By Sarah Hall
for The Beacon
After a single complaint recently led the Plymouth City Council to approve an ordinance change banning the feeding and harboring of feral cats, local animal welfare organizations are strongly questioning the measure.
Sheboygan County, as it turns out, is home not only to thousands of free-roaming felines, but also to well-established caregiving and Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs which seek to humanely reduce the feral cat population and boost the health of feral cats by vaccinating them against rabies and distemper and deworming them. Plymouth’s newly worded ordinance technically prohibits TNR since such efforts involve baiting cats with food and then sheltering them briefly as they recover from surgery.
Local cat welfare groups weigh in
“I was so saddened to hear the news of the feral cat feeding ban in the city of Plymouth,” said Terri Ebersole of Elkhart Lake, President of My Feral Fix, which serves Sheboygan County as well as parts of Manitowoc and Calumet Counties. “Plymouth has taken a huge step backward while the rest of the nation is moving forward in the management of feral cats.”
Ebersole’s certified, tax-exempt charitable organization – which works closely with the Humane Society of Sheboygan County, area veterinary clinics and animal rescue groups – trapped, spayed or neutered and immunized 899 feral cats last year and close to 2,700 since its first TNR in late 2015, one colony at a time. It is gritty, painstaking work, requiring much stealth and advance planning and involving umpteen steps, including baiting traps with stinky mackerel, transporting multiple cats at a time, sedating agitated felines and returning them to the original environment they came from once they have recovered. The left ear of every feral feline patient is tipped as a universal sign that it is cared for and has already undergone the procedure.
“Banning the feeding and harboring of feral cats is not going to do anything to reduce the number of feral cats – the only thing that has been proven to be effective in reducing the number of free-roaming cats in a community is TNR,” said Susan DeFilippi, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services for the Humane Society of Sheboygan County.
Indeed, feral cats have become such a priority for the local Humane Society that it devotes much of its voicemail message to describing its efforts “to improve the lives and reduce the numbers of feral cats in this community.”
While My Feral Fix focuses on TNR’ing entire feral cat colonies – which typically include between five and 25 cats each, but can have as many as 50 – in order to achieve the greatest impact with limited resources, the Humane Society deals with feral feline issues on a case-by-case basis and sometimes strategically relocates the cats if that is the only reasonable solution. The society offers a monthly TNR surgery day, when it immunizes and spays or neuters both entire colonies, including some of those trapped by My Feral Fix and individual feral cats as well. Both organizations charge caregivers a minimal fee, which is a fraction of what veterinary clinics normally charge, for each procedure.
“We are also looking for caring people to provide outdoor homes for feral or semi-feral cats. Feral or semi-feral cats only need shelter provided by a barn or a shed, a warm place to sleep and fresh food and water,” the Humane Society message goes on to state.
Reducing the number of feral cats who wind up in the Humane Society shelter is a life-or-death matter: Truly feral cats who are completely unfriendly to humans are not adoptable and increase the overall shelter population and euthanasia rates as a result.
Ironically, as this article was going to press, it was learned that the date of publication, October 16, would coincidentally be National Feral Cat Day. “Roughly half of the 146 million cats in the United States are feral or unowned,” the associated promotional materials state. “Considering 10,000 humans are born every day in America, but nearly 70,000 kittens and puppies are born every day, there will never be enough homes to take in the number of feral cats.”
History behind the measure
Early this September, District 4 Alderperson Jim Wilson proposed an amendment to Plymouth’s existing code prohibiting certain types of “livestock” within city limits after a constituent complained to him about a neighbor who was feeding feral cats, and voiced concerns about this attracting unwanted wildlife. The preamble to the change states that the Plymouth Common Council “believes it is in the best interest of the public to prohibit the feeding of feral cats within the city.”
After little or no discussion, the council unanimously approved changing the ordinance title to include “wild animals,” and also adding feral cats, woodchucks and opposums to the list of banned animals. The code states that the “keeping, harboring, feeding or possession” of any of these creatures “is hereby declared to be a menace to health.”
Wilson said that with Meyer Nature Park being near the home of the feral cat caregiver, diseased wildlife might be in close proximity to park visitors. “That could be dangerous for the neighborhood,” he said.
