March 5, 2015
Dare County Animal Shelter:
A recycling center for feral cats?
By SANDY SEMANS
County Manager Bobby Outten recently received a call asking if there
was available county property where a feral cat colony could be moved
because a Hatteras Island restaurant wanted it removed from its
“I explained that we don't have property that could be
used for that,” said Outten. “And I don't know how you could keep them
on a piece of property without putting up fencing around and over them.”
restaurant's dilemma illustrates a growing problem with feral cats on
Hatteras Island -- and in all of Dare County. And it's a problem
that has been exacerbated by the county's own animal control program.
recent years, the county animal shelter has become what amounts to a
recycling center for feral cats. Animal control picks them up or people
bring them in, and the shelter hands them back out to groups and
individuals who support a program called TNR – take, neuter, release.
2013, according to a report, 52 percent of animals -- mostly cats --
brought to the shelter were released alive. In 2014, that number
was up to 89 percent.
This is because the Dare County SPCA,
which contracts with the county to provide animal control and manage
the animal shelter, supports the TNR program.
controversy over feral cat colonies is an emotional issue for those on
both sides of the debate. Some groups swear by TNR programs for feral
cats, and others swear at them.
Some cat-lovers say it is the
only humane way to deal with the feral cats and to stabilize the
population. But some property owners say that the cats are a nuisance,
carry disease, kill the birds that they work to attract and are causing
problems on their properties.
The rationale behind TNR is that
if feral cats are trapped, neutered and released back out into the
wild, that it eventually will reduce colony populations since the cats
While some groups and individuals who attempt
to care for feral cat colonies do neuter the cats, others don't.
Neighbors of a colony on Twine Lane on Roanoke Island say that feral
cats there are reproducing, spraying their yards and invading out
buildings on their properties.
Debbie Martin of Friends of
Felines Cape Hatteras Island said that her group works with veterinary
students from North Carolina State University to spay and neuter feral
cats twice a year and that there is a volunteer vet from Cary who also
helps with neutering.
"Actually, the SPCA does not practice
TNR,” program director John Graves said recently. “We work
closely with a network of rescue groups that do and support the
practice as the only proven method of population control likely to work
in our area.”
HOW MANY CATS ARE TOO MANY?
confirmed that one Hatteras Island woman has been given 350 to 400 cats
from the animal shelter over a two-year period. Presumably, these cats
were relocated to Hatteras Island.
“Our rescue partners are not
sole individuals, but other organizations dedicated to progressive and
professional life saving practices. There is one person who represents
two agencies, one whose focus is TNR of feral cats and the other that
works to rehabilitate and rescue cats with behavior issues be it
moderate aggression, limited social skills, or other behaviors that the
average person would not consider adoptable.”
Other individuals have also received multiple cats from the shelter -- in some cases, up to 50.
said that her group never adds cats to colonies or starts new ones. “If
we have to relocate a colony, we try to add it to an established
colony. Sometimes that works, sometimes not because cats might not let
other cats into their group.”
The American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society both
encourage the practice based on their belief that TNR stabilizes the
population and that cared-for colonies die out over time as the cats
die from old age.
Martin of Friends of Felines is a strong
supporter of the program. Martin said that if the program is properly
followed, it is successful in reducing the populations of feral cat
colonies. “I have one colony that I have cared for about 15 years. It
did have 12 cats but now is down to two.”
But other nature and
animal rights groups don’t agree because of the cats’ impacts on other
species or because they say that it leads to inhumane living conditions
for the cats. There is also a growing concern about health risks
related to diseases carried and spread by the cats.
the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is one of the most active
animal rights organizations in the U.S. but does not recommend nor
practice TNR except in very specific circumstances.
Its position is posted on the organization's website.
cats do not die of old age,” states the website. “Highly contagious
diseases are common, as are infected puncture wounds, broken bones,
urinary tract infections, brain damage, internal injuries, attacks by
other animals or cruel humans, automobile accidents, and terrible
living conditions like freezing or stifling temperatures, scrounging
for food, and being considered a 'nuisance,' through no fault of their
own. Moreover, free-roaming cats also terrorize and kill countless
birds and other wildlife who are not equipped to deal with such
“Having witnessed first-hand the gruesome things that
can happen to feral cats and to the animals they prey on, PETA cannot
in good conscience oppose euthanasia as a humane alternative to dealing
with cat overpopulation.”
Graves disagreed that such events as
the recent extreme weather conditions might cause mortality for cats,
particularly those living along the seashore.
“There have been
no reports of this happening. I think it is important to remember that
feral cats have existed on this landscape for centuries, and the locals
have always worked very hard to care for them,” said Graves.
