter procedures for ACA, puts it more graphically: “Back then, 2006 to 2010, when you would go to Metro Animal Services, they had what they called the ‘cat room.’ And it was a cat dungeon. It was depressing,” she says. “You would go in there and every single case was filled. They had probably a couple hundred cats in there — moms with litters and kittens — just filled with cats. And most of them were then euthanized.”

    What’s more, say Little and other advocates of trap-neuter-release, taking the lives of these captured cats did nothing to reduce the numbers coming in to the shelter. Metro Council stepped in and in April 2012 passed an ordinance committing Animal Services to work with “animal care organizations” to implement TNR as the official policy for Jefferson County. Still in effect today, the ordinance stipulates that “community cats may be trapped, evaluated and sterilized, vaccinated against rabies, and ear-tipped for identification purposes, and then returned to the community.” The notching of an ear makes it easy to read whether an individual animal has received previous treatment.

    Alley Cat Advocates has become the go-to resource for Animal Services. Ozzy Gibson, in his fourth year as director at LMAS, says the county received a grant two years ago from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and hired its own community cat coordinator. That person left the job within a few months and he turned to Alley Cat Advocates. “When we get complaints we reach out to them,” says Gibson. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they will go handle it.”

    ACA’s current annual operating budget is approximately $525,000. It receives $40,000 each year from Metro Government. Nearly half of the budget comes from grants and foundations, with the remainder raised via private donations, contract payments and some fees for services. It has raised $500,000 in an ongoing $800,000 capital campaign, with nearly half of that money coming from a grant written by the retail chain PetSmart Inc. Alley Cat Advocates will be moving, likely at year’s end, from its cramped quarters on Eastern Parkway to a larger space adjacent to Metro Animal Service’s new “no-kill” shelter on Newburg Road. The ACA budget will remain separate from Animal Services’ budget.

    “Back then, 2006 to 2010, when you would go to Metro Animal Services, they had what they called the ‘cat room.’ And it was a cat dungeon. It was depressing,” says local veterinarian Dr. Laura Sisterman. “You would go in there and every single case was filled. They had probably a couple hundred cats in there — moms with litters and kittens — just filled with cats. And most of them were then euthanized.”

     

    “I’ve talked to other shelter directors,” says Gibson, “and it’s hard to find somebody who will work as hard as (Little) has and raise the money she has to make something happen and keep it going.”

    The county’s shelter, which used to count up to a couple hundred cats in cages, now has about 50 at a time, according to its director. “Today we’re saving 95 percent, maybe even 98 percent, of the cats that come into our organization. The 4 percent not making it are the ones coming in that humanely need to be euthanized due to disease or injury or trauma.”

    Cats are no longer high on Gibson’s problem list. “We have way too many unclaimed large-breed pit bulls and pit bull mix,” he says. “That’s my problem. Nobody comes to claim them. . . . I’ve probably got 80 of them today. The longer they stay, the less domesticated they get.”

     

    Returning stray and feral cats after sterilization to the places they were trapped can provide a financial savings for animal shelters that are taking fewer felines into their care. The strategy also finds support among many opposed-to-euthanasia advocates of humane treatment of animals. But some wildlife proponents are strongly against TNR.

    Andrew Melnykovych, president of the Beckham Bird Club, this area’s most active birding group, says flatly, “You’re never going to eradicate feral cats, but you can take steps to reduce populations — and trap-neuter-release is not an effective way of doing that.”

    Both proponents and opponents of TNR point to studies they say reinforce their positions on the practice. They seem to have two sets of facts and little communication that finds common ground, bringing to mind the polarization of our national politics these days. There is, for instance, disagreement over how much danger feral cats with transmittable diseases such as rabies and toxoplasmosis pose to humans. Additionally, anti-TNR factions suggest that cats in the wild have much shorter lifespans and are less healthy overall, while advocates of the practice dispute these assertions.

    Then there’s the issue of sterilization’s effectiveness: Female cats can have three litters averaging five kittens during a spring and summer, which makes getting 100 percent of the feral population neutered a statistical improbability. Anti-TNR voices suggest that trapping enough of them to halt population growth is equally improbable. On the other hand, TNR advocates argue for population stabilization and posit that free-roaming colonies “self-regulate” their numbers based on the availability of food within their range. The TNR goal is to convince feeders of stray-cat colonies to reduce the amount of food they put out whenever a neutered cat dies or leaves the group. The remaining sterilized cats, they say, will not allow replacement individuals to join them if the nutrition source is limited.

