Dare 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 property.
“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.”
The 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.
In 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.
Before 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.
The growing 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 can’t reproduce.
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?
Graves 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.
Martin 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.
People for 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.
“Homeless 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 predators.
“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
Although 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.
Kill 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.”
The 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 the summer.
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?
Asked 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.
“Our 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.
In 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 ground-nesting birds.
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.
“Efforts 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 Seashore].”
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 deaths.
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.
“Cats 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.
Dare 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.
In 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 other wildlife.
“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 life.”
The cats are not tested for toxoplasma gondii.
Humans 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 when eaten.
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 present.
RISK TO OTHER WILDLIFE ALSO
In 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.
Mayo Clinic 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.
To 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.
He 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 local partners.”
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 people did.”
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.
Board 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 meeting.
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.