A GROWING PROBLEM
the aim of TNR is to reduce the population of the feral cat colonies,
the numbers of cats per colony and the number of colonies is apparently
growing. An Island Free Press investigation found evidence of feral cat
colonies and/or feeding stations from Hatteras village to Kitty Hawk,
as well as on Roanoke Island. Interviews with people living or working
near colonies revealed that while some of the colonies are small with
less than 10 cats, many are growing and have up to 50 due to
introduction of additional cats by rescue organizations or failure to
neuter them, thus allowing them to reproduce.
Kill Devil Hills has its own animal control officer but also takes its captures to the Dare County Animal Shelter.
Devil Hills animal control officer Louie Reber said recently that he
was heading for Third Street and Seminole Street to try to round up
some of the cats that he said had “infested” the area. “I think that
they are coming from behind Belk's.
“We are seeing more cats and larger colonies,” said Reber. “They are just getting relocated from one area to another.”
colonies are found in neighborhoods, behind shopping centers, grocery
stores and restaurants, and on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge,
Mirlo beach, and most of the villages on Hatteras Island, including the
Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
It is illegal to release any
animal on federal property and, because cats are not indigenous to
North America, it also is an exotic species but there is evidence that
colonies have been placed on federal property. In some instances,
within 100 yards of areas where ground-nesting birds are often seen in
Graves said that the rescue groups releasing cats
know that it is not legal to release the animals on federal property.
“They are completely aware of this and are advised to avoid these
areas,” said Graves.
VIOLATION OF CONTRACT WITH COUNTY?
if allowing the cats to be released to add to or form colonies is a
violation of its contract with the county to provide animal control,
Graves said no because the contract does not state how the animals are
to be disposed of.
“We are not aware of any breach of contract. If we were, we would not be working in this manner,” he said.
contract states that the society will provide personnel to respond and
investigate to stray or public nuisance animals. We do that and so much
more. We still patrol, intake, and impound stray and public
nuisance animals as well as owner surrenders. The only thing that has
changed is the disposition. The cats have been vaccinated, altered, and
transferred to responsible agencies that continue to monitor and
maintain their care to the best of their ability.”
The National Park Service is not happy with animal control's change of policy.
its 2014 Predator Control Annual Report, the Park Service noted that
several issues were negatively impacting the success of the predator
management program, which is an effort to protect primarily
Feral cats are among the predators
captured by the Park Service's trapper. The cats are taken to the
Dare County Animal Shelter.
“The Dare County SPCA has recently
revealed that they no longer euthanize feral cats and have not been
doing so for over a year. Their program has been modified to a
spay/neuter and release strategy,” states the report.
to discuss this practice with their management team have been
unsuccessful. This action results in feral cats being released into
feral cat colonies bordering national park service property. These
animals are dispersing from the villages and taking up residency on
park service property or are using both village and park service
property within their home range. Feral cats that are caught in live
cages and taken to the SPCA learn trap avoidance after being caught and
continue to harm wildlife as non-native predators when released. An
acceptable alternative to releasing these animals into feral cat
colonies needs to be found immediately for CAHA [Cape Hatteras National
In 2014, the deaths of birds and small mammals
prompted a large coalition of about 200 environmental and animal rights
groups, including the American Bird Conservancy, to ask the U.S.
Department of Interior to take action to stop the proliferation of
feral cat colonies. The coalition pointed to a 2013 study by scientists
from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service (FWS) that estimated that approximately 2.4
billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals are killed in the United States
by outdoor cats every year. Feral cats were found to be responsible for
more than two-thirds of the bird deaths and nearly 90 percent of mammal
Martin said that she disagrees that cats are destroying
birds. “We get complaints from birders but they are losing their
habitat – it's not the cats.”
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Manager Mike Bryant takes the opposite view.
are top-of-the-line predators who go after small game such as lizards,
frogs and birds,” said Bryant. “We know from the literature that they
take large numbers of small animals. They are not native and we don't
want anyone establishing or maintaining cat colonies on the refuge.
"They have a negative impact on migratory birds. I do not want my birds on their menus."
FERAL CATS POSE HEALTH RISKS
The letter from the animal rights groups to DOI also noted growing concerns about health risks related to feral cats.
County Health Director Sheila Davies said that a search of the
department's files revealed that in 2013, the state health department
issued guidance for locales considering supporting feral cat colonies.
The document also refers health directors to an article included in the
online publication named "Wildlife Professionals," produced by the
Wildlife Society. The article can be found at http://issuu.com/the-wildlife-professional/docs/feralcats.
addition to stating that TNR is not cost effective, the report also
notes that pushing TNR is big business. Tens of millions of dollars are
being donated by individuals and large entities to the organizations
promoting the practice making it hard for conservation scientists to
compete to get their findings out.