    Despite their disagreements, both sides might agree on one thing: Cats are amazingly skillful hunters. When they see something flutter, whether it’s a ball on a string indoors or a live creature outside, they instinctively pounce, even if they aren’t hungry.

    Kate Slankard, an avian biologist at Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, responded in an email that her department does not support TNR programs. They provide “no protection for wildlife affected by feral cat predation,” she writes. The department’s stance on cats outdoors is, according to Slankard: “We recommend keeping house cats indoors and an education campaign to raise awareness about the impacts of feeding or allowing the propagation of feral cats. Programs that involve removing feral cats from the landscape are recommended.”

    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, perhaps the nation’s most respected source for bird information, states on its website that cats are non-native predators introduced by humans into nature and that there are 60 million to 100 million free-ranging, un-owned cats in the U.S. Citing a 2013 study, the lab adds that cats in the outdoors, “even using conservative estimates, kill 1.3 – 4 billion birds and 6.3 – 22.3 billion mammals each year in the U.S. alone.”

    Many common species of North American birds are in steep decline, according to both Cornell and the Audubon Society. Habitat destruction is cited as the top reason, but predation by invasive species is always high on the list of other factors for the drops in numbers. Their position is that trap-neuter-release does not adequately reduce un-owned cat populations.

    “I’ll admit neutering is better than leaving them uncontrolled,” Melnykovych, the Beckham president, says. “But the ideal solution in the bird club’s view is, rather than releasing them, manage the feral cat populations.”

    He points to the situation in some local parks and trail areas, citing Cherokee Park and Anchorage Trail as examples where people have set up feeding stations for feral and stray cats. “These areas host a variety of songbirds,” he says. The feeding stations “should be prohibited.”

    Bird associations also advocate other strategies for managing the populations of free-roaming cats. Grant Sizemore, the director of invasive species programs for the American Bird Conservancy, suggests that supporting more responsible ownership of cats as pets is a crucial step. Pet cats that are turned outside hunt as well. Sizemore advocates having these pets sterilized and tagged with microchips that identify their owners, and keeping them confined to their owner’s property. (Melnykovych calls for a leash law for house cats in Louisville, requiring them to stay indoors or be led by their owners when outside.)

    “As a society we have made that transition with dogs; we have not done it with cats. It’s time we do,” Sizemore says. “We need to treat cats like we treat dogs.”

    The American Bird Conservancy calls for removing existing stray and feral cats from areas where their movements are not contained. Sizemore says in some cases fences might be built around colonies to restrict their ranges. In other cases, trapping and taking them to a shelter or a cat sanctuary is recommended. If adoption or relocation fails, euthanasia is called for. “Release of unwanted pets back onto the landscape is never an accepted solution in an unconfined space,” says Sizemore.

    His vision of the future is almost apocalyptic. “Ultimately,” he says, “you’re either going to have cats or native wildlife, not both. You just choose — which do you value more? If you want only cats, then OK, that’s what you’re going to get through TNR.”

     

    The founder of Alley Cat Advocates does not claim to have all of the answers. Karen Little cannot estimate how many cat colonies are roaming here, some fully feral and living off wildlife. “We don’t know the magnitude of the problem, and we don’t know how to most efficiently and effectively address it, except by trial and error,” she says.

    In 2010, Alley Cat Advocates received a $75,000 grant to focus its trap-neuter-return efforts on the zip code in Jefferson County that produced the highest intake of stray cats into the Animal Services shelter. That was the 40215, an area roughly between Churchill Downs and Iroquois Park. (The shelter now being moved to Newburg Road was in that same area.)

    “By the time we had altered 800 cats in that zip code, the intake of stray cats from that zip code to Metro Animal Services had dropped by 51 percent,” Little says. “So we could see immediate impact. While I can’t tell you how many cats are there, I can tell you that focused trapping, neutering and returning in that area caused a dramatic decline in the number of stray cats going into the shelter.”

    These results led to the partnership ACA now enjoys with Animal Services and in many ways to the 2012 ordinance that identifies trap-neuter-return as Metro Louisville’s policy on un-owned cats. Of the approximately 4,000 undergoing spay or neuter surgeries, cats examined and deemed too unhealthy to survive the procedure comprise only about 4 percent of the cats brought in. They are euthanized.

    “For those who don’t want the cats in their yard we provide deterrents — sonic noise-makers triggered by motion,” Little adds. “We loan them out for 30 days. They usually train a cat well in that period. . . . Also, we might go into that area and trace where a cat is feeding that comes through (the caller’s) yard and we’ll work with the person feeding the cats.”

