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Fixing the feral problem

How a dedicated group of local volunteers
are attacking West Michigan’s stray cat
epidemic — and how to help.

By Daniel Schoonmaker
Photography by Johnny Quirin

From the driveway of a neighbor keenly interested in her work, Alana Slipchuk is staking out the backyard of a 92-year-old woman who has become increasingly concerned about the welfare of the stray cats that visit her each day for food. By her count there are at least 30 of the animals wandering the alley and the backyards of her neighbors, and they keep having kittens — more and more kittens.

“It’s great that she’s feeding them,” said Slipchuk. “A feral cat will get by on its own — you can’t even bring most of them inside, they’ll be climbing up the walls — but it makes their life a bit easier. The best thing you can do for a stray cat, though, is to get it fixed. If you have one stray cat today, you’ll have dozens in a year or two.”

She hears the trap snap shut: A white kitten, one of its eyes milky and swollen, has taken the bait. Another two kittens scurry away as she approaches. After two hours of fruitless waiting, the alley cats and kittens have taken an interest. She carefully transfers the kitten to another cage and resets the trap with a fresh pile of Bumble Bee canned mackerel on its trip lever. Within minutes the trap shuts again, this time for a skinny tiger-stripe kitten. She adds another kitten to the cage a few minutes later and would have called it a day if she hadn’t glimpsed an adult female lurking near the fence, clearly pregnant.

 

Carol Manos, executive director of Carol’s Ferals, hugs Cuddles, a stray cat who recently found
a new home.

Now with a small crowd of neighbors watching, she watches the big cat take the bait, walking into the cage and eating the fish. But it somehow misses the trigger and finds its way back out.

“That’s a disappointment. I always feel guilty leaving one behind like that, especially a pregnant cat,” said Slipchuk, who has been trapping stray cats for several years. “But I’ll be back out here on Tuesday, maybe Monday, too. There are just too many.”

This is a key month for advocates of T-N-R (trap-neuter-release) programs in West Michigan. Every cat fixed now is one less litter in the spring — maybe two before fall. Mathematically speaking, a single cat could spawn up to 11,000 descendants over just five years. Even a fraction of that is alarming.

T-N-R addresses the unique problem of stray cats that have lived most or all of their lives without human contact. Unlike dogs and most other domesticated animals, cats easily adapt to the wild if the situation requires it. These “feral” cats, many of them once pets, are essentially wild animals and can’t be reintroduced to indoor life. It isn’t a matter of finding them a loving home, but of controlling their overpopulation through spaying and neutering.

As if to prove the point, when Slipchuk unloads her traps at Carol’s Ferals, the local nonprofit that allows any West Michigan resident to participate in T-N-R through free training and cage loans, the adult tabby she trapped earlier in the afternoon breaks free. Within seconds, it is up the wall and into the rafters.

“As you can see, they will literally climb the walls,” said Carol Manos, founder and executive director of Carol’s Ferals.

Manos was first introduced to T-N-R as a volunteer for C-SNIP, the low-cost spay and neuter clinic. She trapped a pair of cats in her Allendale neighborhood, and then a group of cats and kittens that had taken up residence behind a burger joint in Cutlerville. She was soon receiving calls to address the problem of stray cats in neighborhoods across West Michigan, and formally launched Carol’s Ferals in 2006.

Almost every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evening, Manos and her team of volunteers process dozens of cats brought in by volunteer trappers. Some, like Slipchuk, are regulars who address problem areas across West Michigan, but most are one-time trappers concerned about the strays in their backyard or neighborhood. Manos provides training and traps to any West Michigan resident with a stray cat to be fixed. Clients take the traps home and then bring them back to Carol’s Ferals once they’ve snared their stray.

At the end of the day, Manos loads all the cats into her used yellow hearse for delivery to Lowell veterinarian Bruce Langlois, founder of Inner City Kitties and Spay Neuter Express. All of the cats are fixed at no charge, thanks to the financial support of Vicky’s Pet Connection, a local organization focused on animal welfare education and spay/neuter advocacy. After a few days of rest, the cats are returned to their trappers, who then release them where they were found

“Spay/neuter is the only way we can get control of the problem of so many adoptable animals being put down each year,” said Langlois, one of the nation’s leading experts on low-cost spay/neuter clinics. “We can’t adopt our way out of it. The only way is to reduce the birth rate, even more so for ferals where adoption isn’t an option.”

Since its launch four years ago, Carol’s Ferals has fixed 3,500 cats, including 1,000 last year. It is the larger of two such organizations located on the grounds of Brooknelle Pet Resort on Knapp Street in Grand Rapids Township. Not every cat makes it back into the wild, and this is plainly visible when visiting Carol’s Ferals new 2,700-square-foot facility, a former rental property it took over in September with the separate rooms and laundry facility it so desperately needed.

While the organization does not accept drop-offs, it does keep many kittens and certain “friendly” cats for adoption, particularly if they were rescued from an unsafe situation, such as a neighborhood where teenagers have been seen harassing cats.

West Michigan residents interested in T-N-R should visit www.carolsferals.org. GR

Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.


   
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