Saturday February 23, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- The Windham County Humane Society will soon be able to provide spay/neuter surgery and vaccines to free-roaming, or unowned, cats in the village thanks to PetSmart Charities® and the town of Rockingham.

PetSmart Charities has awarded the WCHS an $8,000 grant to carry out the services and the town has volunteered the use of the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre for the procedures. There is an informational meeting scheduled for the room on Monday at 7 p.m., and anyone that wants to volunteer for training is welcome.

WCHS Executive Director Annie Guion told the Reformer a small team of volunteers will be tasked with safely trapping feral cats in the village for spaying/neutering. She said Havahart traps -- which she described as long and narrow humane wire cages that will be baited with tuna or salmon -- will be placed around Bellows Falls to capture any feral felines. She said all attendees will learn what the traps look like so they won't be startled when they find them throughout the village and so they kept their own pet cats indoors. They will be trained to put out the cages the night before each of the four clinics will be held and how to transport the cats the following day.

"We don't need a bunch of people taking action, but we want people to be informed," Guion said, adding that the project will last three months. The dates of the clinics have not yet been scheduled.

Often called feral cats, the animals are the same species as domestic cats. However, they either have never had contact with humans or have lived without humans for so long they are wary and afraid of people and don't make good house pets. Over the years, many approaches have been taken to address the issue of free-roaming cats, from trapping and euthanizing to housing them in cages for many years -- which Guion said makes life miserable for any cat.

In the 1990s, a new approach was tried -- trapping cats, sterilizing and vaccinating them and returning them to their colony. A human caretaker monitors the colony, providing food and shelter and ensuring that any cats new to the colony get spayed/neutered.

Research has shown this method, known as Trap/Neuter/Return, or TNR, to be one of the most effective ways to deal with free-roaming cats. Data says that in order to stabilize a colony, 75 percent or more of its population must be sterilized. For this reason, PetSmart Charities -- an advocate for the TNR method -- requires grantees to focus their efforts on a well-defined area and to do a rigorous measurement of the colony size before and after the grant is implemented.

Steve Pawlowski, communications manager for PetSmart Charities, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Guion said spaying/neutering is beneficial in multiple ways. She said the lives of feral cats are generally not pleasant, as the animals must struggle constantly for food and shelter. But simple spaying/neutering reduces fighting and dangerous wandering within a colony and keeps the population as low as possible.

"Any cat-loving resident knows it's really disheartening to see litters of (feral) kittens every year," Guion said.

She said Bellows Falls is a logical choice for this project because the village is a well-defined area with a known free-roaming cat population. Because Bellows Falls does not contract with WCHS -- based in Brattleboro -- and is located about 30 miles from the shelter, most stray cats from the town end up at The Animal Rescue and Protection Society (TARPS) in Chester, which is a closer drive for residents. The WCHS is working with both TARPS and the Springfield Humane Society to trap cats, transfer them to the clinics, monitor colonies and to track data.

There will also be space at the clinics for cat owners of low-income to bring in their pets for spaying or neutering for $25. Guion said the WCHS will use the state's guidelines of checking "proof of need" to determine who qualifies for the service.

The WCHS is also working with Dr. Sara White of Spay ASAP, a Vermont non-profit organization dedicated to ending pet overpopulation in the state. White operates a traveling, MASH-style clinic that comes to both the WCHS and to the Springfield Humane Society on a regular basis to offer low-cost spay/neuter to income-eligible residents. She will conduct the clinics at the town hall.

For more information on TNR, visit the Alley Cat Allies website at www.alleycat.org.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.