FIXING A PROBLEM: Mecosta ‘trap-neuter-return’ program helps control outdoor cat population

From left, TNR Mecosta volunteers Mary Gallagher-Eustice, Anne Hogenson and Kelly Hicks are pictured preparing bait at a trapping event in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

BIG RAPIDS — The start of spring means the unofficial kickoff of “kitten season” — the time of year in which the most kittens are born in Michigan.

In most cases, the cuteness of baby cats is outweighed by the reality that in Mecosta County, there are more pets available than there are people to take care of them. The growing problem of over-population has led to more cases of animals dying due to disease, exposure and hunger, area feline experts said.

TNR Mecosta, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Animal Rescue Coalition of Mecosta County, aims to nip the problem in the bud. Working with people who are already taking care of large groups of outdoor cats, the group “traps, neuters and returns” the animals back into their environment, effectively keeping them from reproducing while ensuring their health and comfort remain stable.

“For years, we would get calls at the ARC from people who had cats that were indiscriminately breeding or strays that would show up and have litters. This is a way to approach the issue in a different way than trying to find homes for all of them — which takes a lot of time and resources,” said Kim Galloway, the cat shelter manager at ARC and a founding member of TNR Mecosta. “We want to prevent kittens to begin with, but we also want to make for a healthier cat population on a whole.”

TNR organizers say the group has no problem with cats who live outdoors, even those without owners. But, they say, if cats aren’t fixed, they can easily contribute to the growing problem of over-population — especially if they live outside.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are between 30 and 40 million “community cats” nationwide, meaning un-owned cats who live outdoors. Of that total, only 2 percent are spayed or neutered. Of all the new kittens born each year in the U.S., 80 percent come from the community cats group.

Local animal shelters have a tough time keeping up with new litters.
“The catteries at ARC are pretty much always filled to capacity. Right now, we have a waiting list until April,” Galloway said.

What makes the issue worse, Galloway said, are well-meaning people, identified by groups like TNR Mecosta as “caregivers,” who feed cats that come onto their property. When one cat realizes it has a food source, she said, other cats will follow, then breed, creating what is called a “colony.” Typically, over time, the colony overwhelms the caregiver and creates a nuisance for their neighbors.

“It’s usually someone who thinks they’re doing something good for the animals,” Galloway said. “But unless you’re willing to take on long-term responsibility for the animal, it may not have been the wisest choice.”

TNR Mecosta is usually first contacted by caregivers who have become overwhelmed, said Jennifer Thede, also a founding member of the group.

When that happens, the group will make a visit to the home of the person who contacted them to assess the situation, she said. From there, the group will usually come out on a Friday night to set harmless traps, then come back on Saturday morning to round up the cats they have caught.

The cats are then taken to any number of local area veterinarians, Thede said, who assist the group by providing low-cost spay and neuter services. Cats who have been caught are also given other medical services as needed, she said. After a short period of rest and relaxation, the cats are usually returned to the environment from which they came — the same as they were before they were before, just without the ability to have babies.

“Once, we took over 35 cats from a colony, and right when we did it, the caregiver said they immediately noticed how much more calm and peaceful everything was. They would continue to give care, but it seemed like the colony was much healthier,” Thede said. “They have less adverse behaviors like spraying, rummaging around or caterwauling. They’re not spreading diseases because they’re not in contact with random (unhealthy) cats.”

TNR Mecosta started three years ago, Thede said. Since then, the group has spayed or neutered more than 100 cats from 10 different sites in various areas throughout the county. It has hosted several fundraisers, ranging from card games to bottle drives, and received grants from the Mecosta County Community Foundation.

The success of the organization demonstrates its necessity in the area, organizers said.

“There’s a saying in TNR that I like, regarding feral cats, that goes, ‘You can’t hold them, but you can help them.’ In other words, most of these cats are not adoptable, but we can still help them,” Thede said. “Some people see these cats around and thinks they’re a nuisance, but for us, they’re worthy of love and not living in an over-populated environment.”

For more information, visit facebook.com/tnrmecosta.

In this April 2018 photo, a cat is pictured being returned to the area it came from after being trapped and fixed by the TNR Mecosta group. (Courtesy photo)

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Posted by Tim Rath

Tim is the Pioneer's associate editor. He also coordinates the Family & Friends, Religion and Veterans pages. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8386 or by e-mail at trath@pioneergroup.com.

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