Volunteers help spay, neuter feral cats
Some call them “community cats,” but the more commonly used phrase is “feral cats,” referring to perhaps 9,000 felines that live in the shadows throughout Garfield County.”That’s what they are,” said Cindy Sadlowski of Carbondale, who has been working to control the feral cat population for more than a decade.”They don’t really belong to anybody in particular, but they are members of your community,” she explained.Precise population numbers are difficult to come by, explained Sadlowski, a Carbondale real estate broker by day and founder of an organization known as the Street Cats Coalition.She explained that the coalition engages in a practice known as “trap-neuter-return” or TNR, in its mission to reduce the number of feral cats through birth control.The all-volunteer coalition traps cats off the streets, takes them to veterinary clinics for basic health care, and then releases them back onto the streets or puts them up for adoption.The vets clip the tip off the cat’s left ear to show it no longer needs surgical intervention.Along the way, these caregivers inevitably develop emotional attachments to some of the animals. Some volunteers end up opening up their own homes to cats.Others find themselves going to extraordinary lengths for a cat’s well being, even so far as to arrange for open heart surgery to fix a defect.
The average gestation period for a pregnant cat, Sadlowski said, is about two months, and kittens can get pregnant any time after they are about four months old.In general, Sadlowski explained, experts think there may be one-sixth as many feral cats as there are humans in any settled area.Translated, that means there are roughly 166 cats for every 1,000 people.For Garfield County, with a human population of 56,300 according to the 2010 Census, there could be 9,000 to 10,000 “community cats” wandering around.They tend to congregate in colonies of a dozen or more, near sources of food. Dumpsters in trailer parks and behind fast-food restaurants are favorite haunts.”A cat on the street can live just as healthy a life as a house cat,” said Sadlowski, and can keep having kittens into relatively old age.”We’ve done ’em at 13, 14 years old,” she said of the neutering program, “and they’re still having kittens.”
Sadlowski works mainly with two other women – Kathy Hall of Rifle and Mary Heisel of Glenwood Springs – as well as with the Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) and the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. Municipal animal control departments, she said, have declined to work with the coalition.”It’s pretty much just the three of us out there, hitting the streets,” Sadlowski said.Hall and Heisel joined Sadlowski’s cadre of volunteers after their own personal involvement in animal rescue matters.Hall met Sadlowski eight years ago, as a volunteer at the Rifle Animal Shelter. Heisel called Sadlowski about a decade ago about a litter of kittens Heisel had found near her home in Glenwood Springs.Hall joined up right away, but for Heisel it took a few years until she could find the time to devote to the coalition.”It’s just the kind of thing where you know you have to do something,” Heisel said.The three coalition volunteers go out as often as their jobs and lives allow, often at night, to trap feral cats and get them fixed.And while they are not fearful about what they do, Heisel admitted, “You’re sometimes not in the most safe-feeling place. I go out on my own, but I’ll let somebody know where I go.”And they tend to have more cats around them than might be considered typical.Hall, for instance, currently has seven foster cats in her home, in addition to 18-year-old Mr. Wilson, her first cat, and an undisclosed number of others who live permanently with her.”I don’t think I’ll say,” she responded with a laugh, when asked how many cats she has. “I don’t want my mother to find out. Let’s just say, a fair number.”In addition to Sadlowski, Hall and Heisel, the coalition has developed a network of area residents who care for nearby colonies of feral cats, feeding them and watching over them.”I’m always amazed at how many people care for them,” Heisel said, although she concedes that not all of the colonies’ neighbors are as helpful.”Some people want the cats gone, but that’s their home,” Heisel said. “If you move them, their chance of surviving drops.”
Heisel described a kitten she trapped last June that was born with a heart murmur. She named it Diego.Heisel learned of the heart issue from an examination at the Glenwood Veterinary Clinic, while she was providing a foster home for Diego, assuming that he would one day be put up for adoption.A month of examinations and tests revealed that the murmur was not going away, Heisel said.Finally, a vet in Rifle arranged for open heart surgery at the Colorado State University veterinarian teaching hospital.Heisel took Diego to Fort Collins for the surgery in August, but did not stay at the hospital during the surgery.”I dropped him off, then I picked him up,” she recalled. “I didn’t stay and hold his little paw.”After the surgery, she said, “He came back from there pretty scared.””He’s a lucky little cat,” she said. “I don’t have any idea how much it cost.”Although Diego went to an adoptive home for a while, Heisel said, “that didn’t work out. So now I have him. He’s been through a lot, and all those people helped him, so we didn’t want to lose track of him.”
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said he has been very satisfied with his department’s work with the coalition, which began about seven or eight years ago.”We don’t have any sort of formal contract,” the sheriff explained. “We just call them when calls come in to us about a cat issue.”The sheriff’s department’s animal control officers, Aimee Chapelle and Keith Clemons, have trapped cats in the past.But typically, Vallario said, “we wind up finding more than a stray cat. There’s a whole colony of them.”At that point, he said, “The feral cat people come out and do their thing.”In general, Vallario said, “The program is amazingly successful. I had my doubts at the beginning. But we’re certainly finding a significant decrease in the number of feral cats in Garfield County.”Exact numbers, Vallario agreed, are almost impossible to determine.Heisel, however, noted that the colonies have, in some instances, disappeared as the work of the coalition takes hold and fewer and fewer kittens are born.The coalition’s basic method, Sadlowski said on a recent cat-hunting trip, is to trap cats where they live and scavenge.The cats are taken to a vet or an animal hospital to be spayed or neutered, and to checked for such diseases as feline leukemia.Then, once the cats have recovered from the surgery, they are either released back to their home ground or, if they seem to be recently abandoned strays, they can be held for adoption to a local family.”Any cats that will be living in a home, with a person, are fully vaccinated,” said Hall, who works closely with the Rifle Animal Shelter and the Divide Creek Animal Hospital.
While setting a trap next to a dumpster in the Pan & Fork Trailer Park in Basalt recently, Sadlowski fell into conversation with Angel Castillo, 14, who lives nearby.”There are lots of cats around here that just had kittens,” Castillo reported.”Well, we don’t want them to have any more kittens,” Sadlowski replied.The traps are low, narrow cages with trap doors at either end, which spring shut when an animal steps on a flat platform on the floor of the trap.The bait is canned cat food, smelling strongly of fish, that is pressed into the wire-mesh roof of the trap above the door, a little further in and just above the trigger platform.The trap is covered by a white cloth, leaving only the trap door exposed and forcing the scent of the bait to emanate from the door.A hungry cat, drawn by the scent, moves ever further inside until the trap is sprung.Within minutes of setting the trap next to the dumpster, Sadlowski was rewarded with the sight of a small, black, cat cautiously approaching the trap.”I’m sure that’s a female,” Sadlowski said softly. “See how it’s being careful, checking it out all around? The males usually just charge right in.”After the cat was trapped, and Sadlowski was gathering up the trap with the cat inside, Castillo came back outside for another look.”I can’t believe they fall for those things,” he said, nodding at the trap. “That was so fast.”Sadlowski then took the cat to the nearby Valley Emergency Pet Care facility, with plans to pick it up the next day after the surgery and drop it off back at the trailer park, home safe and sound but to breed no email@example.com
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