He declined to comment on the number of citizen complaints which led him to initiate the measure, but Plymouth City Administrator Brian Yerges said it was his understanding that a single citizen comment had led to this action. He also pointed out that complainants routinely ask for confidentiality, so it is not surprising that Wilson would not wish to identify his source.
When told of My Feral Fix’s ongoing TNR efforts throughout Sheboygan County, Yerges said, “That’s news to me,” and added, “but we certainly would be willing to sit down with that group and find out more about the program they offer.”
“If we have wild animals that are living in the city, they need to fend for themselves,” said District 2 Alderperson Jim Sedlacek. “The concern is that by feeding these wild animals, the population is going to go up.” However, he was interested to hear more about local TNR programs, and added, “the decision was made based on the information we had. But we’re changing ordinances all the time, based on new information that comes forward.”
Yerges noted that feral cat issues must be weighed against impacts on local birds, and that Plymouth is proud of being one of 109 communities that have attained the coveted Bird City Wisconsin designation. According to application materials for this statewide program, “Communities that officially support cat colonies, encourage feeding or housing for outdoor cats, or explicitly permit free-roaming cats are not eligible for High Flyer (the most prestigious Bird City) status.” Plymouth’s application singled out Meyer Park as being one of its most exemplary bird habitats.
Bird City Wisconsin endorses the American Bird Conservancy’s campaign to keep all cats indoors. The conservancy considers cats to be an “invasive species,” cites studies showing that outdoor cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States alone and claims that TNR does not work.
Indeed, organizations on both sides of the issue cite a great deal of legitimate research supporting their stance.
TNR advocates respond
“Feral cat colonies have very little impact on birds. The vast majority of them survive on mice and small rodents,” said Humane Society veterinarian DeFilippi, who explained that caregivers are advised to feed the cats regularly but sparingly, so they will still have some incentive to hunt for pests but not so much as to pose a threat to avian wildlife.
Ebersole of My Feral Fix pointed out that while keeping all cats indoors might be an ideal solution, it is not realistic because there are not anywhere enough homes for them. In addition, truly feral cats – who are unaccustomed to human contact and generally too fearful to be handled – are not appropriate candidates to cohabitate with humans. Her organization and other TNR advocates believe that feeding bans are counterproductive and cause cats to resort to even more bird hunting. They say that a managed approach which takes the practicalities of the matter into account benefits all animals.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Alley Cat Allies and the Humane Society of the United States are among the national organizations which have taken positions against feral cat feeding bans.
“Scientific studies as well as decades of hands-on experience show that TNR programs work to end the breeding cycle, improve the cats’ health, and make them better neighbors by ending mating behaviors,” states a My Feral Fix Facebook post from April 6, 2019, which summarizes information from the national Humane Society.
The post also notes that while feeding bans presume that cats will simply leave the area as a result, that is not the case. “Cats are territorial and bond to their surroundings—they will not easily or quickly abandon their home territory. Cats are scavengers, and as they grow hungrier and more desperate for food, they move closer to homes and businesses looking for something to eat in garbage cans or dumpsters. And as the cats roam a larger territory in search of food they are more visible to the public, which increases the calls to animal control—the exact thing feeding bans are meant to prevent.”
Furthermore, feeding bans are difficult to enforce. My Feral Fix alone works with 300 to 400 caregivers per year and urges them to feed feral cats only during the day, when it is less likely to lure other wildlife.
“Punishing the compassionate people who feed dumped pets, whose offspring are born feral, will just make these people resort to night feeding – which in turn will attract opossums, skunks and racoons, who sometimes carry rabies and can be more of a threat to the community,” Ebersole said.
“Sheboygan County is very lucky to have low-cost TNR programs,” Crysta Ladwig, a veterinary technician who is co-owner of Critter Care Animal Clinic in Sheboygan, pointed out. “Not all counties offer this. The ordinance change in Plymouth is frustrating because we already have so many resources available in this area. There is a good chance this measure will backfire.”
