- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - They are unheralded and unpaid, and they work on weekends and holidays, in the evening and early in the morning. The women in Project Spay/Neuter are on a mission to reduce the number of animals euthanized in parish shelters by using aggressive spay/neuter programs.

“I founded the organization because I saw the need,” Lisa Smith, a retired accountant, says.

The small nonprofit group strives to save both dogs and cats, but their main program involves stabilizing the population of feral cats in the New Orleans area through TNR, short for trap-neuter-return.

Feral cats are homeless. They were probably born under a house, or maybe they were abandoned and then reverted to a more wild state. They are resourceful, and they are everywhere. They set up colonies in neighborhoods and help keep the rodent population down. They have a place in the urban landscape, but left alone they can reproduce at a mind-boggling rate.

The idea is to humanely trap the cats; have them sterilized, vaccinated, and ear-tipped (a universal sign meaning a cat has been neutered); and then return them to the neighborhood they came from, where someone feeds and waters them.

“In 2011, I did 500 cats,” Smith says.

It’s a time- and labor-intensive endeavor, but one that works.

Smith began trapping feral cats in 2001, when a colony settled near her home on West Esplanade Avenue. She caught 23 cats and had them spayed and neutered, and she found homes for the 12 kittens in the colony.

“I got them all taken care of, and the neighborhood is still clear today,” she says. “That’s what sucked me in.”

What also sucked her in was knowing that feral cats picked up by animal control officers have virtually no hope of being saved because they’re competing with an endless stream of socialized animals in need of loving homes.

“It costs over $200 to bring an animal into the shelter and keep them for the mandatory holding period. Then, they’re euthanized,” she says. “We have a less expensive, more efficient, solution.”

When she realized just how big the problem of pet overpopulation was, she turned her little band of volunteers into a nonprofit group, so they could seek grants and donations to do their work.

“But we’re competing against a lot of causes,” she says. “Those dollars are in high demand.”

They work with local veterinarians willing to provide low-cost spaying and neutering. Also, Jefferson Parish SPCA now offers free spaying and neutering for feral cats, and the LA-SPCA offers $10 spay-neuters for ferals.

Sometimes the people who ask for their help can afford to pay for veterinary care. But many of their efforts are in low-income areas, where people are willing to feed and look out for the cats but can’t afford even low-cost services.

“We’re absorbing a lot of the costs out of our pockets,” Smith says. “And our fabulous volunteers are providing their time, vehicles, gasoline and trapping food.”

Project Spay/Neuter’s numbers are impressive. From 2011 through 2014, their volunteer force of less than a dozen women TNR’d nearly 7,000 cats, and from the beginning of this year through the end of April, they’ve trapped 408 males and 311 females, including 138 who were pregnant.

“Cats breed year-round and they can start breeding by the time they’re six months old or even younger,” Smith says. “Just the act of sterilization makes them so much better. No more breeding and spraying and fighting.”

I first heard about Project Spay/Neuter a few months ago from Nita Hemeter, a New Orleans musician and tour guide. When she learned what great work the women were doing, she decided to join them in their efforts.

“They are all heroes and doing an amazing job,” she says. “No salaries, no fancy office, just hard, time-consuming work.

Hemeter started working with Hannah Lyell, and lately she’s been trapping in Central City with the help of Pat Barconi, a cat lover who feeds the cats and knows where to find them. They trapped 57 cats and hauled them to the vet just last month.

“Most people are happy to have the cats around as long as they’re ‘fixed,’” she says. “I do this because it is the one thing I can do that makes a huge difference in the euthanasia rate of cats in shelters.”

The day I meet up with Smith, two longtime trappers join us to share some of their TNR adventures.

“I got started when I bought a house Uptown, and I bought a feral family with my house,” Beth Schmidt says. “Once you see how well TNR works, you want to keep doing it. It is so entertaining.”

Schmidt, an information technology analyst for LSU, points out it’s necessary to catch all the cats in a colony because if just a few are left, you’ll soon have kittens all over the place.

“Then people start to think TNR doesn’t work,” she says.

“These two taught me to trap five years ago,” Julie Hugel, a nurse-anesthetist, says, smiling at Smith and Schmidt. “I live in West End, and I was going to trap all the cats in my area.”

She soon learned that some of the cats had other ideas, but she’s come a long way in five years. She tells me about her “big old box trap,” which the other women describe as “a Wily Coyote kind of trap” and “a Macgyver contraption.”

With it, she recently managed to catch what turned out to be a sweet tom cat who had eluded others for a month and a half.

“Now, we’re going to find him a nice backyard, or maybe somebody’s house,” she says.

Hugel says that one woman was so appreciative when she trapped a cat for her that she now sews covers for their traps that help keep the trapped cats calm.

“We meet some really nice people,” Smith says.

Schmidt says some new people in the city don’t appreciate the cats, but she tries to explain they’re part of the scenery in New Orleans.

“We need to fix the potholes and fix the cats,” she says.

There are drawbacks, Hugel admits, to hauling cats back and forth to the vet all the time.

“My grandson told me, ‘Nana, your car stinks,’” she says.

But she loves what she’s doing and is grateful for her husband’s support.

“I trap for the elderly, and for low-income and people with disabilities,” she says. “He knows this is important to me. He allowed me to take over the garage.”

She is also grateful to Smith for starting Project Spay/Neuter.

“She has enabled my bizarre passion,” Hugel says. “I can trap as many cats as I want. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

The great thing about TNR, the women explain, is that it works for those who like cats and those who don’t.

“It’s good if you like them because it makes them healthier and happier,” Hugel says. “And it’s good if you don’t because it means less of them.”

Smith points out that their mission goes beyond TNR.

“We’re about everything. We’re about dogs, too,” she says.

Project Spay/Neuter recently used a grant and worked with The Inner Pup of New Orleans, another nonprofit volunteer group, to sterilize more than 40 dogs from trailer parks on the West Bank.

“We also offer spay-neuter vouchers to low-income pet owners and direct them to clinic services,” Smith says.

Their overall goal is to reduce pet overpopulation so animal shelters can shift their resources from animal control and euthanasia to more humane services. They’re all about saving animals.

“It’s like shoes or alcohol or gambling,” Smith says. “It’s kind of an addiction.

To learn more about Project Spay/Neuter, go to their Facebook page. Or send a donation to Project Spay/Neuter, P.O. Box 8932, Metairie, La 70011-8932.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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