Operation FELIX – Feral Education and Love Instead of X-termination by Ed Boks

Ed Boks and feral catsOne of the biggest challenges to achieving No-Kill in the City of Los Angeles or, for that matter, in any community, is implementing a program to effectively reduce the number of feral cats in our neighborhoods without having to resort to euthanasia or killing. Estimates on the feral cat population in LA are difficult to make, but they range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands.

Feral cats are cats that are born in or have reverted to a wild state. They are born from tame unaltered cats that owners abandon or allow to run loose. These cats mate with other free roaming cats, and their offspring, raised without human compassion, are wild (or feral). These cats then grow up and breed with other feral and free roaming cats and the cat population explodes exponentially.

Communities employ one of three methodologies to deal with feral cats: 1) Do nothing, 2) Eradication, or 3) Trap/Neuter/Return (TNR).

While it is easy to understand why doing nothing has little effect on reducing the population (and, in fact, allows it to grow), it may not be as easy to understand why eradication does not work.

Although many communities employ eradication (“catch and kill”) as a remedy to this vexing problem, decades of “catch and kill” in communities across the United States have irrefutably demonstrated that this methodology does not work. There are two very real biological reasons why “catch and kill” fails.

Wild animals tend to have strong biological survival mechanisms. Feral cats, which are wild animals, typically live in colonies of six to twenty cats. You often never see all the cats in a colony and it is easy to underestimate the size of a feral cat problem in a neighborhood. When individuals or authorities try to catch cats for extermination this heightens the biological stress on the colony.

This stress triggers two survival mechanisms causing the cats to 1) over breed, and 2) over produce. That is, rather than having one litter per year of two to three kittens, a stressed female could have two or three litters per year of six to nine kittens each.

Even if a community was successful in catching and removing all the feral cats from a neighborhood, a phenomenon called “the vacuum effect” would be created.

When some or all the cats in a colony are removed, cats in surrounding neighborhoods gravitate toward the ecological niche left behind. When a colony is removed but the natural conditions (including food sources) remain, the natural deterrents offered by an existing colony of territorial cats evaporate and the neighboring cats quickly enter the newly open territory, bringing with them all the associated annoying behaviors.

As we’ve seen time after time in location after location all over the country, the end result of the “catch and kill” methodology is always the same: The vacated neighborhood quickly finds itself overrun again with feral cats fighting and caterwauling for mates, over breeding, and spraying to mark their territory. Thus, “catch and kill” is not a solution at all.

Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That is why so many communities are abandoning “catch and kill” in favor of trying the newest, and only humane, non-lethal alternative: TNR.

TNR is being practiced in more and more communities across the United States and around the world with amazing results.

While I was in Maricopa County, TNR was so successful that the County Board of Supervisors enacted a resolution declaring TNR the only viable methodology they would approve for addressing the feral cat problem in this community of 24 cities and towns (including Phoenix) spread out across nearly 1,000 square miles.

While in New York City, we observed a 73% reduction in the number of stray cats impounded in a targeted zip code on the Upper West Side of Manhattan over a 42-month period of practicing TNR. TNR, correctly administered, is the only methodology that guarantees a reduction of the feral cat population in a community.

When TNR is employed effectively, all the feral cats in a neighborhood are trapped, sterilized, and returned to the area where they were trapped. They are returned under the care of a Colony Manager. The Colony Manager is a trained volunteer in the neighborhood willing to feed, water, and care for the colony and watch for any new cats. Once the colony cats are all neutered, new cats tend to be recently abandoned domestics that can be captured and placed for adoption.

There are many benefits to TNR. 1) TNR prevents the vacuum effect from occurring. 2) Altered cats display none of the troubling behaviors of intact cats: fighting and caterwauling for mates, and spraying for territory. 3) The cats continue to provide rat abatement, a service many neighborhoods value, and 4) because feral cats tend to only live three to five years the problem literally solves itself through attrition, provided TNR is implemented community wide.

TNR also addresses the concern that feral cats tend to create a public nuisance on campuses and in parks. There is an old adage that claims you can’t herd cats. In fact, you can herd neutered cats because they tend to hang around the food bowl. Because neutered cats no longer have the urge to breed and prey, they tend to follow the food bowl wherever the Colony Manager takes it. Feral cats can be trained to congregate in campus or park areas out of the way of the public or other wildlife.

As we review our 2006 numbers it is clear that free-roaming cats represent our biggest challenge to achieving No-Kill in Los Angeles. With a clear understanding that moving away from “catch and kill” as a way to manage feral cats was necessary, the Board of Animal Services Commissioners adopted TNR as the official policy of the department. We are now working on an implementation program called Operation FELIX (Feral Education and Love Instead of X-termination). Operation FELIX will make it easier for responsible Colony Managers to help us substantially reduce the feral cat population without resorting to euthanasia. Progress on the program has been delayed by local environmental groups concerned for the welfare of bird populations.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that a variety of environmental issues – including the potential impact on wildlife – be taken into consideration whenever a jurisdiction approves a project, program or other action. Animal Services is reviewing these issues relative to TNR and is complying with state law by preparing a study covering all relevant issues. When completed, we are confident this study will be the most extensive non-academic review of this subject matter ever done in the United States and will show that TNR can be implemented with minimal negative impact on the environment.

As the aim of local environmental groups is to reduce the feral cat population so song bird and other wild life populations are able to thrive, it is my hope they will support the only effective methodology demonstrated to accomplish their objective, TNR.

In the meantime Animal Services is requesting all cat owners to spay or neuter their cats, and if possible, keep your cats indoors. Indoor cats live three times longer than outdoor cats. And although your kitty may try to convince you that he or she wants to go outside, nothing could be further from the truth. Cats prefer to be with you and will only be stressed by the threats and dangers of the outside world, living a shorter life as a result.

If you love your cat, keep your cat indoors. If you let your cat roam outdoors, please spay or neuter and microchip him or her so you are not contributing to LA’s cat overpopulation problems. Microchipping is the best way to give us a fighting chance of returning your lost cat to you when he or she turns up in one of our six Animal Care Centers.