Ladwig and others spoke of how efforts to completely eliminate feral cats can cause rodent populations to grow out of control and can also create a “vacuum effect” which merely causes other feral cats to move in and claim the vacated territory. She has experienced the feral cat issue from multiple angles: She once owned a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin, which had such a large feral cat population when she bought it that she sought help controlling it – and gained her first direct experience with the benefits of TNR.
The interrelationship between farmers and the feral cats who catch their barn rodents is undeniably age-old.
How to tell which cats are feral?
Others spoke of the difficulty of distinguishing feral cats from others, since any cat may become wild if abandoned and left to its own resources — but can, over time, once again become tame.
“In reality, it is impossible to determine if a cat is feral, stray, or just someone’s indoor/outdoor pet,” said Kim Factor, PhD, a university professor who is the president of Purr-Fect Match Animal Rescue, which is based in Kohler and active throughout Sheboygan County. “I am appalled that instead of a concerted effort to reduce the outdoor cat population by contracting for trap/neuter/return services … there is (now in Plymouth) the antiquated attempt to eliminate “feral” cats by withholding food, warmth and shelter. This shows no actual understanding of the problem, or willingness to approach the problem with humane intention.”
Ebersole reiterated that feeding bans do nothing to cause feral cats to depart. She said the cats will “wait and wait and slowly starve.” And yet the drive to procreate marches on, as cats can reproduce as often as every three months, even if they are sickly.
“Spaying and neutering improves health by decreasing fighting and roaming by intact males and, for females, by eliminating the stress on their bodies that having multiple litters and having to nurse kittens year after year causes,” DeFilippi pointed out.
“Some cats have litter after litter, until they are just a walking spine,” noted Ebersole. “TNR enhances and extends their lives. It eliminates the nuisance behaviors – the fighting, the spraying, the howling.” She added that it is remarkable how much more healthy and content entire colonies become after the procedure.
Is there a better solution?
A review of animal ordinances in nearby municipalities – Sheboygan Falls, Elkhart Lake, Kohler, Oostburg, Howard’s Grove, Fond Du Lac and Sheboygan – uncovered none which single out feral cats as Plymouth’s now does. Some towns do prohibit any animal which “runs at large,” though. Some (such as Sheboygan) require cat licenses. Other communities forbid any animal that poses a public nuisance or raises a sufficient level of complaints. Curiously, hamsters are included in the list of prohibited animals in Sheboygan Falls, but enforcement action is taken only if 60 percent or more of the neighbors within a 250-foot radius object. The codes in every place seem to be different and depend somewhat on specific animal problems local officials may have grappled with in the past.
Chicago is one example of a TNR success story, although significantly reducing the feral cat population takes years: After Cook County adopted an ordinance in 2007 which encouraged TNR by allowing residents to feed feral cats, if they also have them fixed and vaccinated, the cat population coming into local shelters eventually plunged.
In Plymouth, even when animal ordinance violations are encountered, police typically exercise discretion.
“We always try to take the educational approach first,” said Plymouth Police Chief Jeffrey Tauscheck, who explained that first-time offenders would be informed about the applicable code and how to comply with it. He said that feral cat complaints are rare and in his nearly 40 years on the force, he could not remember any fines ever being charged for animal ordinance violations.
Furthermore, Tauscheck doubted the new ordinance change would interfere with TNR efforts, encouraged TNR groups to contact police and work with them and expressed confidence that either exceptions or further code changes could accommodate their programs.
According to Ebersole, “We don’t have a feral cat problem – we have a human problem, because the cycle starts when a pet is abandoned.
“ Feral cats did not choose this life. We are supposed to take care of them.”
She thinks it’s a natural and beneficial progression that while the public focus a few decades ago was on spaying and neutering house cats, now it’s on doing so for outdoor cats as well.
“I’d like to see the Plymouth City Council reconsider, once they learn more about the programs available in this area,” said fellow TNR advocate Ladwig. “If feral cats can’t be fixed or fed, it’s only going to get worse instead of better.”
To find out more about local TNR programs, visit the My Feral Fix Facebook page or website at www.myferalfix.org, or the Humane Society of Sheboygan County website at www.adoptsheboygancounty.org.