    Sterilization reduces some of the drive to wander, she says. Alley Cats Advocates also tries to get caretakers to put out litter boxes or sandboxes to keep the cats from doing their business in adjacent gardens. “We’re teaching people who feed the cats how to better keep them on their property,” Little says.

    In 2009, according to Little, 17 percent of cats brought into the county’s shelter got out alive through adoption or other means. Today, 96 percent are returned to the community. “That’s a metric we look at that measures success,” she says.

    “We have to work together to find solutions. Killing them, which is what animal welfare did for decades, didn’t do it. They weren’t successful. So TNR is the thing now that is trying to mitigate the numbers. I don’t know if it’s going to be successful. I know that it’s more humane, so I think it’s a step forward.”

    Some in the trap-neuter-return movement claim it will reduce the numbers of un-owned cats as long as feeders are persuaded to cut back the food they put out as older sterilized cats die off. Cats in the colonies would not let in new individuals, the thinking goes, as they protect their share of the meals. Theoretically, cat colony sizes would drop over time.

    Little sees success in a scenario where cat colony numbers remain about the same instead of growing. “We’ve shown that we can go as a community from a (nearly) 100 percent kill rate to 4 percent in the span of 20 years,” she says. “We have evolved to a point where we have a plan in place that manages resources in a way that doesn’t involve killing cats. And we believe that we have a citizens’ response that is a culture of caring. People are no longer afraid to call us for assistance.”

     

    I arrive at the S.N.I.P. Clinic on Preston Highway on a Tuesday morning to meet Dr. Laura Silverman, who will be doing the day’s surgeries on trapped cats. Behind the building in a dumpster area, a large raccoon is chowing down on food that clinic employees set out a few minutes earlier for the half-dozen community cats that show up each day for a meal. It doesn’t seem to be in any mood to share.

    A total of 67 feral cats await Silverman in cages inside the clinic. Many cages are blanketed with cloth coverings to keep the occupant inside calm. They’re stacked four or five high in a small room separated from the operating room and from the space where caged dogs are spending the night prior to their surgeries, which will be performed across the operating room from Silverman by another veterinarian.

    Silverman expects she’ll only be able to complete 50 of the 67 cats on this day. The one-day-a-week surgeries she performs for Alley Cat Advocates peak during this summer season, and any not finished on a Tuesday must be handled at a later time. In winter, she says, the number awaiting her might be 20 or so. Silverman, who works the rest of the week at other clinics, is paid a modest fee by the Kentucky Humane Society for her operations on stray cats.

    “If a cat needs a tail amputation, or eye removed, or defective teeth taken care of, Alley Cat says do what you need to do,” Silverman says, “and keep them for a couple of weeks so wounds can heal.” She says the stray cats that come in range from “fat and happy” to specimens that need a lot of attention. That same range of conditions applies to pet cats that are brought in to other clinics, she notes.

    Silverman works two operating tables, alternating between them so one can be cleaned and prepped for a new surgery while another is in progress. It makes for an exhausting day, but the vet is convinced the trap-neuter-return strategy is making a difference. “The wildlife people are pissed, and I get it,” she says. “The thing is, they come out with statistics they say show TNR doesn’t work. And then there are all these studies we have that say TNR does work.”

    It boils down in this veterinarian’s mind to two words: “eradicate” or “stabilize.” Those who do not want feral cats roaming the outdoors favor eradicating them from the environment. Either exterminating or relocating feral cats on islands has been tried and, as with nearly every other discussion, wildlife advocates and cat advocates disagree on whether that strategy has been successful for the long term. In recent months, Australia has imposed a bounty on feral cats in an attempt to remove them from parts of the country where they contribute to the decline of certain endangered small mammals. “I can guarantee you that the bounty is not going to work,” says Little. Stray cats, TNR supporters say, will always return because humans will always let them outside.

    “I agree with everything the bird people are saying,” says Silverman. “I don’t think it’s ideal to have cats outside. I think they should all be owned, they should all be inside, and they should all come to the vet each year to get vaccinated.

    “They’re not. So the reality is, there are going to be outdoor cats. Trap-neuter-release is trying to stabilize the population. Conservation people say TNR is not working, it’s not eradicating. We’re saying, ‘You’re right. We’re trying to stabilize (the population) and keep it at a lower number over time.’”

    One thing is certain: Alley Cat Advocates has taken on a huge task. When I ask Amanda Tevis, the community cat trapper, how many caretakers are out there in Jefferson County, she cannot come up with an estimate. “It’s a lot,” she says.

    And she adds, “I do know how many need trapping right now. I have 97 people who are waiting for traps.”

     

    This originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Stray Cat Blues.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Illustration by Sammy Kimura

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