University employees care for stray, feral cats on campus, provide low-cost neutering service for employees’ pets

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

For months in 1997, Dr. Gloria Cox, dean of the University of North Texas Honors College, had been feeding homeless cats who gathered near her building on campus.

"I could see that they were hungry. It was a heartbreaking situation for people who care about animals," she said.

She recalled a white and gray cat who kept having litter after litter, and some of the tiny kittens "would get run over or die of exposure."

"If they lived, they would reproduce as well," Cox said. "I've been involved in animal rescue groups all of my adult life, and I know that it doesn't work to haul animals away and have them killed, because other homeless animals will just take their place."

In February 1998, UNT took the first step to controlling its population of more than 100 stray and feral cats when a small group of faculty and staff members started the UNT Feral Cat Rescue Group and began using the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) process.

In TNR, feral cats - those who were either born in the wild and have never been domesticated or were abandoned or lost from owners and reverted back to their wild state - are captured in humane steel traps, which are baited with tuna. The cats are taken to veterinary clinics to be spayed or neutered and receive needed vaccinations and complete physical exams.

The Feral Cat Rescue Group now includes the Campus Cat Coalition, its student members. Nancy Kelly, director of the Feral Cat Rescue Group and Campus Cat Coalition, said colleges and universities often have large numbers of feral and stray cats as residents, though the ferals are rarely seen because they typically avoid humans. At UNT, the cats often tipped over garbage cans for food and infested buildings with fleas.

"Unfortunately, in our throwaway society, we have throwaway animals," said Kelly, an academic adviser in UNT's School of Visual Arts. "This is especially true for some students. They mean well by adopting strays, but then they can't take them home with them when they leave for the holidays, or when they graduate or move. So they leave the cats on campus. Many people hate the idea of taking an animal that they can't keep to a shelter, because they're afraid it will be euthanized."

Left to fend for themselves, the formerly docile cats become feral, and because students often didn't spay or neuter them, the cats breed uncontrolled, Kelly said.

"Many starve or die from disease, since they're not equipped to fend for themselves," she said. "You can have them healthy and not reproducing or unhealthy and reproducing."

Dallas Newell, retired UNT computer systems manager, began the Feral Cat Rescue Group and Campus Cat Coalition after learning UNT's risk management staff had closed crawl spaces under campus buildings to address the flea problem.

"They did not want cats living under the buildings," she said. "One of the cats was caught under a building after it was enclosed, and you could hear him meow. A group of concerned faculty and staff members figured out there was a cat problem on campus."

Newell contacted a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who had started a feral cat rescue group on that campus to get information about starting UNT's group. She trapped her first cat - an orange-and-white tabby - after six months of putting out traps.

Since then, UNT's group has rescued 208 cats on campus. As many as possible are placed with foster parents and socialized for adoption. Their photos are posted in the group's website, http://orgs.unt.edu/feralcat.

Dianne Markley, board president for the Feral Cat Rescue Group, recalled a 3-month-old kitten rescued from a drainage ditch last fall. The tiny feline, named Gidget by the group, weighed less than three pounds and had severe puncture wounds in her face and leg. After receiving medical care, she went home with Markley, who was fostering six adult cats.

"She was so grateful to be there and purred and purred," Markely said. "She began trying to play with the older cats. She was such a delight."

After Gidget's photo was posted on the website, Markley cried when she realized she would have to give her up. Although Gidget was scheduled to be adopted by a family as a Christmas gift, Markley decided to keep her, and helped the family adopt another stray kitten.

Cats who cannot be adopted because they are too wild have their right ears tipped by the veterinarians - the universal symbol of a vaccinated and sterilized feral cat. The cats are returned to campus to live under the watch of Feral Cat Rescue Group volunteers, who give them food and permanent shelters and treat them if they are sick.

According to Alley Cat Allies, a national nonprofit clearinghouse for information on feral and stray cats, nuisance behaviors associated with breeding, such as the yowling of females, the spraying of toms and roaming, are virtually eliminated when all or most of the members of a feral cat colony are sterilized. In addition, with caregivers, feral cats live healthier lives in their territories.

With the campus feral cat population under control, the Feral Cat Rescue Group and Campus Cat Coalition began educating students and others about spaying or neutering their pets. The group began a $15 spay/neuter program for dogs and cats of any UNT faculty or staff member, student or retiree. Those who want to use the program apply for certificates with a group member, who contacts them with information about making an appointment with one of two Denton veterinarians.

The group recently received $3,000 from the Denton Benefit League for the low-cost spay/neuter program, and regularly raises money through book sales, ink cartridge recycling and other fundraisers. It also seeks other grants, said Markley, who as board president manages the funds.

"We recently received funding from PetSmart to help manage feral cats in the Denton community," she said.

The money will buy humane traps that Denton residents can check out to trap felines for TNR. The Feral Cat Rescue Group provides information on caring for feral cats and building shelters for them, and names of veterinarians who treat ferals.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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