COLUMBIA — Christina McCullen cracked open a can of mushy meat and dumped it on the parking lot curb.
"Kitties!" she yelled, as she coaxed two long-haired feral cats out of their nearby wooded lair.
“They all let me pet them now,” said McCullen, who feeds and cares for "Moonshine," "Buff" and the other eight or so feral cats in their colony. “It took me a few years to pet Buff though,” she said.
The Columbia City Council is taking up the issue of feral cats in the city on Tuesday when it will likely vote on a proposed ordinance that would require caretakers such as McCullen to assume a host of responsibilities for the feral cats in her care.
A hostile coexistence
Although one of Buff's ancestors was likely once a house cat, at some point that domestic relative became a stray and reproduced. Its kittens and their offspring born in the wild are known as feral cats.
Neighbors have their reasons to be peeved about them. Cats prey on small birds, reptiles and mammals, and the noise they create and the smell of a spraying tomcat can be a nuisance to the community.
The cats can easily spread disease to each other, cats with owners and, many think, to humans.
A national organization that supports the humane treatment of feral cats called Alley Cat Allies says there has never been a conclusive link that feral cats give humans intestinal parasites, rabies, flea-borne typhus and toxoplasmosis.
Some critics such as restaurant managers and homeowners think feral cat caretakers perpetuate the populations by feeding and nurturing the animals.
These were among the issues voiced at a Columbia Board of Health hearing in 2009. A subcommittee of the Board of Health has since worked with several groups, including the Central Missouri Humane Society, to draft an ordinance addressing feral cats and their caretakers.
“We wanted to elicit feedback from the city concerning the unwanted pet population that was putting a strain on the Humane Society,” Nathan Voris, a board member, said.
The ordinance was introduced at the council meeting on June 20, and the council is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday night. The proposed regulations call for caretakers to:
- Obtain a $25 feral cat caretaker permit biannually;
- Spay and neuter all of the cats in the colony;
- Trap and annually test the cats for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus;
- Identify all trapped cats by tipping their ears and insertion of a microchip;
- Have all cats vaccinated for rabies in addition to any other vaccinations or immunization requirement imposed by the state;
- Take all reasonable steps to remove kittens from the colony after they have been weaned, place the kittens in homes or foster care, and capture and spay the mother cat.
Voris said the ordinance is in the best interest of not only surrounding human populations but also the feral cats.
“We wanted to make sure there were steps that (the caretakers) had to take to maintain the health and welfare for these cats,” Voris said.
Criticism from caretakers
McCullen held a forum June 28 to discuss the ordinance. She and eight fellow caretakers found much to dislike in the regulations. Most of those who attended said that having to pay to test the cats for diseases would make it impossible to bear the expense of also spaying or neutering them.
“For every cat we get tested for these diseases, there’s another one that we can’t get fixed,” McCullen said.
McCullen has been a volunteer at Spay, Neuter & Protect for more than four years. The goal of the nonprofit Columbia organization is to decrease the number of feral cats by advocating trapping, neutering and releasing cats to prevent them from reproducing.
McCullen said feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency are extremely rare and it is unnecessary to test for them as required by the ordinance.
But Voris said the diseases are much more common when cats are feral.
Alley Cat Allies does not support the testing of these diseases in nondomestic cats. On its website, the group states that the prevalence is at about 4 percent for both owned and feral cats and that the tests are prohibitively expensive.
SNAP works with veterinarians in the area to help curb the costs for independent caretakers. The group is affiliated with Columbia Second Chance but relies on "dollar-by-dollar" donations to help with the veterinary costs.
A study by Best Friends Animal Society, funded by PetSmart Charities, estimates there are more than 30,000 feral and stray cats in Columbia. (The group provides an online calculator that estimates the number of cats in cities, counties and states across the country.) According to its website, an economic research firm estimated the numbers "by sampling a pool of reliable population data of community cats from four states, 12 cities and 13 counties in the U.S."
McCullen said her colony is proof that the trap-neuter-return method works. She said her original herd started with 26 cats and over the years has dwindled to six, with a few coming and going along the way.
Not every supporter is as vocal as McCullen. Many of the citizens who attended the June 28 discussion declined to be interviewed for fear that their neighbors would find out they're caring for herds close to their homes.
Maggie Jones was not at the meeting but makes daily visits to a feral cat colony that lives near a gas station. She said she’s learned not to feed them at certain times of day to avoid run-ins with workers taking trash out to the dumpster. Management, she said, has told her of its concerns.
"They think the feeding is encouraging them to stay here," Jones said. "I can appreciate that."
Under the new ordinance, the caretaker is responsible for the feral cats. If a colony becomes a nuisance or is deemed a health hazard, the cats can be removed by Animal Control if the caretaker doesn’t remedy the situation. For many feral cats taken to the Central Missouri Humane Society that could mean death.
Shelter Relations Coordinator Allison Brown said feral cats are much more likely than a stray or unwanted cat to be euthanized because many will never be socialized.
McCullen fears that such will be the fate of many of Columbia’s feral cats if the ordinance is passed.
Searching for harmony
A growing number of cities in the U.S. have introduced ordinances addressing feral cats. A letter from Nancy Peterson of the Humane Society of the United States to the council applauds the city's trap-neuter-return method but agrees parts of the ordinance are excessive.
“Caretakers already face obstacles finding affordable spay and neuter and providing long-term cat care, and some sections of Article VI will impose additional burdens on them,” she wrote.
Voris said the ordinance aims to hold caretakers accountable.
“It’s a responsibility that they have taken on themselves when they began to feed and nurture these cats,” he said. “They additionally took on the responsibility for the health and welfare beyond nutrition.”
McCullen hopes to speak on the issue at Tuesday's meeting and said she appreciates the city’s attempt to address the issue of a swelling feline population. But she thinks there are paths of less resistance. She said other Missouri cities have much simpler ordinances, such as that of Hermann.
“I would like to see it changed,” she said. "I just think it’s somewhat misguided.”