The reports says that an
Audubon chapter that had opposed the program changed its stance in 2006
after being given a grant by one of the TNR-supporting organizations.
Corporations that benefit from increasing cat populations also have
become a player, including Pet Smart.
The 11-page article notes
growing concerns about mortality of other species caused by feral cats,
rabies and the lack of effectiveness of TNR. It also noted growing
health concerns about Toxoplasma gondii – a parasite that uses
exclusively cats as reproduction hosts. After reproducing, the parasite
is excreted by the cat and can live a year or more in soil while
waiting to infect wildlife and humans.
Graves was asked whether
if before being released, cats are tested for diseases such as raccoon
ringworm and toxoplasmosis that can be spread to humans, house cats and
“Any cats showing signs of any illness are not
transferred out,” said Graves. “All cats are fully vaccinated and
altered before being transferred to our partners, excluding adoption
partners out of area. Cats are checked thoroughly by shelter staff and
sent to the vet for alteration before they are transferred. We always
follow veterinary recommended testing. As I’m sure you’re aware,
toxoplasmosis is a disease that’s present in most other wild mammals
including humans and is a leading cause of food poisoning. Most cats
only shed toxoplasmosis for a few days to a few weeks their entire
The cats are not tested for toxoplasma gondii.
aren't the only species subject to being infected by the parasite.
Wildlife also is affected and can pass it on to humans in their meat
The Centers for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic, and
Johns Hopkins all recommend thoroughly cooking meat – particularly
venison, beef and pork -- to kill any toxoplasma gondii that might be
RISK TO OTHER WILDLIFE ALSO
Ohio, wildlife officials are expressing concerns because deer in the
urban areas of the state are showing a high level of infection. Studies
have shown that the percentage of infestations is significantly higher
in the areas where there are feral cat colonies so the public is being
urged to eat only thoroughly cooked game.
According to the Mayo
Clinic, pregnant women are warned not to empty litter boxes or do other
chores that expose them to cat fecal matter. Pregnant women infected by
the parasite are at risk for spontaneous abortion. Many early
infections end in stillbirth or miscarriage. Children who survive are
likely to be born with serious problems, such as seizures, enlarged
liver and spleen, yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
(jaundice), and severe eye infections.
Only a small number of
babies who have toxoplasmosis show signs of the disease at birth.
Often, infected children don't develop signs and symptoms — including
hearing loss, mental disability or serious eye infections — until their
teens or later.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
also notes that occasionally infected newborns have serious eye or
brain damage at birth.
Those with compromised immune systems,
such as HIV or AIDS patients, should seek medical help if they have
signs and symptoms of severe toxoplasmosis. The signs include
blurred vision, confusion, and loss of coordination.
advises that when a person becomes infected, the parasite forms cysts
that can affect almost any part of the body — often the brain and
muscles, including the heart.
If generally healthy, the immune
system keeps the parasites in check. They remain in the body in an
inactive state, providing lifelong immunity so that the person can't
become infected with the parasite again. But if resistance is weakened
by disease or certain medications, the infection can be reactivated,
leading to serious complications.
The parasite can remain
dormant and recent studies indicate that it is linked to mental
illness, memory loss in seniors, and other mental health illnesses.
reduce risk of exposure, Johns Hopkins warns to wear gloves when
gardening or coming in contact with soil or litter boxes. House cat
owners are urged to keep their cats inside so that they aren't exposed
to the parasite.
Graves was asked if there is any follow-up to see if the feral cats are being properly maintained.
responded: “As we are responsible for our own actions, so are our
partners. Once the animals leave our custody we cannot guarantee what
or how our partners care for them. That being said, we work diligently
to ensure we are partnering with responsible agencies and work to
maintain a balance of professional assistance and independence. All
agencies we work with put animal care first and provide regular and
routine veterinary care to their animals. We receive regular reports
from partner veterinarians regarding the conditions of most of our
Reber, the Kill Devil Hills animal control
officer, says that it is important to remember that the cats aren't the
problem; the people are. “The cats didn't create the problem; the
One of the problems, said Reber, is that too much
food is being put out and it is attracting other wildlife and cats. “If
there are four cats, put out just enough for them and then take it up
after a few hours.
If there is a solution, it may rest in part with the Dare County Board of Commissioners.
Chairman Bob Woodard said recently that he had not been aware that
feral cats were being picked up by animal control or dropped off at the
shelter and then being released until contacted by Island Free Press.
He said that the issue would be discussed at a future commission
At its meeting on Monday, March 2, Woodard asked county
manager Outten to have Graves attend the commissioners' next meeting,
which is on April 6, to report on feral cats.