- Associated Press - Monday, November 10, 2014

TAYLORS FALLS, Minn. (AP) - Annie Bent loves cats.

Which has become, she admits, a problem.

She said her neighborhood in Taylors Falls is overrun with feral cats, and she has now taken over the city’s cat-control program — and moved it away from euthanizing to sterilization.

“Controversial? You are not kidding me, it’s controversial,” Bent said in the middle of a mass-sterilizing effort on a recent Thursday. “For 10 years, I have kept my mouth shut. Well, we just can’t afford this anymore.”

Bent is typical of cat lovers across the metro area who feed, shelter and — sometimes — pay to have wild cats sterilized. But by taking over the city program, and potentially saving hundreds of lives, she has become a kind of hero among cat lovers.



“This woman is a saint, in my opinion,” said Laura Johnson, director of SCRAM, a cat-rescue group.

As estimates of the metro area’s stray cats climb to 1 million, Bent and thousands of others who encounter feral cats are struggling with how to handle them.

The Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program, known as MN Snap, reports that there are feral colonies in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Inver Grove Heights, North St. Paul, and a “huge” one in a mobile home park in Blaine. The St. Paul Park City Council last week began discussing solutions to its feral cat problem.

The number of feral cats — unadoptable cats born in the wild — is rising in the U.S., and is now between 30 million and 80 million, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1xalefB ) reported.

Studies have shown that each feral cat kills 30 to 40 birds a year — so the death toll could be more than 3 billion birds annually.

That’s one of the reasons Bent got involved.

She said the city has been dealing ineffectively with cats for years. In most cases, the city responded to a complaint, and then tried to trap the cat. Usually it ended up being euthanized by a veterinarian, who donated his services.

Bent began to take another approach. “Unfortunately, I love cats,” she said. She found four kittens in her woodpile and took them into her house. “My 10-year-old daughter bottle-fed them,” she said.

She found nine behind her house, and five hiding in a pile of sticks.

Then there were the nine kittens on the roadway. It was night, and they had just been born. Bent swooped in and was able to save five of them.

Neighbors hated the cat poop in their yards. The feral cats would pick fights with their dogs.

And, of course, they ate birds. “I have seen them with blue jays and robins in their mouths,” said neighbor Leslie Brue. “They leave the pieces on my driveway.”

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Some of Bent’s neighbors began to help. Although the adult cats were unadoptable, the feral kittens could be adopted. Neighbors began sponsoring feral colonies, including the 10-cat group that lives by one neighbor’s house.

Finally, last summer, Bent volunteered to take over the city’s program for cat control.

She said the city has as many as 400 feral cats. Mayor Mike Buchite disagrees, saying there are at most 50.

Nevertheless, he was delighted to accept Bent’s offer.

“Why wouldn’t I do that?” Buchite said. “Our public works department is tickled pink.”

Euthanizing cats, Bent said, did not work because when some cats are removed, the remaining cats breed more rapidly to make up for it — or wandering cats move into the territory. “It creates a vacuum,” she said.

Bent intends to trap the cats, sterilize them and return them to their colonies.

After several years, she said, the colonies won’t be able to reproduce and the number of cats will gradually drop.

That approach is endorsed by the Golden Valley-based Animal Humane Society.

But not everyone agrees.

The national Audubon Society is against it. The group says that more than 70 percent of a colony needs to be sterilized to control the population, which is difficult to do because cats roam and hide. And the colony needs to be sealed off from other cats — another tough condition.

Other groups are opposed, too, including the American Bird Conservancy, the Wildlife Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Better, they say, to trap the cats and euthanize them — which is what Taylors Falls was doing before.

Buchite raised another concern — rabies. The sterilized cats are given rabies shots, effective for only a limited time.

“OK, now you have to recapture them every two years and give them rabies shots,” Buchite said. “I am worried about a kid getting bitten.”

Even supporters of the approach, such as the Humane Society, warn that compassion is not enough. Anyone who merely feeds the cats — without sterilizing them — is contributing to the population problem.

“I certainly appreciate the compassionate side of people,” Kathie Jonson, the Humane Society’s senior director of operations. But feeding any wild animal, she said, attracts more of them.

“Now you have a whole colony, gathering in one place. If you stop feeding them, they disperse and look for food.”

And what effect does that have on cat populations? “You are going to get more cats if you feed them, absolutely,” Johnson said.

And money is another problem. It can cost more than $100 to sterilize a cat at a veterinarian’s office. MN Snap charges $50 a cat.

Money is the reason MN Snap has sterilized only 8,000 feral cats since it launched a spay-mobile in 2010, compared with 43,000 pets. Director Dana Andresen said that pet owners will pay for their cats, but usually no one pays for feral cats.

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MN Snap brought its spay-mobile to Bent’s home on the day of the mass-sterilizing effort, thanks to a grant from Chuck & Don’s pet stores.

Bent waited for the van to arrive, in a house that she had turned into a stray-cat motel.

Four cat-carrying cages waited on the porch, six in the dining room, and 11 in the living room. “We have four other cats in our bathroom,” Bent said.

She took out her list of rescued cats — 52 of them in September and October. About 19 have been sterilized and released into feral colonies, she said. She and her supporters have become close to the cats they rescue and grieve when they are adopted or released. “We cry every time,” said Bent.

Neighbor Brue said that two years ago, two cats appeared at her back door. She fed them, built insulated winter houses for them, and provided a heated bowl so the water wouldn’t freeze. “They had babies, and then there were 10 cats,” she said. She said that feeding the cats was a “double-edged sword” — because it could lead to even more cats being born. “But I can’t not take care of them,” she said. Outside, the MN Snap van was parked, its spot marked off by orange pylons.

In the van, veterinarian Lisa McCargar hunched over an unconscious dog sprawled on its back, paws tied, with a breathing tube in its mouth.

McCargar gently cut the dog’s belly, and then reached with rubber-gloved hands to remove the uterus. “Look at that,” she said through her surgical mask, pointing at a lump in the hot-dog-sized organ. “That’s a sign she has had a puppy.”

Between stitches, she speculated how severe the state’s animal overpopulation would be if MN Snap had not sterilized 53,000 animals. And she said a drop in feral cat populations will come eventually — it take seven years for sterilizations to take effect in colonies, and MN Snap has been sterilizing feral cats for only 3-1/2 years.

Back in the house, Bent scrambled to keep the supply of captured cats flowing.

“I am not an expert. I am not a hero,” said Bent, hefting one cage. “I love cats, and I am trying to get this under control.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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