News The wild ones

Activists say trapping, fixing, and returning feral cats to their colonies can curb overpopulation

Faithann Schmidt is breaking the law. She almost dares San Antonio police to arrest her - she wouldn't mind the publicity anyway.

Many people in San Antonio agree with Schmidt, and they, too, are violating an ordinance that City officials don't really want to enforce.

Faithann Schmidt strokes Mama San, a formerly homeless cat she rescued from a condemned mobile home park. She says the young cat acts as a surrogate mother to the feral kittens Schmidt rescues from a North Side colony. Faithann will release a wild feral cat back to the colony, but she tries to socialize the kittens for future adoption. (Photo by Michael Cary)

Schmidt traps feral cats, takes them to be vaccinated, spayed, or neutered, and with truly wild cats, returns them to their original colonies, which can be found nearly anywhere in San Antonio.

Schmidt belongs to the San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition, which contends that the City still has its head in the sand when it comes to dealing with homeless animals.

The City plans to build a large animal facility on the West Side, where, if not adopted, unwanted pets will be euthanized by lethal injection, not gas, the method administered in the past. The City also has increased a pet-adoption program to cope with up to 55,000 unwanted dogs and cats that are annually processed through the Animal Care Services Department.

Yet those efforts are not enough, critics say.

According to literature from Alley Cat Allies, a national organization devoted to educating the public about feral cats in urban settings, feral cats are not socialized pets that have been abandoned or lost. Feral cats, unless socialized by an adoptive family when they are kittens, are destined to roam the dangerous, urban wilderness.

For the past two years, Schmidt has spent her own money trapping feral cats from a colony that lives near the Brookhollow neighborhood, deep in the heart of the North Side's City Council District 9, represented by Kevin Wolff.

"What we're doing is illegal?" Schmidt says. "This makes no sense to me. Arrest me."

An Alley Cat Allies brochure says there are several myths about feral cats: they "lead short, miserable lives so it's best to trap and euthanize them," they carry diseases that endanger children, they should be removed to a shelter for adoption, and they "are predators that deplete wildlife."

Feral cats are generally healthy and have the same lifespan as pet cats, Alley Cat Allies say. They aren't strays that can be socialized and adopted, so they often are sent to shelters to await their demise. Finally, "studies show that the overwhelming cause of wildlife depletion is destruction of natural habitat due to man-made structures, chemical pollution, pesticides, and drought, not feral cats."

"How many years have we been trapping and killing animals?" asks Chris Montgomery, a feral-cat rescuer who recently picked up two neutered male feral kittens from the Animal Resource Center and delivered them to Schmidt's North Side home. "But it's not working."

National Feral Cat Day

Sat-Sun, Oct 15-16

Summit Village Shopping Center

4919 NW Loop 410

The fair features tame kittens and adoptable cats, and other activities

What does work, contends Montgomery, Schmidt, and fellow San Antonio Feral Cat Coalition member Jenny Burgess, is a trap, neuter, and return process in which feral cats are removed temporarily from their colonies, spayed or neutered, and treated for maladies, then returned to their colonies in the neighborhoods where they were born. Yet the groups' efforts have not been formally recognized by City Hall.

"San Antonio has either done trap and kill, or it has done nothing," says Montgomery.

When Burgess, who is from England, moved to San Antonio to take a job at Randolph AFB, she became involved in addressing the city's feral cat population. "This is one of the most wealthy civilized countries in the world. Why have animals not been addressed yet?"

John Hackett of the local chapter of Voice for Animals says the City's move to build a larger animal-care facility in District 6 is a beginning, but the ultimate goal should be to adopt a no-kill policy for the shelter's dogs and cats. "The mayor, the City Council, and the public is aroused on this issue," he says. "This is the time to act and make a serious change rather than a cosmetic change."

Hackett argues the City should build the new facility to provide animal care, but should also retain the current Brackenridge animal pound to house an adoption program, and build satellite offices around the city to implement a stepped-up adoption program.

"There are a lot of creative models in different cities, with varying degrees of success," Hackett says. "I feel optimistic with Mayor Hardberger and optimistic with this new council."

"The problem is far from over," says District 10 Councilman Chip Haass. "We've made tremendous strides, and we're light years ahead of where we were a year ago, but we need to continue to push spay/neuter programs, and get low-cost service to those who would ignore a very necessary form of animal control."

District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle says the Feral Cat Coalition and other animal advocates need to provide information to Council on the trap, neuter, and return program and other policies that would improve the City's poor reputation concerning its animal overpopulation.

"I would like to see us get to be a no-kill city, but I can't argue the details enough for my colleagues, unless we have more information," Radle says. "Communication needs to happen."

By Michael Cary

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